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Taffy’s Legacy Brings Joy

Class brings pride, joy to those with Parkinson’s disease

“Yes … I Can (!) Dance” continues to succeed in Cleveland:

Class brings pride, joy to those with Parkinson’s disease

Dance instructor Kathryn Karipides demonstrates a dance move during the Yes…I Can (!) Dance class at the Mandel JCC in Beachwood.
Dance instructor Kathryn Karipides demonstrates a dance move during the Yes…I Can (!) Dance class at the Mandel JCC in Beachwood.

When Harriett “Taffy” Epstein learned that her friend’s daughter, Dr. Karen Jaffe, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2011, she began thinking of ways to help. Epstein, who owned a nationwide dance boutique, died in June 2013, but during her last years of life was able to help launch the Yes…I Can (!) Dance class at the Mandel JCC in Beachwood.

“Taffy single-handedly got this thing together,” said Jaffe, who worked as an OBGYN at University Hospitals for more than 25 years. “She was absolutely instrumental. She wanted to do this for my mom, since I have Parkinson’s disease, and she was just determined to make this happen.”

The Yes…I Can (!) Dance class is modeled after the Dance for PD program, a collaboration between the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and the Mark Morris Dance Group, an internationally acclaimed modern dance company in Brooklyn, N.Y. After reading an article in a magazine about the Dance for PD program, Epstein called Jaffe’s mother to pitch the idea of bringing the class to Cleveland.

Kathryn Karipides, a professional dancer and choreographer who met Epstein in the 1950s, had also read about the Dance for PD program in The New York Times. She thought bringing the class to Cleveland was a wonderful idea and convinced David Leventhal, program director and one of the founding teachers of the Dance for PD program, to teach a training workshop in Cleveland. With the help of DANCECleveland and Cleveland State University, about 40 local dance instructors were trained during the workshop in early 2013.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder that affects movement. Both the Dance for PD and Yes… I Can (!) Dance programs use dance moves to improve agility, balance and coordination for the participants.

Jaffe admits she was skeptical when she first walked into the training workshop.

“When I first walked into the classroom and saw a circle of chairs I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, I’m going to dance in a chair?’”

But as live piano music filled the air, everybody started to move and dance. By the end, everyone was smiling.

“We were dancing. It didn’t matter that we were sitting down. It was really remarkable,” Jaffe said.

The class, which draws about 15 people, is taught by Desmond Davis, Heather Koniz, Joan Meggitt and Karipides. Meggitt, who was taught by Karipides in graduate school, was invited to be the lead instructor for Yes…I Can (!) Dance. She said the class focuses on flexibility, coordination, range of motion and strength.

“It’s energizing. Anything that is moving the body, particularly in community with other people, really raises the level of energy and focus of the individual,” Meggitt said.

Meggitt added that the program is a dance class, not an exercise class.

“The overriding factor is that this is an art form,” she said. “We want to provide an outlet for the expression of the participants. These are people who want to dance, and it just happens that they’re also living with a very debilitating disease. That’s the connection, but that’s not the focus of the class.”

Karipides emphasized the sense of community that develops in the class through the art of dance.

“Everyone in the class is in the same boat,” she said. “There’s a sense of community and it’s joyous for them. Each week at the very end of class they acknowledge each other and pass a movement along. It’s so heartwarming because this group of people are involved in dance and maybe for just that 60 or 90 minutes they can forget about their Parkinson’s disease. It’s very liberating for them.”

Jaffe, who founded the nonprofit organization Shaking With Laughter in 2011 to fund Parkinson’s research, said Parkinson’s disease can be a very lonely diagnosis, since individuals often try to keep their disease a secret. The Yes…I Can (!) Dance class creates a safe environment for those with Parkinson’s disease.

“People who walk in aren’t the same people who walk out,” Jaffe said. “They walk straighter and leave happy. It’s a really positive experience. It’s about dancing and the movement of dance and how it can affect you and the other people in the room.”

Credit: Cleveland Jewish News

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