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Dance therapy at Columbia College and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Movement therapy brings Parkinson’s sufferers relief and smoother moves.

Photograph: Katsuyoshi Tanaka
By Zachary Whittenburg |

At 1pm on a Thursday, Hubbard Street dancers are in a second-floor studio with Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal exploring the limits of flexibility, strength and stamina. Directly below them, sufferers of degenerative nerve disorder Parkinson’s arrive for a free, special dance class offered twice weekly that’s designed to alleviate pain and help them maintain control over increasingly uncooperative bodies.

Four years ago, an article in Neurology Now magazine about a New York dance company’s Parkinson’s program grabbed the attention of chiropractor Brian Fuller. Fuller showed the article to his wife, Sarah Cullen, who had just started her last season as a Hubbard Street company member.

Cullen flew to NYC to observe the project and returned convinced Hubbard should launch its own. Although she and program codirector Kathryn Humphreys say the class draws participants ranging in age from early-fifties to mid-eighties, this therapy is for some a first exposure to dance.

Movement technique Gaga, Cullen says, is “particularly influential. What we do in class is definitely informed by my experience working with [choreographer] Ohad [Naharin], although we do other types of dance as well.” Eyal explains that in Israel, Gaga is taught in twin programs called Gaga/dancers and Gaga/people. “It’s the best way to train any body,” she says. “Hard work, but coming from a natural place, not about pushing but about letting go.”

Cullen and Humphreys are in talks with Susan Imus, dance movement therapy and counseling chair at Columbia College, about ways Hubbard’s program can help the researchers in her department.

One of those researchers is Kris Larsen, who is driven toward movement therapy for the same reason he left a predental track years ago at UIC.

“No one really told me that a dentist with Tourette’s probably isn’t a good idea,” Larsen says with a laugh. “Most patients are a little afraid of their doctor anyway, let alone someone who might twitch with a drill in his hand. But it goes away when I dance. No one really knows why, but we’re trying to find out.”

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