Dancing with Parkinson's

Most people with Madeline Hill's condition would be using a walker by now.

But since being told she had Parkinson's disease eight years ago, Hill has refused to sit down and take the diagnosis.

"I've been doing a lot of research on what exercise does to help Parkinson's disease, and it's just tremendous," said Hill, 73. "I haven't fallen once yet."

In her research, Hill, founder of Mountain Meadows Retirement Community, discovered a dance program created by the Mark Morris Dance Group specifically for Parkinson's patients.

She brought the idea to the dance instructor at Mountain Meadows, health coach Vanessa Newman, who immediately was enthusiastic about the idea.

Starting in September, Hill and other Parkinson's patients in the area will be able to use dance to help keep the disease at bay. Newman will teach a weekly dance class at Mountain Meadows aimed at helping Parkinson's patients find a fuller range of motion and facial expression and feel comfortable on their feet, things that often become difficult for those suffering from the disease.

"My wish is to provide the hope to individuals that they aren't alone," Newman said. "They can do something even though it feels like they're declining."

Parkinson's is a chronic movement disorder that worsens over time and is often characterized by tremors, slow movements, stiff limbs and impaired balance. The disease affects as many as 1 million Americans, according to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation.

While there are a few programs for the large population of Parkinson's patients in the area, Hill said there is nothing that is both research-based and fun.

"We decided we couldn't just sit around and wait for someone else to do it, so we did it ourselves," Hill said. She and Newman attended Mark Morris training in California last April and have been developing the class and preparing the space since.

Students will begin the class in a chair with slow, big movements to open up the body. The class will then borrow moves from ballet, folk and modern dance, using music ranging from classical to Bob Fosse's "Steam Heat." Those more comfortable staying in their chair will be able to adapt the moves to stay seated.

Newman said she plans to bring in live musicians for some classes.

Newman, whose parents live at Mountain Meadows, received a master's in sports medicine from Chapman University. She has worked with everyone from students to athletes but finds working with seniors to be the most gratifying.

"If you're not moving, and you're not being able to move through the world, you don't have a very high quality of life," Newman said. "The tremendous difference that I see in people who actually can socialize with others who are facing the same problems — and they're also able to have some fun and dance and move and feel like they've forgotten about some of the things going on — that's extremely rewarding."

A free introductory class will be held at 1 p.m. Sept. 12 at 905 Skylark Place at the Mountain Meadows campus in Ashland. Classes will continue at 1 p.m. Fridays, with a cost of about $3 to help cover music and supplies.

All Parkinson's patients are welcome, as well as their caretakers or spouses.

Newman and Hill plan to apply for grants to cover the cost of the class, with the ultimate goal of making the class free. Newman is donating her time, while Hill is donating the class space.

Newman and Hill said they hope the benefits of the class will extend beyond the physical.

"People with Parkinson's tend to be isolated, stay home more, because it's an illness that's very visible," Hill said. "You can see my tremors in my hand or my leg, so sometimes going out for social occasions is hard because you might spill on yourself or something."

At a class for people with Parkinson's, however, people are able to have fun and be social without inhibitions, Hill said.

"Here you're in a group with other people who are also having tremors and the same problems you are, and all of a sudden you don't feel quite so alone."

Reach Mail Tribune reporting intern Kelsey Thomas at 541-776-4368 or kthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/kelseyethomas.

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