People with Parkinson’s Express Themselves in Instructor’s Dance Class

About 30 to 40 people with Parkinson’s disease are expressing themselves through movement in a class taught by UT Dallas instructor Misty Owens. If you don’t see the video, watch it on Vimeo.

According to UT Dallas dance faculty member Misty Owens, dancing is considerably more than it seems. The movements and motions are obvious, but Owens said it’s about the physical and mental process of thought, emotions and inspiration that create the expression of dance.

Each week, in addition to teaching her classes at UT Dallas, Owens utilizes that philosophy as she leads dance classes for individuals who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease — a neurodegenerative disorder that affects movement. She said she tries to surprise and challenge the class with choreography meant to stimulate the mind and body, while nurturing and encouraging them through the shared experience of dance.

“In dance class, participants are liberated from their disease,” Owens said. “They are able to explore all of the possibilities of movement and expression — because expression is so valuable for just bringing you back to who you are, taking away the mask of the disease.”

“If you have Parkinson’s, daily life activities become challenges,” she said. "Individuals come to dance class with open minds and ready for possibilities.” 

'A Beautiful Union'

Owens is one of three founding teachers of Dance for Parkinson’s Disease at the Mark Morris Dance Group. In 2003, she began teaching the classes, called Dance for PD, in Brooklyn, New York.

Locally, the group of 35 to 40 people meets twice a week in a spacious dance studio at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. The Dance for PD class includes various traditional dance styles such as modern, ballet, jazz, tap and world dance. The majority of the time is devoted to movements that are done while seated, then standing with support, then walking and dancing without support.

She sees similarities between participants in her Dance for PD classes and students in her traditional dance classes at UT Dallas.

“At both Presbyterian and UTD, each person comes into dance class with a little trepidation and, at times, lacking confidence about their dancing. Whether they have previous experience or they’ve avoided dance at all costs throughout their life, this is their moment. It’s risk-taking, it’s opening up, it’s inviting the unknown into their lives,” Owens said.

The word that Owens — and many of the Dance for PD participants — often use to describe the class is “family.”

“It’s a beautiful union of many different people from all different walks of life. We do not talk about politics; they leave that at the door,” she said. “We accept people for who they are, and we hold people up when they need supporting or we cheer for them with celebrations.”

Food for the Soul

One of the class participants, Bobbi Myers, said she began taking ballet lessons when she was 7 years old and continued dancing, eventually joining the Sacramento Ballet Company in California. She said that while she experiences some frustration that her movements have been curtailed, she said the class feeds her soul.

“It’s more than just a dance class; it’s a community support system. We care about each other, and we try to support each other as we travel through this journey with Parkinson’s and other movement disorders,” Myers said.

Once a month, some of the more adventuresome group members gather at the Dallas Museum of Art to take their creativity a bit farther. In a program initiated by Owens in 2016, museum personnel explain some of the art pieces and participants are encouraged to create movements that relate to the art.

“The focus of each session includes an impressive selection of art that opens the mind, invites creative thinking and inspires movement to explore unknown territories,” Owens said. “It’s a completely different environment — different than our regular classroom. They’re in this grand artistic space that creatively brings something out of them that they didn’t even know they possessed.”

Misty Owens leads the class in a dance

“It’s more than just a dance class; it’s a community support system,” said class participant Bobbi Myers.

While each participant’s experience is different, many say the disease’s progression has been slowed or, in some cases, they have experienced smoother movements since they joined the dance class and participated in other physical activities.

In every dance class she teaches, Owens focuses on creating movements that inspire and challenge students’ physical and mental barriers through confidence building.

“I encourage each person, embracing each step that they take as they enhance their talents through dance vocabulary and movement combinations resulting in greater self-confidence,” she said. “This self-confidence permeates the entire person, affecting all of their activities, creating more ambition, drive and self-assurance — both in Dance for PD and at UT Dallas.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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