FRONTLINEdance’s Associate Dance Artist Dr Melanie Brierley: Journey into working with those with Parkinson’s disease.

“In Dance and Parkinson’s practice and research, there is space for the disciplines of the arts, medicine, psychology, and neuroscience to converge. Interdependently, these different knowledge bases promote greater understanding of the meaning of health, health perception, and care in the lived experience of people with long-term neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s”

Dr Mel Brierley: My journey as a dance and health artist, researcher, and writer.

Everyday practice

For the last 11 years, I have worked as an independent community dance and health artist, researcher, and writer at Conscious Bodies. Previously, I had over 20 years of experience working in community and education settings, including primary and secondary schools, colleges of further education, and universities.

In groups, and one to one practice in the home, my aim is to explore and develop somatically informed dance practice with people living with a range of neurological conditions including, Parkinson’s, Dementias, Stroke, Limb-Girdle Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, and Multiple System Atrophy. Somatically informed dance practice supports people to enjoy moving, to appreciate and love their bodies, to move with more awareness and ease, to find rest and peace, to support and understand others, and to use this knowledge in their activities of daily living.

Other areas of my practice include working with adults living with learning difficulties and physical disabilities, co-creating self-care workshops for support workers of young adults with Autism, exploring dance as self-care with adults, and working in connection with different art forms. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, with visual artist Philippa Troutman, I looked at the connections between our ageing bodies and our local, natural environments.

Artists, companies, and organisations that I currently work with are FRONTLINEdance in Stoke-On-Trent, Parkinson’s groups in Lancaster, Preston, and Chorley, LPM Dance Theatre in Lancaster, University of Central Lancashire in Preston, the Neurodropin in Lancaster, Pioneer Projects in Craven, and Moving Soma in Cheltenham.

Co-creative practice and production is at the heart of these partnerships, with all artists and organisations aiming to promote dance as support to people’s health and wellness.

A brief history of my dance experience with people with Parkinson’s.

In 2009, I assisted Daphne Cushnie, a senior neurological physiotherapist and dance artist working with people with Parkinson’s at the Lantern House in Ulverston, Cumbria. From the very first session, and like other dance artists, I was deeply moved by the commitment, joy, and love of dance expressed by participants with Parkinson’s.

Once the music started, and Daphne led some improvisational movement, including the throwing of large, pink, fluffy flamingos across the circle, class members began to laugh. They look relaxed, with their bodies more open. On the way out, people’s movement was less restricted. They talked and joked with each other, with this happier mood continuing in the café downstairs.

The effect of attending this initial class was so great, that I became committed to exploring dance with people with Parkinson’s. I continued to develop work as partner to Daphne in our Kendal-based class until February 2013, when I set up my session in Lancaster, with the Parkinson’s UK support group class continuing today.

In June 2012, and through Lisa Ullman Travelling Scholarships for dancers, Daphne and I journeyed together to attend a professional training weekend at Dance for PD®, Brooklyn, New York. We also co-delivered several presentations in the Northwest, and with the musician/movement practitioner Anna Gillespie, created workshops at People Dancing Summer schools.

With Daphne, I met other pioneering Dance and Parkinson’s practitioners in the UK. We shared practice in open and supportive ways, with the Dance and Parkinson’s Network eventually forming through our enthusiasm, commitments, and efforts.

The People Dancing website indicates that the ‘Network’ Dance and Parkinson’s UK was originally inspired and supported by Dance for PD® at the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn, New York. Specifically, it was through the encouragement and drive of two dancers David Leventhal (now director of Dance for PD®) and John Heginbotham who galvanised us into developing good practice for all Parkinson’s individuals and communities across the UK. They visited the UK when the company was touring, and Toby Beazley (then Director of Dance Umbrella) organised several events in London where we could work collectively with these trailblazers.

The UK ‘Network’ was driven forward in voluntary meetings and CPD events by a committed group of independent dance artists and advocates. There was also a large international gathering at Roehampton University, with annual summer school programmes and training at People Dancing.

Dance artists who met frequently were Joanne Duff, Amanda Fogg, Melanie Brierley, Daphne Cushnie, Sophia Hulbert, and Anna Leatherdale. Also joining this group were Fleur Derbyshire Fox (Director of Engagement at ENB) and members of Pavilion Dance Southwest.

Significant contributions were made earlier by Anna Gillespie, Marina Benini and Marion North in London, Mo Morgan in Edinburgh, Gemma Coldicott in London, Rachel Canavan in Norwich and later, Danielle Teale in London.

Advocates at meetings included Toby Beazley (Director of Dance Umbrella), Ken Bartlett (Director of People Dancing), Sara Houston as chair from 2014 (University of Roehampton).

The ‘Network’ was later formalised as ‘Dance and Parkinson’s Partnerships UK’ under the director Kiki Gale, who until 2021, continued to develop the scope of practice of dance with people with Parkinson’s under the management and influence of People Dancing. In the UK, the partnership has flourished, with many dance artists and organisations reaching and working with Parkinson’s communities.

My Dance and Parkinson’s research

In my PhD research at the University of Roehampton (2020), I looked at one to one, co-creative, somatically informed, and home-based dance with people with Parkinson’s. For me, it was important to value and make clear the ideas of people with Parkinson’s in the work that we developed together. I continue to honour the wealth of knowledge and friendship exchanged in home-based dance sessions, with intimate, meaningful, and often humorous moments shared between us.

In 2014, I was awarded a Churchill Travelling Fellowship to research Dance and Parkinson’s practice in the US. In the first part of my Churchill journey, I spent nearly three weeks exploring the wonderful dance practice that takes place in classes at Dance for PD®.

I worked with the Parkinson’s movement coach Pamela Quinn, attending her classes, and interviewing her at home. We shared ideas about our approaches to one to one practice and spoke about Pam’s personal experience of living with Parkinson’s.

I also interviewed the somatic practitioners Dr Martha Eddy and Mary Abrams to discuss my use of somatically informed dance practice with people with Parkinson’s. Founder and director of Moving Body Resources in Manhattan, New York, Abrams is a leading figure in the study and practice of Continuum. Acknowledged for her pioneering work in Dynamic Embodiment, Martha Eddy has worked with US based Janet Hamburg (1951-2010). She also has knowledge of the Welsh movement practitioner Betty Meredith Jones (1908-1996), with both practitioners having focused their dance work with people with Parkinson’s.

In 2015, I continued my Churchill journey by visiting projects near Oakland, California. For the most part, I was very fortunate to work for three weeks with John Argue, an influential and highly experienced movement practitioner with people with Parkinson’s. I studied his ‘Art of Movement’ practice alongside his team of skilled dance and movement artists including Debbie Sternbach and Lynda Sheridan. I attended a range of other initiatives for people with Parkinson’s, including Yoga for Parkinson’s with Carol Fisher, Feldenkrais practice for Parkinson’s with Vivianna Diaz, and Dance for PD® registered programmes with the independent artist Claudine Naganuma and artists at the Berkeley Ballet Theatre.

So, what makes Dance and Parkinson’s practice important and meaningful?

Central to the new wave of dance and health in community settings, the developing field of Dance and Parkinson’s has a strong presence in the United Kingdom, with its practice and research making connections between the very often separate fields of the arts and medicine.

In Dance and Parkinson’s practice and research, there is space for the disciplines of the arts, medicine, psychology, and neuroscience to converge. Interdependently, these different knowledge bases promote greater understanding of the meaning of health, health perception, and care in the lived experience of people with long-term neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s.

Through face to face and online group sessions, or in one to one practice in the home, dance supports health and wellness when it flows through the person, shifting or transforming their physical, cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and social experience.

In Dance and Parkinson’s research, the multi-dimensional benefits of dance in supporting bio-psycho-social change are well documented. The term bio-psycho-social refers to the experience of the whole person as body and mind in a cultural, social, environmental, and ecological context.

Research has often focused on the way dance supports physical improvements to health in people with Parkinson’s, such as balancing, turning, and walking with even steps. In the dance class, physical change can happen on a macro or micro level. Large and observable change might come when people move from unsteadiness into balance. In dance classes, people might be able to maintain stability in standing, with their heels raised off the ground and arms outstretched or overhead. Similarly, they may be seen moving in space with greater fluidity when movement is accompanied by visualisations, descriptive words, or high groove, rhythmic music.

Smaller, movement changes are often sensed and felt internally by the person. Perhaps a sense of ease is found in the experience of bodily expansion and contraction created from the inhalation and exhalation of breath, or the gentle and gradual expansion of an arm, with these acts improving body awareness, motor control, and a body-felt, pleasurable movement experience.

Psychological health improvements including mood, confidence, identity, a sense of being able to do things and make contributions to your family and community, may also be driven by how people see themselves when they move or perform daily tasks. So, people’s physicality, or reduced physicality, can shape their thoughts. People’s thinking can also affect the way they move or think about moving. So, if they’re feeling confident, they’re more likely to have a go at dancing, walking outside, or going out to meet friends. The two viewpoints go hand in hand.

Dance supports people to forget about the things they can’t do and enjoy moving in their own way in the present moment. When people dance together, it’s even better, because dancing with other people supports physical, cognitive, and social confidence.

So, my advice is to keep on dancing! Especially with friends and family as often as possible.

Please feel free to join our range of classes at FRONTLINEdance, including my online session Moving Together.

Photo credit:  Victoria Sedgwick Photography. The session is delivered by Dr Melanie Brierley with participants at the
University of Lancashire, Preston through an LPM production and funded project.

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