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Ten years of inspiration, research, and hope with DJD's Dancing Parkinson's YYC

Updated: May 22

By Lisa Mackay

Last fall marked ten years since DJD’s Dancing Parkinson's YYC started as a pilot project. It has now become a regular offering and a beacon of hope for those navigating Parkinson's disease. This program turned out to exemplify many of the Rozsa Foundation’s best hopes for funding recipients – it started as an experiment, proved successful, involved partnerships with other organizations, secured further funding, and strengthened and illustrated the impact the arts an have in the community. What better program to highlight, especially as we work to develop a funding stream in 2024 that will focus on partnerships with non-artistic organizations to effect social change.

A Humble Beginning

Dancing Parkinson’s YYC emerged as a pilot program, tailored for adult beginners at various stages of Parkinson's, with no dance experience necessary. That first initiative, which emerged from Dr. Bin Hu’s Ambulosono Music Walking Program at the Cumming School of Medicine/Hotchkiss Brain Institute,  was a one-hour class each week for a nine-week session at Decidedly Jazz Danceworks. Fueled by a mere $1200 from the University of Calgary’s Department of Dance, the program quickly garnered attention, attracting 28 participants in less than a week. The Rozsa Foundation provided funding for this early stage towards essentials such chairs, a keyboard, and an accompanist. Further bolstered by a 2013 SSHRC Partnership Grant lead by Calgary hub Co-Investigator Professor Anne Flynn, the program was firmly established and expanded to two levels of class offered for 38 weeks, with an additional 60 participants engaging at one point in a research study with the University of Calgary.
Vicki Willis, former Artistic Director of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks and currently the Founder in Residence and Choreographer at DJD, and Anne Flynn, now Professor Emerita of Dance at the University of Calgary, joined forces to co-develop the course content and lead the sessions. Their dedication was complemented by three enthusiastic student volunteers from the University of Calgary, from the departments of Dance, Kinesiology, and Neuroscience.

Strengthening the Arts

Not content to merely create this wonderful experience for people with Parkinson’s, Willis and Flynn sought to expand the program by integrating it further into the arts community. In 2015, the program invited five mid‐career dance professionals to participate in an experimental teacher‐training program, based on an apprentice model. The support of the Rozsa Foundation, along with the SSHRC Partnership research funding,   made it possible to provide income for the apprentice teaching specialists and therefore to provide continuity for the program.
The dancers involved in this training were inspired to see how the participants used dance. “Watching the dancers in this program attend class every week to struggle, persevere, excel, and thrive together was a humbling experience that reminded me of why I dance: because it brings me joy,” shared one instructor. “To be able to share that joy with this particular group of dancers, and to see the effect on their social, emotional, and physical well‐being, would bring tears to my eyes at least once a class. I am so thankful to be a part of this community.”
 The same year, One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo Festival presented an hourlong “performance of the research”. Anne Flynn had been doing qualitative research and interviews with class participants, and this was used to create a theatrical production called I Always Look Forward to Tuesdays. A total of 20 cast members performed in the show held at the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer. The program was highlighted in the Calgary Herald, covered by numerous other media outlets, and was a part of the SSHRC  national Art & Social Change research partnership.
Audience members were moved by the performance. “I feel inspired and uplifted by watching these individuals move their bodies and fully engage in living despite any limitations. Beautiful,” said one attendee. “I can see the calmness and the joy flowing through the bodies of these dancers,” wrote another. “The mind-body connections that are being created are life changing. The techniques that people are learning are activities that they can continue to work on at home. The future of people living with Parkinson’s is different, because of this program.”

Filling More Than One Need

The success of the pilot program unveiled not just an interest but a genuine need for dance programming tailored to people with Parkinson's disease. Beyond the physical benefits, participants found a space that fostered camaraderie and social connections.
The program offered a basic introduction to recreational dance, incorporating various styles. Participants learned about warming up, enhancing physical mobility, rhythm, musicality, and engaged in simple dances to boost motor learning, coordination, and movement memory. But what truly set this program apart was the intentional inclusion of opportunities for socializing within the class structure. Spouses, caretakers, and friends were warmly welcomed to participate, creating a full and supportive community.
“The Dance Program at DJD was definitely one of the highlights of my week” wrote a participant. “The dance classes helped raise my mood and I was able to participate in a safe environment and at a level I could manage. I felt I benefitted both physically and mentally, and always left humming a tune and smiling!”
Another participant wrote “The impact of the class on the Parkinson’s community has been substantial. Those of us with Parkinson’s benefit from movement as dance helps to ease rigidity, improve balance, and enhance coordination. The social impact of this work is immeasurable – it completely enhances our wellbeing by providing the opportunity for movement, building confidence in our range of motion, and allowing time to enjoy music and dance with peers.”
The dance class became a platform for genuine connections. Participants found themselves arriving early, eager to engage in conversation and build friendships. The impact extended beyond the dance studio, with participants attending dance performances around the city together.

Pioneering Parkinson's Care and Research: The Unique Harmony of Dance and Science

Beyond its dance program, this project stands out for its unique collaboration involving the University of Calgary, Parkinson’s Alberta, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, Mount Royal University students, federal research support, and internationally acclaimed professional dance company DJD. This fusion of academia, healthcare, and the arts shows the power and potential of including arts in holistic approaches to enhance the lives of those affected by Parkinson's and other neurological diseases.


Dance as Neuroprotection

Dancing Parkinson's YYC has a dual-purpose mission. Yes, it aims to provide a valuable service program for individuals with Parkinson's disease, but it doesn't stop there. The project included an innovative research program, aiming to unravel the mysteries of why dancing in particular holds neuroprotective qualities.
Preliminary studies led by neuroscientists Dr. Bin Hu and Dr. Afra Foroud during the 2013-14 program laid the groundwork for further studies. In 2016, Dr. Afra Foroud presented two papers at the World Parkinson’s Congress and the Society for Neuroscience. The program built a team of multidisciplinary researchers and secured funding for further in-depth studies into the myriad ways dance contributes to the well-being of Parkinson's patients. Current Kinesiology faculty members Dr. Cari Dinn, Dr. Sarah Kenny and Dr. Meghan McDonough are collaborating on several studies to expand our understanding of how dance supports well-being.

Building Bridges between Art and Science

The collaboration between the University of Calgary's research engine, the acclaimed dance company DJD, and Parkinson Alberta or the Hotchkiss Brain Institute is not just about breaking new ground – it's about building bridges. The 2013-14 program was the beginning of a journey where researchers and artists danced hand in hand, exploring the multifaceted benefits that dance offers to those living with Parkinson's disease.
In 2014, Dr. Oury Monchi arrived in Calgary as the first Tourmaline Chair of Parkinson’s Research and Head of the Movement Disorder Clinic at the Faculty of Medicine and expressed interest in collaborating on clinical research through his new Calgary Parkinson Research Initiative (CaPRI). In 2015, the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), along with the Faculty of Kinesiology, joined CaPRI to become formal partners in the Dancing Parkinson's YYC program.
The involvement of these three U of C entities further distinguished the Calgary program and its focus on both service to the participants and research in the fields of neuroscience and exercise. This is a significant contribution to advancing the role of the arts, specifically dance, in the health research agenda.
As the program continues to unfold, the goal now is not merely to gather data but to nurture a culture of innovation and leadership. The unique model, fusing the arts and sciences, has the potential to redefine how we approach Parkinson's care and research, and highlights the potential for arts-centred treatments in a variety of medical ailments.


Confidence in Innovation

Both Flynn and Willis assert that this model holds tremendous potential for innovation and leadership. It's not just about dance steps; it's about the steps towards a future where a deeper understanding of the therapeutic benefits of dance can contribute to groundbreaking advancements in Parkinson's research and care.
It is in this spirit that the Rozsa Foundation is developing a new funding program, which we hope to unveil later in 2024. This new funding is intended to support projects that bring together arts organizations with non-arts organizations to improve or enrich communities in Treaty Seven territory.
As the arts sector reflects on our role in society post-Covid, innovative partnerships that underscore the unique qualities of the arts and their connection to being human need to be explored, and our hope is that this funding will be able to do just that.
The possibilities for impact are as endless as the benefits of arts engagement, especially in bridging division and connecting us to one another. The fields of medicine, business, psychology, social services, and so many more are ripe for an infusion of magic that only the arts can bring. We look forward to seeing what ideas you all have after having seen the results of Anne Flynn and DJD’s program.


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