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Nutcracker-Inspired San Francisco Ballet Class Brings New Hope To Parkinson's Patients

By Ken Bastida & Molly McCrea

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- Next Wednesday, the San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker returns to War Memorial Opera House to celebrate its 75th anniversary.

In 1944, the SF Ballet was the first in the United States to perform a full version of the much beloved holiday classic.

Now, a new class of dancers is inspired by Tchaikovsky's music. But, instead of defeating the Mouse King, they are fighting against a serious degenerative neurological condition.

The dancers are not professional, they're all individuals who are living with Parkinson's disease, or PD for short.

About 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with PD each year. The disease is chronic and progressive.

"It affects those nerves of the brain that controls our movements." explained Dr. Meaghan Lynch, who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco.

With PD, the body gets slower, smaller in movement and becomes more prone to falls. There's shaking, muscle stiffness along with difficulty in walking, balancing and coordination. While medications can help, there is no cure.

But there is ballet. KPIX 5 visited a special class held for PD patients at the Ballet School and saw dozens of patients, family members, ballet dancers and volunteers.

The class is modeled after an internationally acclaimed dance program for PD patients known as "Dance for PD."

In San Francisco, patients hear about the class from friends or get a referral from their health care provider.

Those who sign up are encouraged to bring their loved ones.

"It's good if the spouses or caregivers come, too. So we were a packaged team there." said patient Steve Krieger

Former ballet dancer and instructor Cecelia Beam teaches the class.

"It's about big movement and to really emphasize large movement and ballet really lends itself to that," said Beam.

School Director Patrick Armand brought the program to the SF Ballet three years ago.

His late mother Collette--herself a dancer and instructor--died from PD. He remembered how helpless he felt watching her struggle with the illness.

"That was a huge shock when she got diagnosed with (PD) at a very early age. When she was in her late 50s, she got diagnosed with Parkinson Disease." explained Armand.

He later learned how dance could help patients and became determined to help others.

"Ballet is really helping you in a physical way." said the French-born Ballet School director.

As to whether there is proof that dance can confer a benefit, just ask Dr. Lynch.

"Absolutely!" exclaimed the doctor, who was once a ballet dancer herself.

More than 38 peer-reviewed studies point to the benefits of certain kinds of dance, such as the tango or foxtrot, for patients with PD.

"This dance class with the Parkinson's patients at the San Francisco Ballet was really one of the first of its kind," explained Dr. Lynch.

While ballet has not yet been rigorously studied, the patients in the class are convinced.

"It is a workout. It's very beneficial and makes a difference that medicine and pills don't make," said patient Ellen Shaffer.

"I'm sure I can stand on one leg longer than I could before I started," said Krieger. His wife Arlene chimed in, saying that balance is so important.

The dancers said they felt connected to their bodies in a positive way as well feeling connected to others as well as less isolated.

"The social aspects of it are undeniable," noted patient Joe Engelman.

Toward the end of the class, young dancers from the Ballet School performed two pieces from the Nutcracker: the Spanish and the Russian dance.

Then the kids got a treat in return. The patients, family and staff performed in front of them. The students responded with a rousing applause.

"It's really nice to see them enjoying ballet as much as we do." said ballet student Pemberly Olson.

The class ended with everyone holding hands, in a huge circle, as patients, staff, volunteers and student dancers bowed to each other and said, "Goodbye," until next time.

And there will be a next time. The class is offered a few times a year. Kaiser Permanente provides the funding to have the class available for free to individuals with PD. Registration is required.



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