There are several innovative health-related programs for seniors in Howard County, which I want to spread the word about. One is a Parkinson'sdance group at Vantage House, a continuing care residential facility for seniors in Columbia, and the other is "Thriving Beyond Breast Cancer," a program at the North Laurel Community Center. In this column, I am highlighting the Parkinson's dance group. My next column will expand on the breast cancer program, which began April 3 and concentrates on the mind and spirit of the participants.

Open to both community residents and Vantage House residents with Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, the Dance for PD sessions began March 8 and are led by Alison Crosby, a professional dancer with the Lucy Bowen McCauley Dance group, which also offers programs in Silver Spring and Virginia. The goals for the program are to improve the balance and mobility of the participants; to give them a time for social interaction; to increase their body awareness; to increase their stability and posture; and to bring joy to their lives. Cost for the eight-week program is $80 and includes a partner or caregiver, if desired. Classes are held Thursdays at 1 p.m. in the auditorium at Vantage House, 5400 Vantage Point Road.

In collaboration with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., developed Dance for PD in 2001. It is based on the premise that professionally trained dancers are experts in movement; stretching and strengthening muscles; balance; rhythm; and how dance concentrates mind, body and emotion on movement. Since 2005, the two partners have expanded the dance program into more than 75 communities around the world.

Research on the Morris Dance Center's programs indicates patients with Parkinson's disease experience improvement in balance, gait, flexibility and coordination when they participate in the dance sessions. Improvement in mood has also been noted. The emphasis is on strengths and having fun. Quotes from some participants in the Brooklyn dance program clearly demonstrate that they love to come to the dance sessions and see improvements in themselves as a result. The participants' words also reinforce the findings of the research on the Morris Dance Center's programs. The one I liked the best is: "When class starts, symptoms seem to slip away. We are not patients, just dancers."


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Another telling quote is: "This is a fantastic class that makes living with PD easier. ...The improvement in mobility, and increased energy impact every part of my life."

On March 29, I went to Vantage House to observe a Parkinson dance group session and to interview some of the students and the instructor. I was invited to join in the class, and it was a wonderful experience. Not only did I participate in the mostly chair-based dance moves, but I also had the opportunity to interact with the other 17 dancers. I definitely felt better and more upbeat after the dance session.

Before the class started, I chatted with participant Paula LaSalle, 69, of Ellicott City. Paula said that the exercise and movement are helpful to her as well as fun. She loves the upbeat music, which accompanies the ballet and modern dance moves incorporated in the class. I also talked to Stanley Rodbell, 78, of Columbia, who is the husband of Dorothy Rodbell, a board member of Vantage House who was instrumental, along with other board members and staff, in bringing this Parkinson's disease dance program to Vantage House and the greater Columbia/Howard County community.

"Alison is wonderful and the class is helpful," Stanley said. He is still working as a divorce mediator. Unfortunately, Dorothy wasn't able to attend because of a sprained ankle, so I was privileged to be Stanley's partner in the floor dance.

After class, participant Judy Rivkin, 74, told me "the really nice thing about the program is that partners get involved and it is a fun thing to do together." Joann Stolley, 72, who has had Parkinson's for 19 years, hates exercise but views this dance program as a nice alternative. She said that swimming and physical therapy are also part of her activities and credits physical therapy with greatly reducing the number of falls she has had. Joann's caregiver of five years, Meg Paregol, 46, said that she is getting a lot out of the dance sessions herself.

Bob Rasera, 72, of Columbia, said, "This is groovy!" He didn't think he was getting in all the moves, but he and I agreed that the important thing is to just keep moving. When asked if he would participate in the dance group again if it were offered, he said that he would like to continue with it. He also said that he appreciates Alison, the dance instructor.

David Johnson, 73, and his wife Lynada, who live at Vantage House, have taken the dance program three times in Silver Spring, and are delighted to have it at Vantage House. Lynada noted that David had walked a little better down the floor that day. David said that the movements involve all parts of the body. For the last five years, Lynada has run the Parkinson's Care Partner Support Group at Vantage House, which is open to the public, the second Tuesday of every month. If you are interested in this group, contact Lynada Johnson at 410-992-1120.

The dance instructor, Alison Crosby, 43, stressed that this program is not dance therapy, that the essential focus of the program is the joy of dance. Her director, Lucy Bowen McCauley, was trained and certified through the Morris Dance Center in New York and passed on her knowledge of the program to Alison. According to Alison, the effects of the dance program are not permanent but often symptoms will stop for a while. She employs all the regular parts of a dance routine: the warm up, an increase in movement and speed, a dance across the floor and then the cool down. She doesn't correct dancers if they don't get the moves right, and there is no intimidation. After class she solicits feedback from participants and then incorporates those ideas into her next session.

Alison likes to play with choreography and said that the ideas are endless. She believes that freedom and creativity are important factors in the success of the program. Participants are encouraged to be creative in some of the routines. For example, a dancer in the circle creates their own move to the rhythm of the music, then the next student creates their move, and so on.

The social aspect of the group is also very important.

"It is so nice to see they want to be here," Alison said. She finds it inspirational to see people helping themselves.

Alison brings a love of music and dance; a lot of enthusiasm, energy, creativity and gracefulness; and a good sense of humor to what she does. She connects with her students and they connect with her and definitely appreciate her help.

If you are interested in the dance program, for $12 you can try out a single session in the current series to see if you would like to register for the next series. Upcoming class dates are Thursdays, April 19, May 3, 10 and 31 and June 7. To take advantage of this offer, contact Kathy Lockwood at Vantage House, 410-992-1095 or lockwoodk@vantagehouse.org.