Parkinson’s disease is a challenge that can pitch those diagnosed with it into a battle with their bodies as motor skills diminish. So the idea of a dance class specifically geared toward people with Parkinson’s disease might seem counter-intuitive. The body’s intuition, however, can be very different from the mind’s, and Dancing with Parkinson’s is a growing movement that has just arrived on the Midcoast.

The idea was born in 2001 in Brooklyn, N.Y. According to the current issue of DanceTeacher magazine, Olie Westheimer, executive director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, approached the internationally renowned modern dance Mark Morris Dance Group, also based in Brooklyn, about offering studio space, teachers and a musician for a proposed dance class to be called Dance for Parkinson’s Disease. The MMDC now has Parkinson’s-geared classes in dance, song and fitness plus a movement lab, and it offers teacher training in this work — training that Katie Tranzillo of Belfast took and used to create a vibrant class with the Connecticut Parkinson’s Working Group in Middletown, Conn.

Tranzillo, whose husband’s family is based in Camden, moved with him to the area last fall and she has just begun a Dancing with Parkinson’s class that runs Thursdays from 2:30 to 3:45 p.m. in the meeting room of Quarry Hill’s Anderson Inn at 30 Community Drive in Camden. The class is being hosted by Quarry Hill through March 25 as a facet of the regional Parkinson’s Disease Support Group that draws members from Knox and Waldo counties and as far away as Augusta.

Tranzillo is a licensed speech-language pathologist by trade, but started her lifelong involvement in dance at age 4. Over the years, her studies also have included related fields of martial arts, yoga and music. She teaches a variety of dance styles; Monday evenings in March, she will offer a sampling of swing dance styles at the Belfast Dance Studio.

Although her Dancing with Parkinson’s training was specifically focused on Parkinson’s disease, she said the class can be of benefit and enjoyed by people with other types of movement disorders. Indeed, the first class on Feb. 11 was enjoyed by people with a range of scenarios, from someone using a rolling walker to a couple of people with no movement disorders. Dancing with Parkinson’s is not therapy, said Tranzillo.

“It’s a real dance class, but you don’t have to know anything about dance to do it,” she said in her introductory remarks.

The class begins with participants seated in chairs, and people may stay seated for the entire class if they need to. Tranzillo guided the half-dozen participants through a series of small movements to help raise awareness of where and how different parts of the body are planted: feet on the floor, knees over the feet, hips set back in the chair. As the familiar second movement of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony No. 6 wafted from an iPod speaker system, the group progressed through the torso and shoulders to the neck and head. By the time the piece had played through twice, everyone was relaxed; one participant said “I feel tingly!”

Music, its rhythm, pacing and character, plays a big part in these dance classes and Tranzillo hopes to have a pianist accompany the group on a regular basis. The recorded music she used this first class offered variety and fun as movements were introduced in choreographed patterns. A Celtic air complemented lyrical swoops of an imaginary cape over the shoulders and around the dancers; a jazzy number inspired some faster heel/toe tapping.

Hands got to dance too, in a call-and-response clapping number. Tranzillo explained how the rapid-fire sequences — she would clap a pattern and the dancers would replicate it immediately — bypassed the parts of the brain that one sometimes uses to learn a new pattern.

“We’re exploring different ways of using our senses to do movement,” she said.

Some of the choreography told a tale, as in a number that involved broad side-to-side movements to “paint” an image in the air. Waving an imaginary baton in another number led to becoming aware and working with shifts in balance, first seated and then moving up to standing.

By the end of the class, dancers were working in pairs doing mirror movements and they concluded together with a circle bow. Most seemed ready to attend again. One wondered whether improvement of Parkinson’s disease symptoms could be expected from such a practice.

“In my classes in Connecticut, I had people tell me that by the end of the class they were breathing in a more relaxed way and feeling a bit more relaxed,” said Tranzillo.

There have been a number of studies done and more are in the works, she said later, but they all focus on different aspects and it is hard to say what variable or combination of variables is responsible for what effects. Probably the best known is a tango study done by St. Louis’ Washington University School of Medicine that concluded that people with Parkinson’s disease who took a session of tango classes showed significant improvements in balance and mobility compared with patients who did conventional exercise. A quality-of-life survey done in Brooklyn also measured a positive outcome after dance classes.

Ginny Cuthbertson, who lives in Quarry Hill’s independent living section and uses a rolling walker, felt very positive after taking the Feb. 11 class.

“I was amazed I was doing some things without holding on this afternoon that I never would’ve thought I could do … I think this class will be wonderful for me,” she said.

Tranzillo said that the body awareness explored in the dance classes can lead to strategies people can use in their everyday lives, like washing dishes to a rhythm. One manifestation of Parkinson’s disease in some people is gait freezing, when they suddenly cannot initiate or execute movement.

“Rhythm can sometimes help you get out of a stuck place,” she said. “And sometimes you can sing a song in your head and use it as a tool.”

Perhaps the strongest argument for Dancing with Parkinson’s is one that has nothing to do with quantifiable improvement or applicable strategies.

“Because of the movement disorder, people are losing skills and independence and they get very frustrated with their bodies,” said Tranzillo. “But for this hour and half, they can enjoy their movement without always being frustrated. It’s nice to feel at home in your body.”

The suggested donation for the Thursday afternoon classes is $5, although a sliding scale is available. There is no preregistration, so those interested can drop in any time. The site is accessible to all; no experience is necessary and canes, walkers and wheelchairs are welcome. For more information, call Suzanne Miller, Quarry Hill’s health service coordinator, at 230-6224.

Tranzillo hopes to find a dance studio setting to offer future classes in. For more information on her and the Dancing with Parkinson’s work she did in Connecticut, visit

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to