Dancing against time: Parkinson’s disease movement therapy only has money through May

Dance instructor Isabel Castro (forefront) leads a class of Parkinson's disease sufferers and their caregivers at Fleischmann Park.

Photo by LIANE EDIXON // Buy this photo

Dance instructor Isabel Castro (forefront) leads a class of Parkinson's disease sufferers and their caregivers at Fleischmann Park.

Contact program manager Andy Browne at the United Arts Council of Collier County at 263-8242.

Contact executive director Linda Stewart at the Parkinson’s Association of Southwest Florida at 417-3465.

Fleischmann Park

1600 Fleischmann Blvd, Naples, FL

A handful of dancers spin across the wood floor of a multi-purpose room at Fleishmann Park. Instructor Isabel Castro teaches them movements from ballet, jazz, waltz, contemporary and other classic dances as Doug Carman plays music and sings in the corner of the room. The dancers are new to some of the movements, and carefully watch their instructor.

But they’re not looking to audition in the next dance-a-thon. They’re looking to help their quality of life as they struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

The dance and movement class formed in December by the Parkinson’s Association of Southwest Florida with a grant fund of $5,600 from the United Arts Council of Southwest Florida. The program will only last until the end of May before the grant money runs dry. For program participants like Jean Williams, finding more dollars is crucial, even if it comes from her own pocket.

“I’m going to make a contribution to funding,” Williams says after a Tuesday dance class.

Williams, 81, found out she suffered from Parkinson’s disease in 1985. She’s attended every form of exercise class for her disease that’s been offered, even swim classes. So far, she prefers the dance and movement class, which used to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“I look forward to it every week. I heard they’re cutting it to once-a-week. That’s terrible,” Williams said. She actually skipped a birthday lunch with her daughters a few weeks ago because it fell during dance class. “I told them I can have lunch with you girls some other day. I don’t want to miss my dance class.”

Williams spends most of class in a wheelchair on this Tuesday. She’s having a bad day, but it doesn’t wipe the smile from her face. Even though Parkinson’s disease causes her body to shake, she still manages to climb out of the chair and join the circle of students holding hands at the end of class as their dance to “The Loco-Motion.”

The class was modeled after a similar program in New York at the Mark Morris Dance Company, where Castro went to a few workshops to prepare herself for teaching the Naples class. It uses several forms of dance, as well as creative style, yoga and stretching, for an hour and 15 minutes.

“It stops their shakes. Helps with coordination skills, posture, gape. Posture is a big thing,” Castro says. It also helps with vocal chords, which freeze up. “For that hour, they kind of forget they have Parkinson’s.”

Anne Timlin brings her husband Tom, 85, to every class. It helps her husband’s movement and balance. He enjoys it because it’s not as intense as the exercise classes he attended before.

“It was very tiring. This is a little slower. A little more relaxed,” Tom adds.

Claire LaCombs, 67, found out she had Parkinson’s disease in 2005. The biggest benefit she finds in the weekly dance classes is not just physical, but also emotional and mental.

“We haven’t missed a class because it’s the best thing. It’s so much fun and there’s so much camaraderie,” LaCombs says.

Her husband and caregiver, George, explains further:

“The psychological aspect is just as important as the exercise. She can’t wait for Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s an excellent program.”

Linda Stewart, executive director for the Parkinson’s Association of Southwest Florida, says the dance class started in a multi-purpose room at their offices, but they soon outgrew the space and moved to Fleishmann Park. According to Stewart, neurologists say exercise is as important as medications for those who suffer from the disease. It’s a progressive disease with no known causes and no cure. Symptoms include tremors, slowness of movement, balance and gate problems, speech and swallowing problems, and each patient progresses differently from the next.

“Our mission is to improve the quality of life for the person with Parkinson’s and their care partner,” Stewart says.

There are about 1,100 documented cases of Parkinson’s disease in Collier County, but estimates say another 2,000 undocumented cases are out there.

The dance classes help improve muscle tone which can help patients stay strong enough to dress themselves, get in and out of a car, cook, and take care of their home. Many sufferers, though not all, can battle bouts of depression, and the dance classes are thought to brighten their days.

The United Arts Council of Collier County and the Parkinson’s Association of Southwest Florida are seeking more private grant money to continue the program. In an ideal world, to continue the program for an additional six months, adding either a dance assistant or a physical therapist to the mix, it would cost about $9,600 to hold the class twice a week. A 10-month program would cost about $14,000.

Claire LaComb, a seasonal resident who leaves soon, attributes her “great six months” in Naples this season to the dance class.

“I hope it’s back on when I return,” she says. “It a freeing program. To watch other people get better — straighten up better — walk better.”

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