The song Big Spender rings down a corridor during a dance class at Southmead Hospital on a recent Friday morning. There is s a loud exhalation of breath as one move involves participants bending down towards their toes, arms outstretched as far as they’ll go.
This is a special dance class for people with Parkinson’s disease – the only one of its kind in Bristol – with friends and family also welcome to join in the classes which provide an opportunity to chat, stretch and shimmy.
Dance For Parkinson’s is a welcoming environment, free of judgement. “I’ve got two left feet, but I feel safe here because no one minds,” says Tom Phipps, chair of the local branch of Parkinson’s UK. “It gives me a chance to express myself. I love dancing but I don’t get much of a chance to do it.”
During the class one person walks the wrong way, one gets stuck without a partner, and one forgets all the moves immediately. All mistakes are laughed off and encouragement from workshop leader Lerato Dunn is continual.
A community dance practitioner for 20 years, Lerato says she loves her job because of “the power of dance to make people feel better”. Volunteer pianist Ros plays in the corner, singing the beats to keep everyone in time.
The participants have varying levels of ability, with the workshops tailored around their mobility. The movement tests those taking part without stretching them beyond their ability.
“I used to be very active and play lots of football,” Tom says. “If you’re fitter there’s enough to keep you interested, and if you’re not then it’s a good challenge.”
Tom is one of the most active in the class. At one point in a cool-down drama game, we pass around an imaginary present, its form changing as it is passed to each new person. Tom is handed a yapping puppy and he flies with the idea, throwing himself off his chair as if hurrying to catch the dog.
Not everyone is so mobile. Paul’s Parkinson’s has affected his whole body, so he sits rather than stands to The Pink Panther theme tune. Lerato sits with him so as to ensure he doesn’t feel left out or exposed.
Dancing has multiple benefits to the participants. Fresh Arts programme manager Ruth Sidgwick says that Dance for Parkinson‘s helps with co-ordination, balance and stability. Tom explains that it helps muscle memory as well, while Paul adds that it helps with movement and balance.
The classes are very social too. “It is about people coming into a group of people in exactly the same position and not having to explain why you can’t do certain things and having a cup of tea together,” Ruth says.
Tom knew around half of the group before starting classes, but his social circle has expanded as a result.
Chrissie Flenk, another participant says: “It’s a bit of fun and anyone can do it. It’s not just for people with Parkinson’s but carers can come and my best friend comes along with me.”
In the previous week’s session the class did free movement with a feather, allowing freedom of expression with the prop. “We did it to house music, it was fantastic!” laughs Tom. “I was in the zone!”
For more information, visit www.danceforparkinsonsuk.org