The Music and Movement of People with Parkinson’s Disease


Participants of Dance for People with Parkinson’s Disease “reach for the stars” with dance instructors Kate Kuper and Marianne Jarvi at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts on Fri., Feb. 21. Next month’s event will be held on Fri., April 14.

By Stephanie Kim

Gretchen Potter was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 39 — the earliest onset of Parkinson’s disease Carle Foundation Hospital had witnessed at that time. Now, at the age of 66, she said she has found a way to forget she has Parkinson’s at all. 

On the third Friday of every month, Potter meets with friends and community members at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts to participate in “Dance for People with Parkinson’s.” Krannert has hosted this free monthly event created by the Mark Morris Dance Group since 2009, and Potter said she has attended since its beginning. During each session, which runs from 10 to 11:30 a.m. in Krannert’s drama rehearsal room, Potter said she is able to find momentary freedom from the disease.

“People who have Parkinson’s cannot walk, but they can dance,” she said. “It’s the rhythm that gets your body moving, and that’s what the Mark Morris Dance Group found.”

In 2001, Mark Morris Dance Group founded the program in Brooklyn as a monthly session in collaboration with Brooklyn Parkinson Group. Later in 2009, MMDG collaborated with Krannert to offer monthly classes at Urbana, with Kate Kuper, guest lecturer in dance, and Marianne Jarvi, academic hourly, as co-instructors.

The program is geared toward those with Parkinson’s disease, and Kuper and Jarvi said they view their job as a way to alleviate the symptoms of the disease through dance and positive energy.

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“We’re not curing anything; we’re not taking the disease away,” Kuper said. “In the time of dancing, we are lifting the symptoms of that disease.”

During the hour and a half they share together, it becomes more apparent that dance is an activity anyone can enjoy, because “it’s for the whole person,” Jarvi said. 

“Their mind, their body and their spirit are connected,” she said.

For this reason, Beverly Hillmer finds satisfaction and fulfillment in her role as the piano accompanist. 

“I like knowing that I’m creating a space with a sound that people are really comfortable in and enjoy,” she said. “You can feel when people are engaged when the sound is there and people really are enjoying it and listening to it.”

Hillmer began playing for the program because she felt personally connected to and empathized with those who have Parkinson’s Disease. In 1996, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that is often affiliated with balance, vision and movement issues. Her condition became so severe that she could not play a simple scale on the piano for years. However, in early 2001, her body began to recover – a true “miracle story,” she said.

“I know what it is like to have a disease, so I saw it as my payback,” Hillmer said.

But more than dancing, the program has become a place for community, whether one has Parkinson’s or not. For it is not the disease that ultimately unites them, but the chance to feel more “human,” Hillmer said. 

“What makes it special is that the class makes you feel human,” she said. “We’re doing something together with music and movement with the sense of just being with one another and together.”

In the end, the focus isn’t on the disease but the people.

“It’s like your old friends, we all run around in our stocking feet. It’s camaraderie,” Potter said. 

Stephanie can be reached at [email protected].