Teacher’s passion for dance benefits Northland residents with Parkinson’s diseaseThe dance class Jessica Roeder has been leading most Fridays since January in Duluth is like any other, in most respects. Students start slowly with stretching exercises and work their way up to more complex moves. But there is a difference. This is Parkinson’s Dance Studio.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Jessica Roeder faces her 11 students in a sun-drenched, spacious room.
“A little plié, and up,” she says.
The students bend their knees and lift their bodies as best they can. Most have one hand on a ballet bar; Joyce Riggle, 75, has another hand on her walker. Earl Austin, 82, watches from his wheelchair, following the motions with his arms.
The dance class Roeder has been leading most Fridays since January at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Duluth is like any other, in most respects. Students start slowly with stretching exercises and work their way up to more complex moves during the 75-minute session. Their dances range from ballet to flamenco to folk.
But there is a difference. This is Parkinson’s Dance Studio in Duluth. The dancers either have the nervous-system disorder that causes tremors and hampers muscle movement, or they are spouses and friends of people with Parkinson’s.
“It’s relaxing and challenging at the same time,” said Riggle, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in April 2004.
The class had its genesis in an e-mail and a chance encounter at a wedding.
Roeder returned a couple of years ago to the love for dance she developed as a teenager. Now in her 40s, she found she couldn’t do everything she did when she was younger. She also found it a richer experience than before, and one she wanted to share.
“I just realized I wanted people to know that they could dance,” she said.
That general notion became specific around Christmas 2010, when someone e-mailed her a link to a “PBS Newshour” feature on a Dance for PD (Parkinson’s disease) class offered by the Mark Morris Dance Group. The Brooklyn, N.Y., studio is considered one of the top modern-dance studios in the country. It’s also the founder of Dance for PD.
For Roeder, the video was more than inspiring.
“Immediately, that very night, right away this was what I wanted to do with my life,” Roeder said.
Joan Setterlund also knew about Dance for PD, and she was interested from a different perspective. The Duluth woman, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s four years ago, dreamed of a similar class here, but she thought it unlikely.
“I always thought, ‘It’ll never happen in Duluth,’” Setterlund said.
The women were introduced at a wedding and quickly discovered their mutual interest. Roeder already had attended training in Brooklyn in May 2011. The two attended another training session together in the Twin Cities.
Finding an appropriate space for the class was a challenge, Roeder said. But the Unitarian Universalist building on College Street proved ideal. With underground parking and an elevator to the area where the class meets, it’s accessible to people with Parkinson’s even in winter, she said.
For Setterlund, 62, who attends with her husband, Jack, the class has been what she hoped.
“We just have such a good time,” she said. “It’s a real feeling of support. I get a little teary-eyed when I talk about it because it’s one place that we can go, those of us with Parkinson’s … where we don’t have to worry if we’re shaking, or if our feet are moving. We don’t have to explain to anybody.”
The class begins with everyone seated in chairs in a circle. Roeder’s husband, David, sits to her left, helping to model the motions.
After about a half-hour of that, the chairs are pushed aside and the portable ballet bars brought out. Everyone is encouraged to participate in the way he or she can, even if requiring a wheelchair or a walker. On a recent Friday, this segment is devoted to a portion of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” Then a flamenco is danced in pairs.
“It’s either love or it’s battle with flamenco,” Roeder tells the dancers. “It’s up to you.”
They’re in a circle again at the close, bowing gracefully to one another to the music of Pachelbel’s “Canon.”
As the group slowly scattered, Catherine Koemptgen, 66, reflected on why she participates as a volunteer.
“Three of the people here are good friends of mine, and the others are becoming friends, and I’m here to support them,” Koemptgen said.
The weekly dance session serves as a catalyst for her friends, she said.
“As soon as (Roeder) puts the music on, the group changes,” Koemptgen said. “There’s an energy, and you can feel it.”
Austin began using a wheelchair only recently, he said, and that’s not related to the Parkinson’s he was diagnosed with eight years ago.
“It’s fun getting together with other people,” said Austin, who has been in the class since the beginning. “It’s a good group of people.”