Parkinson's at the Ballet

by Cameron Donald
June 14, 2013

Cameron Donald '14 is a Royce Fellow working on a qualitative and quantitative clinical assessment of a structured therapeutic dance class on people diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. 

Over the past week and a half, the city of London has introduced itself to me as a vibrant and stimulating metropolis. I am in this city to assist in the orchestration and execution of a mixed-methods study looking at various dance classes administered by the English National Ballet (ENB) catered to people with Parkinson’s disease. The goal of these classes are to help participants ‘discover’ their movement potential – Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that manifests itself in motor deficiencies – as well as build a community of people who have some connection to the disease.  The research employs both clinical and qualitative assessment (through interviews, focus groups, questionnaires, participant observation etc) on the dance class participants living with Parkinson’s disease in attempt to evaluate the English National Ballet’s program, in addition to delineating the value of an arts based intervention in addressing health compromised conditions.

In this post, I would like to share my first experience of the ENB’s Dance for Parkinson’s class:

The class began promptly at two o’clock in the Markova House ballet studio, and only a few participants shuffled in late, shaking not out of nerves, but due to their biologically inexplicable condition. Seated in black, hard-backed plastic chairs in the center of the studio, we began class with port a bras and footwork exercises, guided by Becky’s imagery of Petrushka the puppet – a character from repertory the ENB will perform at the end of July – and live musicians. The movement played with the rigidity of a wooden puppet complemented by the floppiness of being confined to the strings of a puppeteer, ironic as Parkinsonian’s often experience rigidity and thus a challenge in the management of the disease is maintaining mobility. Ray, who would become remembered as the cheerful elderly man always wearing a refined silk bowtie and expensive leather loafers, literally sashayed and leaped across the floor during one of the more climatic scores – something I would not have imagined by the hunched gait and short shuffle he had entered the class with.

During a partner work section, Mary, an older woman with Parkinson’s, and I giggled and exchanged comedic smirks as we marched up and down the studio majestically gesturing to each other emulating puppetted royalty. Initially, during this section I restricted my own movement and stayed very grounded into the floor to be a stable foundation for Mary. Yet I quickly realized this was not necessary, Mary lived with her condition everyday and she, like so many others in the class, not only coped with her condition, but also championed it. She was aware of her limits, sought assistance when necessary, but held her own when she could.

After class, when I asked Mary if she had made any good friends in the class, she introduced me to her best friend Pat. Upon the introduction, I made the offhand remark “You must be the one who keeps Mary from misbehaving,” to which Pat retorted, “If Mary misbehaves, I certainly wouldn’t tell you (the hallmark of a true friend), but we look out for each other.” “And sometimes we just end up falling together” interjected Mary with a definitive gulp of her tea. I later learned that Mary and Pat had fallen in the Tube station together trying to get to class a few months ago; yet here they were, devoutly at class and never skipping a beat.

What, if anything, will come out of my research this summer is difficult to delineate. But I take pleasure knowing I am part of something that that brings joy, community, and possibility to these classes’ participants. I know I will fall on countless occasions this summer, but also know the best thing to do in those situations is to get back up, finish what was started, and laugh about it with friends later.

** For more updates from Cameron throughout the summer, visit his blog at