Parkinson’s Patients Find Relief — Through Dance

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Ballet instructor Sara Jo Strickland works with Parkinson's patients to teach them basic ballet exercises as part of their therapy at the Hampton Ballet Theater School in Bridgehampton on Monday. Michael Heller photo

Dance serves as a means of expression and exercise, and offers a sense of community. It can be a challenge, and those inspired to learn may join a class to improve their own skills. When living with Parkinson’s disease, not only is dance difficult, the idea can be disheartening as general movement is the primary symptom of the progressive nervous system disorder. In an effort to empower individuals with the disease and instill a sense of community, Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s Center for Parkinson’s Disease launched a new Dance for Parkinson’s program this past summer with the help of a community collaborator, the Hampton Ballet Theatre School in Bridgehampton.

“Dance for Parkinson’s is a new program this year that is part of a larger program,” says Sarah Cohen, PT, DPT, program manager of the Center for Parkinson’s Disease, who earned her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree in 2007 and is a staff therapist at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.“It is just one of many we now offer. We first started with Rock Steady Boxing in Sag Harbor, and now also have programs at the Parrish Art Museum and are beginning another at the South Fork Natural History Museum.”

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year. Though there is not much research available on the effects of art therapy for Parkinson’s patients, museum programs are interactive and include hands-on activities, which lend to the idea of movement as a form of therapy. Cohen says there is a social component and sense of community, which tends to improve one’s mood in general. “These programs have become such a pivotal point to what we do,” she says.

The Center for Parkinson’s Disease opened in fall 2017 and has quickly grown to add many community-based wellness programs for participants. With a mission of providing information, support and cultural fitness programming to enrich the lives of individuals living with the disease on the East End, the Center has actively collaborated with the community to meet these goals. Dance for Parkinson’s, which launched this past July, focuses on movement skills and techniques rather than the stylized choreography often associated with dance.

The inspiration of the class comes from Dance for PD®, which was founded in Brooklyn in 2001 to empower participants to explore movement and music in a refreshing, enjoyable, stimulating and creative way. It is now offered in more than 250 communities in 24 countries. The program also offers teacher training, which Hampton Ballet Theatre School director Sara Jo Strickland participated in to be able to share her passion for her work in a new way.

“My initial inspiration came from my personal love of dance and how it makes me feel and the positive benefits of dance,” Strickland shares. “Sarah Cohen was the other inspiration. Her passion to help Parkinson’s patients enjoy a better quality of life through movement of all kinds really struck a chord.”

Research shows Parkinson’s patients that exercise move better than those that don’t, which can also be said for healthy individuals. Though the disease is progressive and dance therapy won’t cure it, it can help improve balance, gait speed, mental well-being and overall quality of life. Strickland’s class is open to Parkinson’s patients of all levels of function.

“We start all classes seated and eventually move to standing and traveling around the room,” Strickland explains. “Volunteers, wives, husbands and caregivers also participate to help the participants move seamlessly through the class. It is incredibly inspiring as a teacher to see the patients open up, smile and enjoy the movement and music. It is a supportive community to all involved.”

Classes are free to patients, as are the other offerings at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s Center for Parkinson’s Disease, thanks in part to the community organizations that support the programs as well as public donations. Other classes include “Sing Out Loud,” a therapeutic group singing program hosted at Southampton Arts Center, tai chi, which was developed in conjunction with Suffolk County Department of Health Fall Prevention Program and Stony Brook Trauma Center, yoga in the hospital’s Ed and Phyllis Davis Wellness Institute, and more.

“We started a year ago with five boxers,” Cohen says. “Now we have 50 boxers in Sag Harbor and another 30 in Hamptons Bays. In the programs combined, we have about 100 participants in the Center overall. It’s been outstanding.”

The next Dance for Parkinson’s class will take place on Monday, October 15, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. More information and details to sign up can be found online at

southampton.stonybrookmedicine.edu/services/parkinson-disease.

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