Pam Low doesn't plan to let Parkinson's disease stop her from dancing. In fact, she draws inspiration from a Hamilton icon — Jed, the dancing guy, who can often be seen shimmying wildly through the streets of Hamilton with his headphones on.

Jed is known for energy more than form — and Low can relate. "I feel like I can manage to dance like him," she laughed, just after finishing her first Dance for Parkinson's class in Dundas on Monday afternoon. 

'It feels to me like something is being vacuumed from my stomach — like all your energy is being sucked out of you.' —Pam Low, dancer, Parkinson's patient

The Dance For Parkinson's movement started in 2001 in Brooklyn, New York, as a kind of therapy for Parkinson's patients. Since then, it has launched in more than 100 communities in 8 countries. The Hamilton class has been billed as the first to offer ballet to those suffering with the neurological disease, which can cause tremors, intense fatigue and speech problems.

Low was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1998, but compared to some, she says, "I've had pretty good luck — I haven't had times where I was in a wheelchair or anything like that," she said.

But she still feels the direct impacts of the incurable disease. "It feels to me like something is being vacuumed from my stomach — like all your energy is being sucked out of you," she said. "I go through times where for a couple of weeks I can't walk, and I have to stay home."

'Sometimes when I can't walk, I can still dance'

Low says she'd been waiting for a Dance for Parkinson's class in Hamilton for years, based on the positive effects dancing is said to have on the disease's symptoms. "I'm not surprised that dance can help my Parkinson's," she said. "Sometimes when I can't walk, I can still dance. It's hard to explain."

Organizer Jody White says there is an element of serendipity to the positive effects dancers feel — but there is also some hard evidence backing it, too. Dr. Sara Houston from the University of Roehampton in London, England conducted 12 weeks of research into the Dance for Parkinson's program focusing on the ballet Romeo & Juliet. Houston discovered that the program:

  • Helps people with Parkinson's physically, mentally and socially
  • Can help with mobility in the short-term, particularly when there is musical accompaniment
  • Can loosen up the spinal area and help with stability and posture
  • Can encourage a greater reach, focus and projection
  • And a host of other benefits

White has studied ballet her whole life, and more recently studied biomedical sciences and child development. This program is a marriage of two of her interests, she says. "It's that combination of ballet with helping people that spoke to me."

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Close contact was emphasized during Monday's Dance for Parkinson's event. (Adam Carter/CBC)

Participants at the first Hamilton class started slow with breathing exercises and simple stretches. But soon, they were on their feet, learning steps from Coppelia, a ballet the Hamilton City Ballet is currently rehearsing to be presented at the end of May.

"Revised" versions of the ballet's dance steps were offered to the dancers, but few used them. "We're going to challenge our dance students while at the same time respecting their limitations," White said.

The entire experience was emotional for all of the dance teachers, White says. "I think we all had tears in our eyes at different points," she said. "It's humbling as someone who dances."

The next meeting of the Hamilton Dance for Parkinson's class is on May 6 at St. Paul's United Church, at 29 Park St. W. in Dundas. For more information, email danceforparkinsons@gmail.com.