Susan Jaffe had yearned to feel slightly graceful again. A former ballet dancer, she has battled Parkinson’s disease for 10 years, engaging in a struggle that has left her with compromised coordination. The Center City resident has enlisted medication and deep brain stimulation surgery to combat her central nervous system’s attacker, but she lauds 75-minute dance classes at CHI Movement Center, 1316 S. Ninth St., as her main stabilizers.
The three-year-old site, home of the Kun-Yang Yin/Dancers, has overseen Dance for Parkinson’s since May 4. Jaffe continued her quest for calm June 29, receiving instruction and inspiration from Rhonda Moore and Jessica Warchal-King.
“We look to bring awareness to the sacred nature of the body,” West Philadelphia’s Warchal-King said as participants removed their footwear before entering the studio.
She instills realization through sponsorship from the University of Pennsylvania and Bala Cynwyd’s Parkinson Council and a private donor’s grant. Their contributions enabled Philadelphia and West Chester to construct classes that owe their existence to the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group and the city’s Mark Morris Dance Co.
The Passyunk Square facility hosted a well-attended pilot program in January, giving Kun-Yang Lin, the company’s namesake and a resident of Ninth and Kimball streets, proof of the community’s interest in fostering inclusivity and self-discovery. Though Jaffe uses a physical therapist, she ventures to CHI and the Northern Liberties location for added encouragement and a dose of fun instead of levodopa, the chief treatment drug for Parkinson’s.
After Jaffe and two other afflicted figures took their seats for the ninth of 18 planned classes, Warchal-King announced they needed not to aim for flawless execution of the directions, noting they could modify moves to fit their comfort level. A nod to Fifth-and-Dickinson-streets resident Wesley Rast, who manned a drum machine, initiated the music and an upper-body dominated tutorial from Moore.
“We’re placing emphasis on exploring modes of expression to make our way through trials,” the Wynnefield resident said after the participants chose words to describe their dispositions.
After pronouncing their names in tones akin to the adjectives’ denotations, they wrote their signatures in the air and performed routines that blended arm gestures and facial movements. Named after James Parkinson, the English physician who chronicled it in 1817, their malady affects the mid-brain and saps the chemical dopamine.
Reduction usually leads to limb stiffness, balance woes, generalized slowness of movement or a resting tremor on one side of the body. Secondary symptoms include lowered voice volume and decreased facial expression, but the attendees mimicked Moore effortlessly and duplicated their mastery when Warchal-King followed with footwork instruction.
With brains and bodies equally prepared, the trio rose and joined the professionals and a visitor in partner dances to up-tempo French music. The half-dozen steppers engaged in precise prancing, with radiant smiles making Jaffe, Donna Pitz and Bill Goldberg eager to try solo work with apparatuses that supported their arms.
Trailing only Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s ranks as the second most common neurodegenerative disorder, and the Parkinson Council estimates that it affects as many as 1.5 million Americans, with individuals 60 or older accounting for most of the diagnoses. With no cure, it has received ample publicity lately, as boxer Muhammad Ali and actor Michael J. Fox have discussed their respective fights against it.
“People with movement disorder need to move,” Judith Sachs, the Northern Liberties instructor and a resident of the 900 block of South Front Street, said. “Just like dancers, people with Parkinson’s disease are always conscious of how to step forward, how to calm a part of the body so as to activate another and how to use impetus and statis alternatively.”
Jaffe, Pitz and Goldberg further demonstrated Sachs’ points by uniting with Moore and Warchal-King in a tight circle in which they held hands. They offered one another imaginary gifts through individually orchestrated gestures, focusing on letting their limbs be as lithe as possible.
“Nobody should take anything, especially the body, for granted,” Moore, who lauded the class members’ tenacity, said. “Our people are engaging in physical code-switching, having realized 10 percent of life is what happens to us and 90 percent is what we do in response.”
Accustomed to giving lessons after a teaching career within the School District of Philadelphia, Goldberg gladly accepts his new role as a student.
“In a way, we’re learning to become our own physical therapists,” the Northeast Philadelphia resident, whose 15-year bout with Parkinson’s has altered his gait somewhat, said.
Pitz learned of the class through a flier at her doctor’s office. Eighteen months into her diagnosis, she commended the session’s exercises for keeping her appendages astir.
“I used to be a folk dancer, so the expressions feel comfortable,” the Paoli resident, whose dancing with Moore contained enviable agility, said. “Plus, Rhonda and Jessica are so loving, accepting and inviting.”
“I second that,” Jaffe said. “I love coming here because our teachers are so energized and caring. For the first time in a long while, I feel graceful.”
The creation of the Dance for Parkinson’s class enabled Jaffe and her contemporaries to become the center’s first set of non-traditional dancers, according to Executive Director Ken Metzner of Ninth and Kimball streets. Chinese culture describes chi as an active principle forming part of any living thing. “Energy flow,” “lifeforce” and “internal energy” serve as some of its translations, so he and Lin devised the course to breed communal acceptance of people regardless of their physical capabilities.
“It is important not to stigmatize,” Metzner said. “Someone with bodily detriments does not need verbal or emotional ones, too.”
He soon will talk with the Parkinson Council and the University of Pennsylvania to expand the program, as the classes, for which participants pay an average of $10 per gathering, end Aug. 31.
“We have received contact from those interested in having us offer more instruction for those with other medical issues, too,” he said, noting that lupus and multiple sclerosis patients may be able to use the space’s sprung floor to fend off their ailments’ assaults.
Almost 200 years after Dr. Parkinson’s investigations, the disease continues to inspire medical personnel to address its cause, on which debate remains, and its annihilation. The Parkinson’s Council notes the affliction will affect 1 percent of those 60 and older. The figure may appear small, but the 2010 U.S. Census revealed that 18.5 percent of the nation’s nearly 309 million residents are 60 and older, meaning more than 57 million people are potentially susceptible.
That staggering statistic should be enough to convince anyone that any activity aimed at lessening Parkinson’s pervasiveness should receive mention.
“I find myself inspired by the members and their eagerness to have awareness of and reverence for their bodies,” Warchal-King said. “Even the littlest things can prove monumental.”
For more information on donations or class participation, call 610-668-4292 or visit www.theparkinsoncouncil.org.
Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at email@example.com or ext. 124.