Parkinson’s disease (PD) sufferers often spend their time isolated at home with little to no contact with the outside world.
The symptoms associated with this degenerative condition - such as poor balance, stiff muscles, involuntary movements, impaired speech, dizziness and confusion - drive them to seclusion.
Parkinson’s is a chronic and progressive movement disorder, meaning that symptoms continue and worsen over time.
But a programme run by a Somerset West dance teacher, Julie Symmonds from Turning Steps dance school, is turning the lives of those living with Parkinson’s from loneliness and despair to healthy and active.
The classes, which were initiated by Symmonds a year ago, are designed to enhance the well being and quality of life for those with the disease.
“The essence of dance is joy.
"Dance movement therapy is of potential benefit to many of the participants.
"Improvements in movement are often seen during the one-hour dance movement therapy sessions,” said Symmonds.
Many walk into her class with walking sticks, wheelchairs and wheelers,.
The youngest PD dancer is aged 40 and the oldest one is 84.
Symmonds, who started the initiative after studying it in New York two years ago, now runs three Parkinson’s dance sessions across Cape Town, including Somerset West, Pinelands and Gardens.
The Dance for PD initiative was born after a ”very special lady”, Audrey Beesley, brought her granddaughter to Symmonds ballet classes in 2015.
“Beesley was the first person I had met with PD.
"She told me about a link she had seen on the internet about Dance for PD. When I went on to the site, I was immediately moved and knew this was my next step in my teaching career.
"I immediately started with arrangements to start the training, and by October 2015 I was in New York learning from the pioneer of Dance for PD himself, David Levanthal,” she said.
Symmonds said the opportunity came at the right time in her life.
“I was lucky enough to have finished with a ballet concert and there was enough left in the kitty to do the first course in New York.”
When she returned, she knew that she had achieved enough to start helping others.
“I started doing presentations and demonstrations at old age homes and support groups to convince people to buy into the idea and spread the word.”
The first official Dance for PD SA class took place on February 4 last year with only four people.
“Slowly the word spread. I hung in there. Seventeen months later we have three classes... in Somerset West with 16 participants, Gardens with five and Pinelands with five dancers.”
Symmonds says many people who suffer from PD spend most of their days isolated with little to no contact with other people.
“Dance for PD gives them more hope and allows them to interact with others.”
The classes usually start with participants doing chair exercises, followed by standing exercises with the support of a chair while those who are fit enough carry on with exercises without any support.
Symmonds says teaching Dance for PD has changed her life and the way she sees PD.
“I find its impact on my clients nothing short of remarkable, something that keeps me in awe. The reward of what I do is instant and visible.
“Witnessing the change in the dancers and how they move is unbelievable. Sometimes it feels unreal and unbelievable, yet I see it happening.”
She recalls seeing one of her dancers, Hans Rogotzki, first dancing seated for six months in her class. More recently she witnessed him being able to get up and dance, standing on his own two feet again. “This was one of my proudest moments,” she said.
Another dancer who says she enjoys the classes is the daughter of the late Professor Chris Barnard, Deirdre Barnard Visser.
“I love these classes they have become a social gathering. The music uplifts me and the classes delay my body from the stiffness that comes with PD. After the class we sit down and talk to each other about our challenges. We do not just stop and go home. It helps to chat with others.”
With the help of crowd funding recently, Symmonds has been able to raise enough money to go back to New York in October to qualify to teach other people across the country how to facilitate the dance class.
“I am absolutely thrilled and so very grateful to all the backers who gave of their hard-earned cash to donate to this cause. This means that I am able to get to New York to do two courses and to complete my exams and studies. It is very exciting.”
Symmonds hopes to keep up her mission of loving and nurturing dancers with Parkinson’s disease.