PORT TOWNSEND — Rae Kala had her hand slapped while in training.
She was being, as she puts it, too much of a therapist-head.
Kala is an occupational therapist who works at Jefferson Healthcare hospital — but this was not the time for analyses of therapeutic outcomes.
“Hey, we’re just dancing,” was the message from her instructors at the Dance for Parkinson’s training last year at Gonzaga University in Spokane.
Dancing for the joy of it: That’s what Kala brings to her classroom every Thursday at 1:15 p.m. Right away, a visitor can see the delight on the people’s faces.
As pianist Hazel Johnson plays a mid-tempo tune, the dancers dive in: doing the starfish, the swim and the drunken sailor, “swinging your grog.” That move, the hoist of an imaginary beverage, reminds you to just enjoy yourself. And you are not, Kala hopes, thinking about therapy.
It’s a paradox, though. Dance for Parkinson’s, taught in cities across the world, is highly therapeutic.
Research has shown that these specialized dance moves can help improve balance, coordination and quality of life for people dealing with Parkinson’s disease.
Those who suffer from this movement disorder can benefit both physically and mentally.
In other words, people who dance feel better. This doesn’t surprise Kala, as she’s taught African dance to live drummers in Port Townsend for years.
She stirs in some African moves now and then, but mostly she and Johnson guide their participants through seated and standing sequences Kala learned at her Dance for Parkinson’s training. They’re simple steps to connect mind and body; they’re also easy to modify to suit each person.
Ninety-minute Dance for Parkinson’s classes are open to people with Parkinson’s as well as their care partners and friends. The fee is $5 per class, while care partners participate free.
The Jefferson Healthcare Wellness Center, in the QFC plaza at 1230 W. Sims Way next to Mail Plus, is the place.
On a recent Thursday, two men and four women came to class and started out with some conversation and laughter. Then all eyes turned to Kala, who laughs plenty herself. In her yoga pants, T-shirt and big necklace, she demonstrated a seated sun salutation and the pas de cheval, a move evocative of a graceful equine foreleg.
In a way, these 90-minute sessions recall the ballet classes Kala took as a girl. But they’re much more light of heart, and one man tells a newcomer that they’re like a bunch of kids.
Port Townsend is the only North Olympic Peninsula city to have a Dance for Parkinson’s program. Years ago, classes were taught in Port Angeles, but instructor Kayla Oakes said inconsistent attendance forced her to discontinue them.
To start her weekly classes last February, Kala sought and received a grant from the Northwest chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association (APDAParkinson.org). With that support she was able to bring Johnson in, use the Jefferson Healthcare Wellness Center and take time in the midst of her workday every Thursday.
“The APDA is really supportive,” Kala said, “and the network of Parkinson’s folks is strong.” The monthly support group brings guest speakers each time, she added.
Port Townsend’s support group meets the fourth Thursday of the month at 3 p.m. at Jefferson Healthcare’s Townsend Building at 934 Sheridan St.
In Clallam County, a Parkinson’s support group is open every fourth Wednesday of the month at 10:30 a.m. at the Port Angeles Senior and Community Center, 328 E. Seventh St. For more information, see the APDAParkinson.org site and click on “Northwest.”
Kala’s classes, meantime, are given over to dancing. Each person participates in his or her own style as Kala demonstrates and Johnson plays.
The classroom piano is not great, however. Johnson told the class that she would love to use a better instrument, perhaps a studio piano donated by someone in the community.
“Almost anything would be better than this,” she said.
Kala is also seeking other musicians to join the class. She envisions drummers and percussionists coming in and adding rhythms, to make things even livelier.
Dance for Parkinson’s began in 2000 when Brooklynite Olie Westheimer found out the Mark Morris Dance Center had opened in her community. She pitched the idea of a dance class for people with Parkinson’s — and Morris’ staff said yes. Since then, Dance for Parkinson’s has come to offer classes in more than 20 countries.
In a short video at danceforparkinsons.org, dancers and teachers talk about how the classes help them develop flexibility and new confidence. Movement to music is freeing, and the video’s closing message is simple: The essence of dance is joy.
Kala, for her part, can’t help but share her love for it all.
“It’s super beautiful,” she said, “to come together in this safe space.”
For information, call 360-385-2200, ext. 1223.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.