Yes … She Did!

You bet she did! Before she died, Taffy’s last ‘project’ was for Yes…I Can (!) Dance, a class for people with Parkinson’s Disease, their families, and care partners.

Before she died, Taffy’s last ‘project’ was for Yes…I Can (!) Dance, a class for people with Parkinson’s Disease, their families, and care partners.

Yes…I Can (!) Dance brings about positive changes to people with Parkinson’s Disease

Left to right: Instructor Kathryn Karipides, Dr. Karen Jaffe, Instructor Joan Meggitt, Instructor Desmond Davis, Participant Kathy Lopez
Left to right: Instructor Kathryn Karipides, Dr. Karen Jaffe, Instructor Joan Meggitt, Instructor Desmond Davis, Participant Kathy Lopez

BEACHWOOD – It happens to be a dance class that’s perfect for beckoning an energized, rejuvenating trip to Cancun, Mexico – a place full of white sandy beaches, Caribbean Sea waters, and tranquility.

“Now, we’re going to swim through those clear waters,” Desmond Davis tells his group comprised of at least 20 people. He’s one of their teachers, and he leads the way. “All shoulder and back work,” he adds.

Together in unison – joined by their other teacher Joan Meggitt – they extend their arms to form a series of graceful front strokes. Moments later, they switch to moving their arms in big, repetitive, circular motions, to create back strokes.

To increase the refreshing feel, keyboardist Nicholas Underhill fills the atmosphere with calming, dreamy music complete with synthesized, melodious tunes.

“Very nice,” Davis says, as the swimming technique comes to an end.

And then, it’s back to reality. Underhill stops the music for only a brief moment, and, dance class continues in a spacious room enclosed with white walls and large mirrors. That Cancun experience was just a tiny snippet of the type of creative, narrative dance techniques that generally take place in a program called Yes…I Can (!) Dance, a class for people with Parkinson’s Disease, their families, and care partners.

Jan. 12 kicked off the fifth session of the program, and it’s usually held Sundays from 2 p.m. – 3:15 p.m. in the Group Fitness Studio of the Mandel Jewish Community Center. The current session runs until Feb. 23.

The class is designed to alleviate many of the problems associated with Parkinson’s Disease – a disorder that affects more than 1 million people in the United States. PD functions as a progressive degeneration of the nervous system, therefore affecting a person’s movement. Many symptoms of PD exist, including tremors, trouble with balancing, depression, and loss of facial expressions.

But it was the prominent, late, Clevelander Taffy Epstein who – in 2011 – began formulating ideas for a way to start a Parkinson’s Disease dance class in Beachwood after finding out that her friend’s daughter was diagnosed with the disorder.

And that daughter was Dr. Karen Jaffe, who currently works as an OBGYN for University Hospitals. “She had read an article about the Mark Morris Dance for PD group,” said Jaffe about Epstein. “She single-handedly got them to come here and train several teachers.”

Therefore, because of Epstein’s tenacity, Yes…I Can (!) Dance launched in early 2013. Sadly, Epstein passed away in June of 2013 at the age of 92, before having the chance to see the program she started become as effective as it is today.

The Mark Morris Dance Group, located in Brooklyn, N.Y., formed in 1980 and is known as a world-acclaimed dance company. In collaboration with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, the Mark Morris Dance Group initiated its Dance for PD® program in 2001. About 13 years ago when Dance for PD® first started in N.Y., sessions were carried out with just two teachers and six participants. Today, the program successfully operates with affiliates in 9 countries and in 100 communities – including the Mandel Jewish Community Center here in Beachwood.

On its website, Dance for PD® is described as “an aesthetic experience that uses the elements of narrative, imagery, live music and community to develop artistry and grace while addressing such PD-specific concerns as balance, flexibility, coordination, isolation and depression.”

David Leventhal, Program Director and one of the founding teachers of the Dance for PD® program in Brooklyn, happened to be one of the instructors Epstein asked to visit Cleveland about a year ago. Leventhal was instrumental in training more than 40 local, professional dance instructors, teaching them the basics of starting a Parkinson’s dance class.

Now, he’s encouraged to see the launch of the Parkinson’s Disease dance class at the Mandel JCC.

He thanks DANCECleveland, the Mandel Jewish CC, dance instructors, and Taffy Epstein for the success of the class. “The program has already made a significant impact on the community,” Leventhal said. “I look forward to seeing it continue to reach and inspire even more individuals in the coming months and years.”

Yes…I Can (!) Dance is taught by instructors Joan Meggitt, Desmond Davis, Kathryn Karipides, and Heather Koniz. Each of the four teachers attended the MMDG’s training session with Leventhal in Feb. 2013.

Dance classes for Parkinson’s around the world are about creative movement, technique, and fun. However, the one thing such classes are not about is Parkinson’s Disease. They’re not about therapy, either, explains the Dance for PD® program.

Jaffe agrees. “It’s about being able to move and dance,” she said. “It’s about movement, it’s about being comfortable here. This is not therapy, this is about dancing.”

Upon seeing a large dance studio with dozens of chairs and participants positioned to create a widespread circle, it’s easy for one to think very limited creative dancing will soon transpire. Jaffe said that’s how she felt the first time she participated in a Dance for PD® training session with Leventhal in Cleveland last year, before the dance class was officially started at the Mandel JCC.

“I thought, ‘oh you’ve got to be kidding me,’” said Jaffe. But soon after learning a few creative dance techniques, she looked around the room and noticed something amazing. “There were all of these people dancing in a chair. It was remarkable. It doesn’t matter that we’re in a chair.”

That’s just what happened during the first 40 minutes of Sunday’s Yes…I Can (!) Dance session. What seemed to be non-stop artistic dance movement occurred while participants remained in their seats. From the lifting of arms and legs, and the soft curving of spines – accompanied by live music – to the stretching of back muscles and lots of technique to get those hip sockets working, one might as well say it was a total workout.

It wasn’t long before all chairs were pushed aside and the next dance technique was introduced: slow, hip-rolling, Latin dancing.

And finally, the time came to gather for a partner-line dance. Underhill, the talented keyboardist, threw in a jazzy, popular tune familiar to most of us: the Pink Panther theme song. Two separate lines were formed with a space down the middle, as partners faced each other. To give a clearer picture: try imagining a Soul Train Line. Partners took turns walking down the middle, showing off freestyle moves. It was a time of joyous laughter.

Kathy Lopez, one of the participants in the Yes…I Can (!) Dance class, has attended since the very first session. She’s been living with Parkinson’s for about 8 years. “This is a class I would not miss. It’s a very special class,” she said.

Shirley Harris is 90 years old and normally travels several miles from Avon Lake to attend Sunday’s dance class. “It’s a wonderful class. The live music is a big help,” said Harris.

Maxine Stoller has lived with Parkinson’s Disease for 10 years. Like Lopez, she has attended the dance class since its inception. “My experience here has made me younger and healthier,” she said.

And that’s exactly what Leventhal enjoys the most about teaching dance to his students living with Parkinson’s Disease: their enthusiasm.

“It’s an incredible honor, joy, and responsibility to share an art form I love with a group of people who are so eager to learn.  I love introducing a dancer’s approach to movement to people who may experience specific challenges,” he explained. “I’m committed to sharing the full range of dance experience – from ballet and modern technique to Mark Morris repertory, folk dance and improvisation – so that participants become aware of the range of possibilities still available to them.”

As for Dr. Dan Weidenthal, an Ophthalmologist in Beachwood, his story is quite different from other class participants. Though he doesn’t have Parkinson’s Disease, he still chooses to spend his Sunday afternoons with the class. “I came because my wife does,” said Weidenthal, who has attended the program for a while, though unfortunately his wife has stopped attending for medical reasons. “But, I’ve had knees replaced, and I’m limping in here, and walking out. This has helped me tremendously. When I leave here, I’m able to walk up the stairs.”

About the dance instructors, he added: “These teachers are really dedicated. If someone is really impaired, they’ll come over to them, they don’t just ignore them.”

Jaffe and her husband Marc, are the founders of Shaking with Laughter, a nonprofit with the mission of raising enough funding to find a cure for Parkinson’s Disease. She too has witnessed people who – like Weidenthal – leave Yes…I Can (!) Dance in a manner different from when they first show up.

“I’ve seen people who have come here in wheelchairs and with walkers,” said Jaffe. “And by the end of class, they’re not using them.”


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