Around Town, Me Time, Wellness

Parkinson’s in Motion

Located in the heart of Uptown New Orleans is the New Orleans Jewish Community Center (JCC). You’ll find many people starting their day here: neighbors getting their workouts in, children heading to preschool, and volunteers setting up for daily programming. Today, we’re here for a dance class. But this isn’t your ordinary dance class. We’re here to Dance for Parkinson’s. 

This class, inspired by the Dance for Parkinson’s program developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, operates on the fundamental premise that professionally-trained dancers, as movement experts, can provide valuable knowledge to persons with Parkinson’s disease (PD).

One Dance for Parkinson’s participant says, “They tell us that one of the best things you can do to stave off or slow down the progress of the disease is exercise.” 

Kelly Harp Haber of the New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA) is the lead instructor for this class. Every Wednesday morning at the Uptown JCC, Haber, alongside co-instructor April Dayok, greets class participants one by one as they slowly, yet eagerly, trickle into the gymnasium. You can already tell that these people are more than just classmates; they’re all friends.

Some attendees have been coming for years, while others are fairly new to the class. A few participants have guests who either drop them off or accompany them to class. One member is joined by her sister, who drives her to class weekly, and another is accompanied by her granddaughter, who had the day off from school.

As everyone begins to find their seats throughout the circle of chairs, accompanist Jeffrey Pounds begins to play soft and mellow tunes on the piano. Dayok and Haber take their seats at the front of the class, and Dayok starts by going over warm-ups. She gently guides the class through each motion, paying close attention to stretching the muscles in the hands and fingers.

The National Institute on Aging defines PD as a brain disorder that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements, such as shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination. As the disease progresses, people may have difficulty walking and talking. They may also have mental and behavioral changes, sleep problems, depression, memory difficulties, and fatigue.

So what causes PD? Genetics accounts for approximately 10 to 15 percent of all cases of Parkinson’s disease. Scientists have analyzed DNA from individuals with Parkinson’s, comparing their genes over the years. Meanwhile, the Parkinson’s Foundation notes that certain environmental exposures might decrease or elevate the risk of PD. The interplay between genes and the environment can prove to be quite complex. Environmental factors linked to PD risk comprise head injuries, residential location, pesticide exposure, and others.

“Some people get Parkinson’s at a young age and it develops into a very debilitating illness,” adds a class member. “A lot of times, it’s hereditary. My father had Parkinson’s, and I remember him sort of walking stiffly.”

Entering its seventh year, the Dance for Parkinson’s program actively supports individuals with Parkinson’s or similar mobility challenges, along with their family members, caregivers, and friends. Since its establishment in 2017, the program has engaged over 7,000 participants through free, specialized, weekly classes and special outreach activities. These initiatives empower people with Parkinson’s to creatively explore movement and live music in a safe, welcoming, and enjoyable setting.

“We’re all kind of at different stages,” explains one Dance for Parkinson’s participant. “Some of us seem to have more difficulty with our Parkinson’s than others do. And so it affects different people in different ways.”

But really, you wouldn’t know that just by watching them. As we are guided through five warm-up dances, we also utilize this time to greet each other again, saying “good morning,” or “hello,” to our neighbors. From simply waving to one another, to “throwing paint” (we reach down and down to scoop up imaginary paint and flick it with our imaginary paintbrush to a friend across the room) you can feel the energy build as we prepare for our first official dance. 

Pounds begins playing “Corner of the Sky” from the musical Pippin. We go through several songs, with the music taking everyone on a journey through the decades. Haber jokes today is the “greatest hits class.” It’s an exciting change of pace as Pounds typically plays whatever he’s feeling that day, but is always met with joy as classmates love the variety. Some even like to call it the “Parkinson’s Happy Hour.” 

“Sometimes we get down to ‘Rolling on the River’ by Tina Turner, which means I can go home later and run with my grandchildren,” says one class member. 

Each year, approximately 60,000 Americans receive a diagnosis of PD. Parkinson’s affects over 10 million individuals globally. Throughout the years, Dance for PD has impacted thousands of lives across its network of affiliates and in more than 300 communities spanning 30 countries worldwide.

Skilled teaching artists actively blend elements of modern ballet, tap, folk, and social dancing into choreography to engage participants’ minds and bodies, fostering a vibrant social atmosphere for artistic exploration. These classes offer individuals with Parkinson’s the opportunity to enjoy and reap the benefits of dance while creatively addressing specific symptoms such as balance, cognition, motor skills, depression, and physical confidence. Encouraged to adopt a dancer’s mindset, participants approach movement in Dance for PD sessions as artists rather than patients.

We see this as Dayok and Haber begin to guide us through more intricate dances, getting everyone up on their feet and moving around the room. At one point, we are twirling blue flags up and around ourselves, channeling our inner Cirque du Soleil. Then, we’re ballerinas turned Broadway stars as we use our chairs as props, elegantly kicking out our legs like we’re in “A Chorus Line.”  

Haber uses short phrases to identify different movements and dance motions. Phrases like “self-love,” “trace the moon,” and “the tide rushes out,” use imagery to connect the mind and body, making for a more immersive experience for the dancers. 

As class comes to a close, the near-25 participants dwindle to five, plus Dayok, Haber, and one class member’s young granddaughter. Now, it is time for their weekly support group: Parkinson’s In Motion. This group formed naturally over time, as members began to hang out after class mingling amongst each other and discussing their different experiences with PD. 

Two members of the support group share that they come to Dance for PD every week. “It’s good to get together with friends and do silly-looking stuff,” one participant adds. 

Another explains, “I only come on Wednesdays because it’s hard for me to get out to Metairie every week. But if I could get out to Metairie, I’d be there, because exercise helps Parkinson’s not progress.”

They begin discussing when they first noticed symptoms of PD, how it progressed, and how they measure the progression. For many, it started with their handwriting. “I noticed my handwriting was all of a sudden no good. It doesn’t get smaller, just kind of out of control,” says a participant just before he follows up with a smile, “My gait is a bit slow, but you know, it might be age, it might be Parkinson’s. I don’t know.”

As the program continues to flourish and gain recognition locally, statewide, and nationally among Parkinson’s medical professionals, support groups, and organizations, it actively expands its reach to community members of all ages through sample classes and special presentations at local support groups. Additionally, it participates in special advocacy events and conferences to broaden its impact.

“Coming here is definitely beneficial,” exclaims one participant. “We have a community within the larger community with people who know what you experience from time to time or what your everyday experience is.”

Dance for Parkinson’s is sponsored by the Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust, through a community health partnership program between the New Orleans Ballet Association (NOBA) and the JCC New Orleans.

”Our mission is to help other tax-exempt organizations with their mission of helping others. Dance for Parkinson’s classes are designed specifically to help individuals that suffer from Parkinson’s disease, and we hope that this helps give these individuals a better quality of life,”  says trustees of the Oscar J. Thomas Charitable Trust Vincent Giardina and Lisa Romano.

As the program continues to grow and thrive, it highlights the profound impact of artistic expression on health and well-being. Through the transformative experience of dance, individuals with Parkinson’s, their families, and caregivers find support, joy, and a sense of belonging. To support this invaluable program and raise awareness about PD, we encourage everyone to spread the word, attend classes, volunteer, or consider donating to ensure its continued success in serving those affected by Parkinson’s.

Classes at the Uptown JCC are on Wednesdays from 10:30-11:45 a.m. Classes are also offered at Pontiff Gym in Metairie on Mondays from 10:30 to 11:45 a.m. Classes are ongoing on a drop-in basis, and new participants are welcome at any time.

There is no cost to attend. Register onsite, or in advance at For more information, visit the NOBA website or contact Millette White at or 504-522-0996, ext. 213. 

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