Shake a leg.

Swivel the hips this away and that away.

Sounds simple, downright easy. No big deal.

But for a batch of folks in Rachel Denham and Jennifer Wagner’s Dance for Parkinson’s dance class such movement proves positively wonderful. So come each Thursday morning at 10, varying numbers of people with and without Parkinson’s meet at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Highlands on Lee Highway near Meadowview, Va., to shake a leg. They swivel their hips this way and that way and it isn’t so simple.

Yet it’s oh so beneficial.

"We try to be non-medical," said Denham. "The philosophy of this group is that you’re there to dance. We do not mention therapy. We do not mention exercise."

And yet.

"This dancing has proven to be beneficial to them," Denham said.

Joe McCoy wheeled his tomato red Chevy S-10 pick-up truck into and up the driveway of the church on Thursday morning, minutes before class began. He stepped out, shut his door, walked in, said a few helloes and made way to a chair positioned in a large circle.

By then a welcoming Denham and Wagner were on hand. Soon followed other participants for the day including Richard and Linda Brumleve, Gene and Clair Rasor, Steve Fulmer and so forth.

Denham asked that everyone introduce themselves in some unique fashion of movement one by one around the circle. Denham began.

"I am Rachel," she said, complimented by a sweeping wave of an arm.

Gene Rasor followed.

"I am Gene," he said, punctuated with a grand bow.

Get the idea? Denham and Wagner incorporate some form of movement throughout the hour-long class.

"You don’t even think of it as exercise," Denham said. "You think about trying to do it."

 

‘It works’

Most of all.

"You’re having fun," Denham said. "It works."

At the stroke of 10 a.m. Thursday, folks were seated. Most had removed their shoes. No bells, no call to order, but class was in session.

"We’re gonna warm up our bodies," Denham said.

Light classical music began upon the touch of her fingers on a remote.

"Scrunch up your face," she said, "and hold it."

They did.

"Wiggle your cheek to one side and then the other side," she instructed. "Now, if you can raise your eyebrows ... now, we’re gonna roll our shoulder, just kind of roll it around ... and then the other shoulder ... and both shoulders."

Some smiled, most followed Denham exactly, and all focused upon the tasks at hand.

"Number one," said Richard Brumleve, after the close of class, "it’s fun."

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s three and a half years ago, the retired high school English teacher cherishes the class.

"The hour we spend here, the stretching, is most important to me," he said. "It’s invaluable to me."

Twenty-five minutes into the class, Wagner led everyone through a series of foot warm ups. First, she demonstrated with a series of cat-like movements. Then she led and they followed.

"Step, toe, heel, step, toe, heel," Wagner said as one foot stretched out, tapped forward upon the toe and then back upon the heel.

Then.

"Heels to the side, let’s do eight of these," she said. "Knees open, Charleston, let’s do eight of these."

Everyone opened at the knees, closed at the knees, opened and closed and so forth, like sitting in a chair and dancing the knees-knocking classic dance of yore, the Charleston.

Watches registered half-past 10.

"We are going to stand up now," Denham said. "Just brace yourself. Move around a little bit."

Moments later, sunshine spread across their faces like early morning dawned anew. They weren’t like kids climbing trees wild and free, but by golly they seemed like it.

Around and around they moved in a circle, making laps like two-legged race cars, fueled and firing on as many cylinders as possible.

"It’s gonna look like we’re dancing!" Denham said.

Arms thrust out and up, legs gathered vigor, bodies moved in motion.

"We are dancing!" Wagner exclaimed.

And they were.

 

Parkinson’s Disease

Of note, neither mention nor muttering of Parkinson’s occurred.

Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive disorder of a person’s nervous system that affects movement. Symptoms can include tremors, slurred and gradually softening of speech, a masking or frozen expression of the face, slowed movement, etc.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 500,000 people are thought to have Parkinson’s in the United States. About 50,000 new cases arise each year.

"I’ve had Parkinson’s for 13 years," said Claire Rasor.

While there’s no mention of Parkinson’s during the dance class, some of its participants meet for lunch every first Thursday of the month after class. Topics for discussion can range from fishing to the day’s weather to Parkinson’s.

It’s something of a pseudo support group.

"It’s a confusing condition," said Linda Brumleve, Richard’s wife. "It’s helpful to compare notes."

For example, on Thursday first-time dance class and lunch group attendee Steve Fulmer chit-chatted about fishing with Richard Brumleve. Joe McCoy, a retired professor of chemistry from Emory and Henry College, plays drums, a talent that he shares with Brumleve.

"You can still live a normal life, pretty much," McCoy said.

Change happens in anyone’s life. Many people climb trees, skip rope, run and jump free and easy as children. By the time we are adults, such activities can prove prohibitive as time goes by for one reason or another such as perhaps weight gain, arthritis, slowed motor skills, etc.

Parkinson’s represents change, too.

"When Steve talks about going fishing, it breaks my heart because I can’t go fishing anymore," Richard Brumleve said. "I love to play golf but I can’t play golf."

But again, that’s talk among the support group after dance class. During dance class, it’s as if Parkinson’s parks at the door.

"Here, they’re never being told what they can’t do," Rachel Denham said. "They’re being encouraged to do what they can do."

 

‘... Not about the disease’

Nearly a year ago Denham and Wagner sought a way to help those with Parkinson’s. They found the Mark Morris Dance Group.

"They’re headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, and partnered with the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group," Denham said. "They had a training program and we heard about it. Jennifer and I signed up for the training session and went to New York in May 2011."

Denham and Wagner started the Dance for Parkinson’s class a month later, in June 2011. They augmented their training during a session in Charlottesville, Va., in September.

"We’re here to dance and have a good time," Wagner said. "It’s a level playing field. It’s not about the disease."

 

‘You’ll be welcomed’

Parkinson’s does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. Progress via medicine has certainly advanced, but the magic words have not come as of yet.

"There is no cure," Claire Rasor said. "There’s hope."

And there’s this Dance for Parkinson’s class. Denham and Wagner stressed that everyone is welcome regardless of whether they have Parkinson’s or not. Wagner also noted that folks with backgrounds in dance and dance instruction are invited to come, volunteer and help in some way.

"For the homebodies," Richard Brumleve said, "it’s a good and worthwhile opportunity."

It shows.

As the week’s class and then support group closed for the week, McCoy walked back to his bright red Chevy S-10. Key inserted, engine ignited, transmission engaged, he backed out of his parking spot from alongside a little white Honda, shifted to drive and then stopped. He rolled down his window.

The retired chemistry professor pointed to his license plate, which reads H2CO3 for carbonic acid.

"Weak acid," McCoy said with a touch of a grin, "weak truck."

His much more powerful 1967 Pontiac Firebird sits at home. Its license plate denotes the formula for nitric acid.

"Strong acid," McCoy said, grin growing, "strong car."

Well, there ought to be a chemical formula for McCoy, the Brumleves and the Rasors, Fulmer, Denham, Wagner and folks like them. Good people. Strong people. Hopeful people. As with some band of chemicals, they’re compelled together and now bonded.

It’s a pliable bond. There’s room for more.

"The fellowship is probably the biggest help for me," Richard Brumleve said.

Brumleve’s newfound friend McCoy, who also has Parkinson’s, grasped Brumleve’s point as if wrapping his fingers around an olive branch. And his grin broadened with warmth.

"You’ll be welcomed," McCoy said.

 

Tom Netherland is a freelance writer. He may be reached at features@bristolnews.com.

 


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