From the moment she heard about the new dance classes being offered in Camden, Ginny Cuthberger was overjoyed.

“I’d rather dance than eat,” said Cuthberger, who began ‘cutting the rug’ as a 1940s-era high school student to the sounds of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.

Cuthberger still listens to that genre of music, dancing about her home while doing chores. Though, at age 87 and 14 years into a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis, she is not as limber as she once was. Nor has she danced publicly for many years – until recently.
Cuthberger has among a handful of midcoast residents who participate in the program “Dancing With Parkinson’s.”

The 75-minute classes meet each Thursday teaching students with Parkinson’s Disease and movement-affected disorders a variety of adapted dance moves to keep them in step with traditional dances. The sessions are at the Quarry Hill retirement community, which also sponsors the area’s monthly Parkinson’s Support Group.

Speech pathologist and dance instructor Katie Tranzillo of Belfast leads the sessions.

Tranzillo offered creative movement classes for many years before a Connecticut-based Parkinson’s Disease support group approached her to develop an adaptive dance program for its members.

Parkinson’s is marked by  symptoms including slow movement, muscle stiffness and tremors that often disrupt  balance. In her research, Tranzillo spoke with group members and movement specialists to discover the physical limitations associated with the disease. From there, she developed dance movements her students could perform with ease. Tranzillo also trained at the Mark Morris Dance Group, a Brooklyn studio that offers similar programming for people with Parkinson’s.

Suzanne Miller,  a registered nurse and Quarry Hill’s health services coordinator, heard about Tranzillo’s work and invited her to speak at the group’s January meeting.

“(Tranzillo) was eager to share the program with this community,” said Miller. “She showed us video footage from classes she’d done before and did a mini workshop for our group.” 

Since movement is one of the greatest challenge for people with Parkinson’s Disease, attendees arrived with mixed emotions. Like teens at a high school dance, many entered eager to participate but hesitant to take the first few steps.

“Some responded with nervous laughter while others looked like a deer in the headlights,” said Miller. “Within 20 minutes of the class starting, I was called away to an emergency. When I returned, the change in the room was phenomenal. They were all laughing and participating. The feedback was, ‘we want more!’”

Quarry Hill marketing staffer Devon Smith said the mixed-age group is in different stages of the disease. “Some use walkers and canes for support but they wholeheartedly took part without an inhibitions,” said Smith. “It was absolutely fabulous. They were laughing and enjoying themselves.”

Classes begin with seated warm-up exercises, a primer on body awareness and breathing and  stretching. Actions then become more rhythmic, at times with hands clapping and feet tapping. Those who can, stand, supported by a chair or adaptive equipment. Some continue on, moving across the floor as a group. A variety of musical genres is used. Each class ends with dancers putting all the moves together to perform a dance routine.

“The first time we did the Cha Cha and the second week we did the waltz,” Cuthberger said. “You don’t know where you’re going when you start out but it’s fun to see where you’ll end up.”

Tranzillo said she gets a lot of feedback from student dancers, who note improvements to their physical or emotional well-being. She’s quick to point out. “These are dance classes not therapy sessions.”

Miller said, “These classes give people hope and joy at a time in life when they may feel very limited in movement and their body feels like their enemy. To be released from that and be at home in the body, even for just an hour, gives them a suspended time to feel some joy and fun in a way they rarely get to do anymore.”

Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at:
[email protected]