At a community center in Kirkland, an unusual dance class takes place: one for people with Parkinson's disease and their caregivers — part of a small but growing number of such classes worldwide.

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At this dance class in Kirkland, the students walk in slowly, some rigidly or with a bit of a tremor. They take their places, not at a ballet barre or on the dance floor, but sitting in chairs.

As the live music starts, they flutter their fingers like hummingbird wings, point their toes along the ground. Limbs loosen and start to flow. And perhaps something even more important happens: Smiles emerge and laughter erupts.

An unusual dance class is taking place: one taught by professional dancers and offered free of charge for people with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers. It’s one of a small but growing number of such classes worldwide.

The class is called Dance for Parkinson’s, based on the Dance for PD program created in 2001 by the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group. Seattle and Spokane are among some 40 communities worldwide that have replicated the model.

The idea is that dance helps ease the symptoms — and some hope might even slow the progression — of Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the brain that leads to rigid muscles, shaking, impaired balance and difficulty with walking, movement and coordination.

It’s long been accepted that exercise and movement are important for those with Parkinson’s. In addition to physical therapy, there are yoga and tai chi groups for people with Parkinson’s, for instance.

But the idea of dance as beneficial for those with Parkinson’s is fairly new. While there hasn’t been much research yet that shows the benefits of dance for those with Parkinson’s, one recent study did find that at least one form of dance — the tango — helps improve balance and mobility in such patients.

Dr. Monique Giroux, medical director of the Booth Gardner Parkinson’s Care Center at Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirkland, says that, in many ways, dance is ideal for those with Parkinson’s.

Research is showing that exercises that are more creative and engaging may help the brain enhance its nerve connections and improve how the brain works, she said.

But just as important, the dance class is an opportunity for joy, creative expression and socializing — an antidote to the depression and isolation that can come with Parkinson’s.

“Putting someone on a treadmill and just asking them to walk more — that’s a challenging task for someone who already has movement problems,” Giroux said. But “tapping into an exercise that’s fun and engaging — that’s going to work.”

“The joy is wonderful”

At a recent class at the Peter Kirk Community Center in Kirkland, where the Dance for Parkinson’s sessions are held, the teachers led the students in movements inspired by birds.

They learned the steps first while sitting in chairs, then standing up, then moving across the floor, building on each movement until they had an entire routine: swooping like herons, lumbering like owls, fluttering like tropical birds.

A musician, improvising on an electric violin, accompanied throughout.

“The joy is wonderful,” said Jenny Getchell, 46, of Sammamish, who has had Parkinson’s since she was 8. Plus, “I feel real comfortable around people with Parkinson’s because they know what it’s like.”

When someone has Parkinson’s, the nerve cells in the brain that produce the chemical dopamine are slowly destroyed. Dopamine facilitates movement, so when there’s a lack of dopamine, it’s hard for a patient to initiate and control movements, unless she or he consciously thinks about and directs them.

That makes movements like walking unpredictable for those with Parkinson’s. They may end up shuffling. But when they focus on where they put their feet, things go more smoothly.

The idea for the Dance for PD program began when the director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group realized the way dancers consciously think about movement was in some ways similar — and could be beneficial — to Parkinson’s patients.

“Dancers train — even at a most basic level — to figure out strategies to learn movement, to string movements together seamlessly,” said David Leventhal with the Mark Morris group and one of the founding teachers of Dance for PD.

Music seems to help, too. “Many Parkinson’s patients will freeze. But if there’s music playing with a constant steady beat, it’s almost like a reminder to keep stepping,” said Leilani Pearl, director of communications with the National Parkinson Foundation.

Program to expand

The Dance for PD program began spreading in 2006 when the Mark Morris Dance Company started putting on the class wherever the company tours — including Seattle in 2008. Local classes started when demand continued even after the Mark Morris company left.

The local program — a partnership between Seattle Theatre Group, Spectrum Dance Theater and the Booth Gardner Center at Evergreen — began offering six-week sessions in fall 2009. Starting this September, it’s expanding to eight weeks.

All classes follow the same basic format, though local dancers add their own flair: movements from their own dance company’s repertoire, for instance.

Each class starts with participants practicing dance moves in chairs, then standing with the chairs or ballet barres for balance, before moving on to circle work and movements across the floor.

Through it all, the principle is to teach not to the symptoms, but to hold a real dance class, based on imagination, imagery and movement.

“It takes the focus off their limitations and it puts it on what they can do,” said Shawn Roberts Hensley, school and outreach director for Spectrum Dance Theater.

There’s something beautiful about seeing those with Parkinson’s and their caregivers taking a dance class together, she said. “Especially a husband and wife — seeing them dance together again.”

Jean Norsworthy, 84, of Bellevue, loves the social aspect and says the classes have improved her confidence in moving.

“Before the class, she wasn’t confident even walking by herself,” said her daughter, Tina Norsworthy, who takes the class with her mom each week. “Now she danced by herself on a cruise! I love seeing my mom smile, how happy she is dancing.”

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or