Two Memphis Dancers Help Parkinson’s Patients Rediscover The Joy of Movement

This month, Ballet Memphis is celebrating the one-year anniversary of its Dance for Parkinson’s program. Taught by Julie Marie Niekrasz and Kristen Osborne Lucas, this creative, gentle movement program is designed for patients and their care partners. Both instructors, who are accomplished career dancers, completed Dance for Parkinson’s Training and were certified at the Mark Morris Dance Center in New York City before bringing the program to Memphis.

A colleague introduced Julie and Kristen knowing they had the common goal of teaching Dance for Parkinson’s. Around this time, the new Ballet Memphis facility in Midtown had just been built.

Julie says, “I learned about the program and saw it as a way to share what I know and love. I love dance and I love moving. Helping people who rely on movement get through their day is one of the best ways I can use dance.”

“It isn’t just ballet,” Kristen adds. “Our program is more accessible. We incorporate a lot of styles: tap, modern, jazz, musical theatre, improvisation, props, and all sorts of music. Most of our dancers came of age during an era of great music. When I play a Roy Orbison song, they light up. We also include their care partners at no cost. That might be a spouse, a child, or a best friend—whoever brings them to the program. This way every dancer has a built-in support system from day one.”

She goes on to explain, “Parkinson’s is a movement disorder. There is a natural, innate connection between what a dancer does every day in training and what a Parkinson’s patient needs to do to maintain: balance, coordination, posture, strength, stamina, and flexibility. Dancers have to constantly work on those same things, so it’s a beautiful, natural relationship.”

Julie and Kristen call their students “dancers” and not patients and don’t consider it a form of therapy. They say the benefits extend beyond movement because their dancers have become a close-knit social community. They get to leave their Parkinson’s at the door, and the class includes a lot of laughing, so it doesn’t feel like a workout.

“We’re trying to help each and every person find joy in their movement again. Our dancers tell us that this class is their favorite part of the week. Of course, we encourage them to add other programs to their fitness routine as well.”

Julie and Kristen say their primary goal is to get the word out and make more people with physical challenges aware of the benefits of group exercise. “Parkinson’s,” Julie says, “Is a very isolating disease. The best thing a patient can do is to find a community.”

Julie and Kristen now have 11 regular students. They say 20 would be an ideal sized class. They are also working to bring the program to other Memphis area locations.

Dance for Parkinson’s meets every Friday from 10-11 am at Ballet Memphis at 2144 Madison Ave. The first class is free, and each following class is $10. Care partners are tuition-free. For more information about this nationwide program, visit Danceforparkinsons.org

By Caroline Sposto

Photos By Philip Murphy

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