As a dancer and dance maker I learned that choreography is often the result of problem solving: can I make an interesting sequence of movement without ever facing front? Can I make a dance that never strays from one spot? When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease I was presented with a different set of problems: how could I make my unresponsive arm swing naturally, my lopsided gait even, my rigid spine supple? My background in dance freed me to devise ways to treat these limitations. It was natural for me to invent movement strategies catered to my symptoms. To help my unwilling left leg come forward when I walked, I practiced kicking a soccer ball in a string bag as I took each step. To encourage my left arm to move naturally with my gait, I swung another bag back and forth as I paced.
Over time I developed a repertoire of exercises and tactics, and I decided to see if what worked for me would also be effective for others. I had heard of Olie Westheimer’s program at Mark Morris, and decided to contact her with a proposal for a class. We met, she was receptive to my idea, and thus was born our Movement Lab.
Some people have asked me about that name. While the term is not uncommon in the dance world, it may not be immediately understandable to someone new to this realm. I use the word Lab because, like my own initial attempts to find ways to counteract my symptoms, I approach the work in a spirit of experiment. The class is dance-based. We proceed from stretching sequences in a chair to standing exercises to movement combinations that travel across the floor. But mixed with these elements are a variety of experiments with props (stepping through patterns on the floor made with masking tape) and cooperative games that challenge attention and reflexes (tossing several balls in sequence to partners in a circle). We test ideas to see what they yield.
This approach in itself can restore a degree of control to a condition that has robbed each of us of our former physical identity. If I know that when I freeze I can find a visual cue to get me going again, I feel less helpless. If I know that practicing with the ball in the bag will help retrain my disobedient leg, I see cause for hope. And if I accept the idea that I can experiment to find my own solutions, I am no longer completely at the mercy of my brain’s particular dysfunctions.
One thing the class name may not convey is the element of play in what we do. Far from being strictly clinical, our work is about finding the means to feel good about ourselves – and finding pleasure in the work is a crucial part of its therapeutic effect. We have wonderful accompaniment from percussionist Tigger Benford, who supplies us with a stream of rhythmic tonics. And need we state the obvious? Dancing – moving in time to a rhythm – is one of life’s beautiful pleasures. Parkinson’s may interrupt our capacities for movement, but our bodies and brains are resilient. In Movement Lab we are all about solving the problems placed in our paths.
By Pamela Quinn