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In 2001, one idea sparked what has become a worldwide initiative combating the effects of Parkinson’s disease with modern dance. Two accomplished dancers with Brooklyn’s Mark Morris Dance Group, David Leventhal and John Heginbotham, began leading what has evolved into Dance for PD.

Now implemented in hundreds of communities across 13 countries, the program’s foundations have been at the vanguard of scientific studies and films like David Iverson’s “Capturing Grace,” People’s Choice Award-winner at last year’s Sedona International Film Festival. These findings speak to the power and grace of dance experienced in cities including Flagstaff.

Leventhal and Iverson will bring their knowledge to the 2nd annual Northern Arizona Parkinson’s Conference, hosted by The Peaks Senior Living Community and the Northern Arizona Parkinson’s Support Coalition, LLC. Guests will receive a specialized dance class from Leventhal and screen “Capturing Grace,” with comments to follow from the filmmaker, and information on the latest Parkinson’s research from experts.

The conference will take place Thursday, Nov. 12 from 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. at The Peaks, 3150 N. Winding Brook Road. There is a $10 registration fee, which will be refunded upon attendance. For availability and information, call 606-1579 or visit www.flagstaffpdsupportgroup.org.

Personal passions

Leventhal had no experience with Parkinson’s until Olie Westheimer of the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group approached the acclaimed MMDG, intent on matching the group with a rigorous — yet creatively freeing — dance program. The progressive neurological movement disorder is characterized at first by slight tremors, which augment and lead to stiffness and immobility.

Iverson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2004. As an executive producer and anchor for national, regional and local segments for public broadcasting, he explored the disease in a number of PBS segment’s including for the Frontline series with “My Father, My Brother, and Me.”

That story of his and his family’s battle with Parkinson’s brought Iverson to a Dance for PD class in Berkley, near his Bay Area home.

“I just was so taken with it and stuck by how powerful an experience it was for everyone — even just observing it—and how good a teacher [Leventhal] was that it intrigued me,” Iverson explained.

But the story demanded more depth, he said, and became the catalyst for “Capturing Grace.”

“For me, it just became this project that I wound up caring about, believing in more perhaps than anything I’d ever done professionally,” Iverson said. “Certainly in part because it was close to my heart and my own family’s experience with Parkinson’s, but I also think just because it was such a good story and because I met some of the most compelling and compassionate, inspiring people it’s ever been my privilege to meet in making the film.”

Adaptive dance

That sentiment has echoed across the world, propelling Dance for PD into more than 100 communities. Leventhal explained the program’s viability rests in experts’ training in technical and artistic elements.

“When people with Parkinson's enter the studio, they are treated as dancers and dance students, not patients. Because of this, the entire experience focuses on possibilities and exploration rather than limits and treatment,” Leventhal said.

He explained the choreography and training offers participants living with Parkinson’s and caregivers alike the connected use of their imaginations and senses to control their bodies.

Leventhal encourages teachers to incorporate their own artistic interests and styles, as the program has no set curriculum. Dance for PD trains teachers to adapt what they know to serve the Parkinson’s population, Leventhal said. In Brooklyn, MMDG draws from ballet, jazz, modern and more, while Pune, India offers kathak and Bollywood.

Instructors with the Canyon Movement Dance Company in town received specialized training from Leventhal and the Dance for PD group, and brought that knowledge back to Flagstaff. Flagstaff Dance for Parkinson’s participants fly through the Grand Canyon and raft down the Colorado River Thursdays at The Peaks.

“Fighting Parkinson's is a full-time job, and we need all the tools and resources we can muster just to hold our own. Programs like this give the whole community a boost — a shot in the arm — and help us remember that there are a lot of us out here and we are not alone in dealing with this,” said Linda Webb of the Flagstaff Parkinson’s Support Group.

With caregivers, family members and friends dancing together, participants from Brooklyn and beyond have found strength.

Iverson said he often equates Parkinson’s to a disease of subtraction in that it takes things one by one. But in Brooklyn, he learned of the power of addition and community.

“You can surmount a lot if you do that,” he said. “When you do, the plus sign really is more powerful than the minus.”

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