Teacher Training: Dance for Parkinson's Disease Workshop

David Leventhal (right) shows a student a simple movement.

In 2001 Olie Westheimer, executive director of Brooklyn Parkinson Group, began brainstorming how dance could benefit Parkinson’s disease patients. Mainly, how could it bring grace and control to their daily movement? She approached the Brooklyn-based modern dance company Mark Morris Dance Group about offering studio space, teachers and a musician for a specialized dance class, Dance for Parkinson’s Disease. David Leventhal and John Heginbotham, both 10-year veteran MMDG company members, jumped on board to teach the monthly Dance for PD class and work with Westheimer to develop a unique curriculum. Within two years classes became weekly, and MMDG faculty member Misty Owens, a professional tap dancer, joined the class.

The results have been positive: Leventhal has witnessed many participants become better dancers and more expressive in their movement. Dancing also helps Parkinson’s sufferers gain confidence, allowing them to feel liberated from the disease’s constraints, and it teaches them to use their brains and bodies to move more gracefully. The Dance for PD class model has been replicated throughout the United States, in London and in Toronto, Canada. And due to the method’s growing success, MMDG and BPG started offering a customizable teacher-training component in 2006 to help teachers gain deeper understanding of the disease and how dance can improve Parkinson’s sufferers’ lives.

Dance for PD teachers-in-training work with facilitators to create a course syllabus that follows the class’ structure but expands upon it to fit the needs of each teacher’s physically challenged students. “Workshops are scheduled in response to demand, and in response to specific program expansion needs,” says Leventhal. “For certain groups, we design a general workshop that introduces them to our core philosophies and methods, and it is designed to be the first of several training sessions that get progressively more detailed. For other teachers, we offer a specific course with a syllabus based on the principles and classic exercises that form the backbone of our class.”

Along with detailed information sessions to introduce core methods and exercises, teachers will observe class to view warm-up and across-the-floor routines that incorporate various style elements, including ballet, tap, modern, flamenco, musical theater, folk, salsa and Mark Morris repertory, set to energizing live music. Participants will also have access to medical lectures on basic background information, along with expert Q&As featuring several New York–based Parkinson’s neurologists. Trainees even get the opportunity to teach a Parkinson’s class. “We offer a hands-on practicum as part of every workshop,” says Leventhal, adding that this allows the teachers-in-training to get immediate feedback about their new material and overall teaching style. But perhaps most valuable, teachers get the opportunity to connect with colleagues to exchange ideas and contacts, thereby spreading the word about using dance as a teaching tool for Parkinson’s patients and other movement-challenged populations. DT

Program Statistics

Prospective participants: “We ask that the people who teach our method be developed dance artists who have spent time honing their craft and can share their insight and inspiration with the Parkinson’s community,” says Mark Morris Dance Group company member and Dance for Parkinson’s Disease instructor David Leventhal.

Date/time: Contact MMDG for dates of upcoming workshops.

Location: MMDG’s studio in Brooklyn, New York. Past workshops have also taken place in London, Seattle and Berkeley, California.

Cost/housing: “Training workshop costs are reasonable, but they depend on the objectives and location of the workshop and its intended participant profile,” says Leventhal. MMDG can suggest local hotels, with possible special rates, if needed.

Accreditation received: None. A certification program is currently in development.

Director/founder: Olie Westheimer, executive director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, studied ballet as a youth with a member of the Royal Academy of Ballet. She has also served as executive director of the Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease, and she is an experienced medical writer/editor.

Contact: Eva Nichols, Director of Education, Mark Morris Dance Group; 3 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11217; 718-624-8400; eva@mmdg.org; www.mmdg.org

Photo by Katsuyoshi Tanaka; courtesy of Mark Morris Dance Group

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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