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“You just get lifted away from the earth”: Film spotlights dance program for Parkinson’s patients

capturing grace still

Tomorrow and Saturday, "Capturing Grace," a documentary film following participants of a dance program for people with Parkinson's disease generated by New York's Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), will be screened at Stanford. Filmmaker and former KQED Forum host Dave Iverson, and David Leventhal, previously a leading dancer of MMDG and now the director of Dance for PD, will also be on campus holding workshops and discussions.

A Stanford News piece today describes the film as "the centerpiece of a two-day exploration of the intersection of dance and medicine" and offers these details:

Since his Parkinson's diagnosis in 2004, Stanford alumnus Iverson has been an education champion for the progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. He wrote, reported, directed and co-produced the 2009 PBS Frontline documentary My Father, My Brother and Me, using his family's saga with the disease as a starting point to explore the larger issues of scientific research, the quest for a cure and the political controversies surrounding stem cell transplants. He also works as a contributing editor for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.


[Said Iverson:] "One thing I've come to believe about Parkinson's is that it's a disease of subtraction. It takes things from you one by one. And one of the many things I learned from the people in the class is that if you are confronted with a disease of subtraction, you better believe in addition. You better start adding things back into your life. For the people we profiled in Capturing Grace, I think dance helped get them back on the plus side of the ledger."

I recently talked with Iverson, who told me that, despite his Frontline documentary's title, "Capturing Grace" has proved more personally involving. "It's more about what happens to people when they have to respond to something that's unwelcome in their lives," he said. The participants featured in the film gather at the MMDG studios in Brooklyn to take classes given by professional dancers of one of the world's leading modern dance troupes, and they learn repertory to perform, including dances by Mark Morris.

"It isn't a miracle and it's not a treatment," Morris says in the film. Different from art therapy, the program provides instruction in movement and an opportunity to share what professional dancers experience daily - the heightened sense of awareness found by coordinating one's body and mind to move freely and deliberately through space, guided by music, in communion with others - with a deadline of a performance offering additional motivation to show up, practice, and stay focused on a goal.

The Dance for PD program, begun in 2001 and now conducted in nine countries, has attracted the attention of the medical community. Leventhal noted that MMDG has invited medical students at the University of Michigan and Brown University to discuss the program and participate in projects and classes, and he's now teaching a Narrative Medicine elective to first-year med students at Columbia. Dance for PD has received a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to conduct a randomized, controlled study of the Brooklyn program, Leventhal said.

"Capturing Grace" shows outcomes of dancing for people with PD not through measurement but through the direct experience of participants moving to music together. "You just get lifted away from the earth," as one woman in the film describes.

Emily Hite is the content and communications manager for the Rock Center for Corporate Governance and the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford and a former social media producer for Stanford Medicine's Office of Communication and Public Affairs.

Previously: Former professional ballet dancers find a thriving second career in science
Image, of David Leventhal and participants of a Parkinson's dance class, by Eddie Marritz

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