In addition to people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, instructor Susan Perlis also welcomes others whose families have been affected by the disease to join the classes to help and add encouragement. Perlis and her husband Robert are pictured here at the center of the kickline. Photos by Jordan Hefler.

Dance for Parkinson’s program helps individuals push past disease

In the fellowship hall of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, a group of eight sings along as Styx’s 1984 hit “Come Sail Away” blasts from the piano. On cue, everyone extends their arms to perform an exaggerated motion reminiscent of the sea, followed by imaginary rowing. The song and its accompanying dance are a regular occurrence in the class week after week, with each movement specially tailored to the group’s clientele, many of whom are affected by Parkinson’s disease.

“Dance is the perfect antidote,” explains Susan Perlis, the leader of Baton Rouge’s Dance for Parkinson’s program and a longtime dance instructor. “Not only does it build balance, strength and flexibility, but it keeps people from falling into isolation and depression because of the disease.”

Perlis started the group two and a half years ago with the help of her good friend Garland Wilson, artistic director of the local dance organization Of Moving Colors Productions. And while Perlis has danced all her life, even teaching at Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre and LSU, Parkinson’s was something that was new to her.

After her husband Robert’s diagnosis five years ago, the couple started looking for local programs to get out and stay active. Researching dance programs in other cities, Perlis was inspired to bring a similar class to Baton Rouge. She received training through the national Dance for Parkinson’s program, based in Brooklyn.

Perlis’ classes are made possible through the support of the national Parkinson’s Foundation, which provides resources for people suffering from the disease.

“It’s slow to grow a program like this,” explains Perlis, who hosts the classes every Thursday at 9 a.m. but is working to add Saturday sessions at The NeuroMedical Center. “These people have a chronic, debilitating disease. It’s not easy to get out and do something like this—but it’s important.”

With no known cure for Parkinson’s, the best treatment, in addition to medication, is exercise. Not only does regular activity like running, biking or dancing contribute to symptom management by improving balance, movement and energy levels, but exercise has in some cases been shown to slow the changes in the brain that are characteristic of the disease.

“The more exercise, the better,” says Perlis. “With Parkinson’s, the dopamine disappears—that’s what tells the muscles what to do. Dance provides imagery. Instead of saying, ‘Turn your head from side to side,’ I can say, ‘Watch the tennis ball go back and forth.’ That allows them to bypass that dopamine problem.”

Beyond the physical effects of the disease, however, Perlis says the social aspect is one that is especially concerning. Many of those affected draw inward, pulling away from loved ones and the lives that they used to enjoy. For Perlis, dance is the ideal way to combat this.

“Dance kills depression,” she explains, noting that the group experience is largely to thank. “People always say they can’t dance, but then they come here and they realize that actually they can.”

People of all ability levels make up the classes, with some people remaining seated the for the entire 45 minutes, simply participating to the best of their ability. However, what Perlis wants to see more of is friend, family and caregiver participation.

“We all need someone to encourage us,” she says, shooting a smile across the table to Robert. “When I look around this room, I am so impressed that these people got up and came down here. That’s hard for anyone. Laughing and being together is something everyone can benefit from.”

Update: Due to COVID-19, all Dance for Parkinson’s classes have been cancelled for the time being. However, the team is offering online classes through the organization’s Facebook. Click here for all the details.