SF Ballet School Celebrates 5 years of dancing with the Parkinson’s Community

SF Ballet School Celebrates 5 years of dancing with the Parkinson’s Community

“Movement is medicine for people with Parkinson’s” – this mantra is held to be true by Parkinson’s Disease researchers and embraced by the Parkinson’s community.  At San Francisco Ballet School’s Dance Class for People with Parkinson’s, weekly classes are held free of charge where people with Parkinson’s, their care partners, friends, and family members are invited to engage in a practice of expansive movement that incorporates classical ballet technique with social, contemporary, folk, and other dance forms.

Community building is a core tenant of the program and is realized through opportunities to perform class demonstrations at local events, and attend performances and dance educational activities as guests of SF Ballet.  At the end of each class time, space is made to simply chat and support each other.  All these activities have successfully built a community that shares the joy of dance. Last year, SF Ballet offered more than 80 free classes and movement opportunities to experience the beauty and benefit of dance to individuals, support groups, community members, and organizations that work towards improving the lives of people with Parkinson’s Disease.

San Francisco Ballet School PD Class // © Chris Hardy
Cecelia Beam with Parkinson’s Dancers and BRAVO volunteers at SF Ballet School Spring Festival 2019 // © Susanne Johnson
San Francisco Ballet at the Stern Grove Festival © Brandon Patoc
previous arrow
next arrow

SF Ballet School is grateful to the Parkinson’s Foundation and the Kaiser Foundation as well as individual donors who have provided the program financial stability. In 2017 when the Kaiser Foundation granted SF Ballet School an opportunity to provide service to the community, School Director Patrick Armand immediately thought about his late mother, a well-known ballet teacher who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the early 2000s. He knew that SF Ballet School was uniquely positioned with studios, teachers, and pianists to launch a stellar Dance Class for People with Parkinson’s. "Ballet can be concretely beneficial. It’s a fantastic way for people to keep moving — an hour where they can just get away from everything and concentrate on their bodies,” says Armand.

Serendipitously, around the same time, School faculty member Cecelia Beam was making the transition from working full-time in arts administration back to her love of teaching ballet and was invited to teach the classes for individuals with Parkinson’s through this newly formed partnership. “Teaching ballet and dance to people with Parkinson’s has opened me up to a whole new way of introducing people to ballet and dance. I find the work infinitely creative, and I love the dancers and musicians I work with,” says Beam.

At the launch of the program in November of 2017 Kaiser Physicians Neurologist Dr. Rima S. Ash and Physiatrist Dr. Meaghan M. Lynch referred patients to SF Ballet School’s Dance Class for People with Parkinson’s and offered Armand and Beam guidance around the development of the class. Questionnaires collected from participating students at the beginning and end of the first 8-week class series revealed that the SF Ballet School classes offered measurable physical and emotional benefits to people with Parkinson’s. Since then, as the program has continued to develop, Drs. Ash and Lynch have remained close advisors and advocates.

The impact of this program can be witnessed in the personal accounts of many of its earliest participants, one of those being Dr. Ellen Shaffer, a consistent presence in class since its inception and an ardent advocate for people with Parkinson’s. In the spring of 2022 Ellen was co-captain of SF Ballet’s Fundraising Team “Shake Rattle and Pointe” at the Parkinson’s Foundation annual Moving Day event, where she achieved All Star fundraising status. Ellen shared the impact of her experience with SF Ballet’s classes:

I was labeled with Parkinson’s in 2005.  Essential abilities declined gradually but steadily.  Within a decade my mobility, speech and professional and social interactions had almost ground to a halt. Then in 2017 I began classes led by Cecelia Beam at the San Francisco Ballet for People with Parkinson’s Disease! (The class also welcomed Joe, my partner and a lifelong Ballet fan!). I realized that many disabling symptoms of Parkinson’s are often responsive to vigorous, sustained physical movement.  I found that regularly practicing ballet and certain other structured movement systems helped to control my tremors.”

During the Covid-19 pandemic and local shelter-in-place orders, SF Ballet quickly pivoted to continue offering its Parkinson’s classes online and preserve the special community that had been built over the last three years. Even now, as in-person classes have resumed, weekly virtual classes continue to be a popular option for several dedicated students who live outside the Bay Area or have mobility and transportation limitations. One such student is Mari Erlandson from Sacramento who says that her experience in Beam’s ballet class has been “especially meaningful.” She continues, “it has helped in increasing my strength and balance. It is also community-building and fun. I look forward to what continued research will offer us Parkinson's patients, but right here and now, we can always dance and feel much better in doing so. We can resist despair and accept joy. We can resist isolation and embrace community...just by dancing!” In October 2022 Erlandson will join Lead Teacher Cecelia Beam in a class demonstration at the Parkinson Association of Northern California (PANC) Annual Conference.

One student, Richard Wortman, famously said, “I was somehow prepared not to like this class but then I did that first class with Cecelia and afterward there was no way I was not coming back.” These days, Richard diligently executes ballet barre exercises and waltzes with confidence. Recently Richard made a beautiful contribution to the program by drawing the design for new class t-shirts. Another dancer who is regularly in studio and virtual class is Keith Choy who retired from a lengthy career as a San Francisco City Employee. Over time Keith has become very confident and familiar with traditional ballet exercises at the barre and center.  With hard work, Keith has mastered something that vexed him for a few classes – waltzing! “It’s a beautiful thing to see Keith confidently waltz in class,” says Beam.

Richard Wortman and Reza Shahin in class // © Studio Sree
Ellen Shaffer with SF Ballet’s Team “Shake Rattle and Pointe” at Parkinson’s Foundation Moving Day 2022.
San Francisco Ballet School PD Class // © Brandon Patoc
previous arrow
next arrow

There are countless stories of accomplished people in the class who have had to face the reality of living with Parkinson’s. The people who make their way to class are willing to take on the challenge of fighting Parkinson’s, making their best effort to take good care of themselves and live their best lives. That is the spirit that makes being a part of the class so special.

The success of SF Ballet School’s Dance Class for People with Parkinson’s and the rich community it has built is a direct result of the leadership of Armand and Beam, as well as the incredible support of SF Ballet’s dedicated BRAVO volunteers who are essential to making classes happen each week. Volunteers assist in greeting and checking in dancers, setting up the room to receive the students, and helping to ensure safety for all.

“I am so proud of San Francisco Ballet School for making space for this population. Patrick’s support and leadership have helped this program achieve firm footing at San Francisco Ballet,” says Beam. “I am excited to see how this program can continue expanding our connection with community elders and people with mobility challenges in the future. In addition to bringing music, joy, and fun to elders’ lives, dancing also brings movement which we all know has therapeutic value.”

SF Ballet’s Classes for People with Parkinson’s Disease are offered in person on Saturdays, virtually on Tuesdays, and on-demand on a private Vimeo Channel. For more information or to register for classes contact Lead Teacher and Administrator Cecelia Beam at cbeam@sfballet.org.

Patrick Armand (far right) with the SF Ballet School Trainees and Parkinson’s Dance Class – Spring 2022 //© Molly LeBeau