David Levanthal: “Dance for PD” founder and leader
Due to commitments at the Ringling International Arts Festival, I was sorry to have to miss the symposium offered last weekend by Sarasota’s Neuro Challenge Foundationwith David Levanthal, a former dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group (here for the festival) and founder of “Dance for PD” and Dr. Cheryl Waters, a professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University and expert on Parkinson’s disease, as part of their Distinguished Parkinsons’ Speakers series.
But I did catch up with Levanthal at his hotel’s lobby during his stay in Sarasota (his wife, Lauren Grant, is still a dancer with the company). Joining us was the couple’s newest addition, six-month-old son, Zev, who, I must admit, slept through half our conversation in a Snuggli cozied up to Dad.
After 14-years with MMDG, Levanthal, now a baby-faced 39, retired from performing in May of this year to turn his full attention to the “Dance for PD” program the company began in 2001 as a single class for members of the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group, near the MMDG headquarters. Now there is demand for the program to go nationwide and Levanthal talked about some of the thrills and challenges of the journey.
Q: How did the original Parkinson’s dance group get started at MMDG and how was it designed?
A: A woman named Ollie Westheimer, who was involved with the Brooklyn Parkinson’s group, came to us with the idea. She didn’t want us to create an exercise class to address specific Parkinson’s symptoms, but wanted us to trust the idea that all the things dancers are trained to do would be useful to Parkinson’s patients. That transferring that information would be enough with no perceived therapeutic interaction. We get to those therapeutic things, by in an artistic way. By learning the craft of dance you’re learning the intent, but never directly. This way, patients can come to class and see it as an escape from their Parkinson’s. That can be extremely liberating for people with a chronic disease.
Q: How has that class evolved?
A: We’ve had the program for 11 years in Brooklyn. It was started by myself, when I was still dancing, and John Higgenbotham. Eventually we took the class on tour as an outreach. We operate primarily as an educational resource and we offer the trainings for free. Each teacher has his own background and style, but in Brooklyn it’s a mix of modern, ballet and tap because that was the background of our original teachers. We decided not to install a set curriculum, like Zumba. We wanted people to learn the approach, the philosophy, the pedagogy, the tools and to apply them to what they knew best. That can mean each class is very different. In addition, we train people to work with folks at all levels of ability, which can be very diverse. You can have someone newly-diagnosed, who has very few challenges, or someone confined to a wheelchair.
Q: What are the basic dance elements you’re working on no matter what the style is?
A: All forms of dance share rhythm, balance, weight shift, cognition, interaction and grace. These are the elements people with Parkinson’s have found particularly useful. The teacher’s job is to make sure everyone is experiencing movement in a creative way.
Q: Without a teacher certification process and with such an acceptance of a diversity of teaching backgrounds, have you run into problems with the original intentions being misconstrued?
A: Yes, in fact that has already happened. People come in with their own ideas no matter how many caveats ewe put in and run with it in all kinds of directions. We are hoping to create a certification process by the end of this year or early next year. It will be for professional dancers or professional teachers, not for someone just getting started or because they can’t do the other. You need a fairly substantial background and the more artistry experience you have the better, because the whole thing is based on using imagery as a source of movement. Often people see it as an applied exercise program, and it’s not.
Q: You are training people now, correct? I know you’ve had some trainings in Gainesville?
A: Yes, but going forward, we’re going to be more rigorous in the application process for trainings, though we’ll still have workshops just for enrichment.
Q: I know you were recently made the program director, but without a staff, how will you accomplish this when the demand has become nation-wide?
A: We have the knowledge resources, the question is, do we have the human resources? This requires one-on-one coaching. We conceive it as rolling out on a small scale to start. We’ve created a core group to raise the bar. That will be our test group. We feel strongly that the certification program be an education in itself and not simply a rubber stamp.
Q: What will that look like?
A: It’ll be a combination of reading and course work — dance history and criticism, essays, social sciences, gerontology, neuroscience — and people will have to take a dance class and submit a video of a class to us. We’re not trying to achieve a neurological goal, but an artistic goal. It will be done primarily by correspondence, with one capstone conference in person or by Skype.
Q: Have you done any research on the effects of your “Dance for PD” classes?
A: There have been some mixed results, but only preliminary studied. But I’ve seen that people really do become better dancers and better movement students and can do more complex phrases; some movement becomes automatic instead of them having to think to make it happen, which is a pattern for many Parkinson’s patient. When it is practiced to music, there is a muscle memory, a “patterning.” On another level, we see people gaining confidence in their bodies. In this class, it’s all about possibilities, not limits. I see people moving more fluidly and able to do sequential movement and connecting movement. They don’t feel so disjointed. Finally, there is a huge social and community aspect to the class. It creates very strong bonds among the participants. Dance is, at its core, a social activity. We do a lot in circles to build that sense of togetherness. Also, we do a lot of modified sequences from the Mark Morris repertoire. It looks different when they do it, obviously, but they approach it as a dance artist would. And because Mark’s work is so gestural, it works well in allowing people to express themselves.
Q: Do they, or will they ever, perform?
A: In Brooklyn, we’ll be having our very first performance in a month, with 16 people from the class there. We’ve been working on it for a year and we’ll be doing two excerpts, one from “Mozart Dances” and the other from “For Saints in Three Acts.” We’ll perform it in a small studio theater in our dance center that seats 150. It’s the first time we’ve worked with a specific project and deadline so it’s very challenging.
Q: Is this something you ever imagined you’d be doing?
A: No. I had an uncle with Parkinson’s, but I was not close to him. It’s all been a wonderful, surprise journey. I had been interested into getting into the administrative/management side of dance and three years ago I was involved in a grant we wrote to expand the PD program. And the timing worked out right because I was thinking of moving on from the performing life. I was named the program manager but at this point, it’s become more than a one-person job. (Higgenbotham moved on a year ago.) I’m still doing all the teaching, all the training.
Q: So how will you manage expanding?
A. We’re very excited about a home DVD we have coming out this fall — a complete class broken down into sections. We’ve had requests for years, but we were reluctant because we understand the value of being in the group. This DVD is designed for people who are intimidated or in rural areas where they can’t get to a class and we shot three volumes: one is a general one, the second is specifically for people who remain seated, and the third is a continuation of the first. It’s not the same as a real class, but it gives people access to the program. One day I’d love to see a series of classes live streamed.
Q: What’s the plan for the future?
A: It’s hard to know what the next five years will hold, both for the program and for Parkinson’s. Either there will be a cure, or it may become a more manageable condition. But I’m in it for the long haul. We feel it’s our baby and we’re protective of it.
Q: I know several people have begun classes here in Sarasota. What happens when it becomes competitive for patients?
A: It seems there are a lot of politics in the Parkinson’s community here and that does worry me. This class, at the beginning, is a really delicate flower and it requires true collaboration and a lack of competition. The places where it has succeeded most is where there is one class and it was given time to grow. It shouldn’t be about just starting a class, it should be about providing a resource for the community. My goal would be to have all the teachers here work together to have one class and it should be run by people who are knowledgeable about dance.
For more information on Parkinson’s for PD, visit the MMDG outreach website.