Decades ago, individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) were often told to take it easy. They heard, “Don’t push your body; just sit down and don’t try to get active anymore.” But if you ask Art Sullivan, instructor of the JF&CS Parkinson’s dance group, he won’t hesitate to tell you that “sitting is the new smoking.”

Art was a professional dancer for years, teaching a variety of dance groups designed to enhance the physical benefits of dancing, ranging from therapeutic dancing for cancer patients to dancing for memory disorder. In 2010, he had the opportunity to lead the JF&CS Parkinson’s dance group for the first time, and he’s been choreographing PD-friendly therapeutic dances ever since. Art uses his years of experience to create dances that stretch and test the muscles often focused on in physical therapy, but he puts these movements to a broad range of music that makes each class different and fun.

A few years ago, Art saw Michelle Obama appear on “The Ellen Show” performing her dance to “Uptown Funk.” Art accepted her challenge to get up and get active and applied it to the Parkinson’s dance group. He pared down the elements of her original choreography and taught his class how to dance to the energetic and fun song.

“I think the general population has a complete misconception of what Parkinson’s is. People think of Parkinson’s and they think of that uncontrollable tremor, and that’s all they think of, and there’s so much more to it,” Art said. Art aims to get people active. He believes the worst response you could have to a Parkinson’s diagnosis is to become inactive due to the disease. “We’ve taken videos of people coming into dance class and leaving and then we show it to them, and it’s amazing how they come in dragging their feet, shoulders hunched over, and when they leave their heads are up, their shoulders are back and their feet are coming off the floor.”

In October, Art will be attending an international dance instructors’ convention to teach others PD-designed dances. By sharing his choreography with a larger community, Art is hoping to spread not only the positive health benefits of dance for Parkinson’s, but also the positive social benefits. “By coming to the dance classes, all of the participants have made new friends and they’re countering their social isolation. They’re getting out and circulating again, which is further improving their health,” Art said. People who attend these classes are making connections that carry over to other activities, whether it’s attending Shakespeare on the Common together or meeting up for coffee.

Art is always thinking up new ideas for the Parkinson’s dance group. From the choreography to the songs to new ways of getting their family involved, Art is rarely taking a break from his PD-designed dances. And, as he puts it, “I have the best job in the world, and I have a blast.”

For more information about our Charlotte & Richard Okonow Parkinson’s Family Support program, visit us online.

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