• Jeanne Marie

Cindy Surman Creates Home in Dance for Parkinson's Classes

Updated: Feb 27

Watching Cindy Surman march around a studio while teaching her one pm Thursday Boca Ballet Theatre for Parkinson’s Disease movement class could spark joy in even the most cold-hearted. Surman and her co-teacher Dennis Lue truly emanate pure love as they take turns demonstrating and teaching the holistic class.

Surman is been the program director of Boca Ballet Theatre’s Dance for Parkinson’s Disease program, BBT4PD, which offers free dance classes targeted to benefit those with Parkinson’s Disease.

The ballet-focused company and school, located in Boca Raton, Florida, is the only ballet company in the state to have a completely certified Dance for PD program; A certification given by the non-profit group, Dance for PD, founded in 2001 by a collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group in New York City, according to the Dance for PD website.

The nonprofit’s About Us page explains that the program started as an experiment to see if the natural benefits of dance on the mind and body would prove effective and a fun experience for those who live with Parkinson’s.

Dance for PD then grew into a training program, touring the world to teach the comprehensive and welcoming class structure as well as spark inspiration for worldwide articles, programs, and research, according to the page.

The site's research section offers several links to that research, featuring peer-reviewed studies showing the benefits dance classes can have on the quality of life of those with Parkinson’s, such as improvement in anxiety and depression symptoms, memory, balance, and many other motor functions.

It becomes evident in Surman’s classes at Boca Ballet Theatre how these particular symptoms are subtly addressed throughout the class structure.

Each class is taught with two teachers in the room and at least half of the class time seated, says Surman.

BBT4PD Class. Photo provided by Cindy Surman and Boca Ballet Theatre

“We just do all kinds of movements to just really start to breathe together as a class, to start connecting mind and body,” she explains.

Starting with a port de bras to create that breathe, the class alternates between upper body movements and lower body movements, focusing on warming-up the different joints of the body such as hips, fingers, knees, and shoulders, until the combinations mesh for a full-body activity, all while still seated.

Progressively building the movement, the class then has the option to stand up and work on combinations behind the chair or, when still able to be in studio, the barre to provide some supported work before moving to the unsupported center, tells Surman.

She explains that while the class does progress away from being seated, one teacher will always demonstrate the combinations sitting down so those who don’t have as much mobility can fully participate from wherever they’re at in their physicality.

BBT4PD Class. Photo provided by Cindy Surman and Boca Ballet Theatre

However, both teachers do make sure to not draw attention to those struggling or Parkinson’s in general, to create an environment that welcomes the dancers to a space beyond disease; Allowing them to exist in a place where positive escape, presence, and enjoyment fill the room.

Once standing, the group will work on some choreography, traveling exercises, and pattern work, often getting a little silly, explains Surman.

BBT4PD Class. Photo provided by Cindy Surman and Boca Ballet Theatre

“We try to impress upon them that we’re not trying to treat them like children. We’re just trying to bring the fun back into people’s lives,” says Surman.

She tells that previous to the spread of COVID-19, classes were an hour and a half, had live accompaniment, two teachers, an assistant, and several volunteers to give some quiet, individualized attention to those in need of assistance.

Now the classes take place using the platform Zoom where, unfortunately, they’re not able to work with volunteers, are unable to have live accompaniment, and both themselves and the dancers are working in their smaller, home spaces, says Surman.

The effects of COVID-19 were not all bad, however, she says.

“It is incredible because the access has exploded,” says Surman, “You just find creative ways to keep them engaged.”

Surman and her co-teachers always encourage safety at every step of the class since they cannot assist physically, still provide traveling exercises that encourage participants to move around their rooms and houses, and take the time to visit with the students before and after the physical class begins.

Surman also explains how supportive Dance for PD has been in the transition to the online platform.

“We have had multiple opportunities to, you know, Zoom together with them and talk about, okay let’s talk about the challenges of the Zoom platform,” says Surman.

She tells that Dance for PD has been able to research the efficacy of the classes taking place on the Zoom platform and found that they are still effective in benefiting the dancers.

“There is proof that this can help physically, it absolutely can keep them moving and help them with balance issues and also there’s proof that it can improve the quality of their life because they’re gathering and they’re seeing their friends in their little (Zoom) boxes,” says Surman.

Upon entering the Zoom room, it is apparent that Surman is not exaggerating when she says that the class has become a family.

She and Lou welcome every student by name, all of the movers are interacting before and after class, and the seemingly cold virtual screen becomes warm and welcoming, and everyone begins to move together.

Want to keep BBT4PD and Dance for PD moving?

Donate by visiting https://www.bocaballet.org/individual-giving (BBT4Pd) or https://danceforparkinsons.org/supportus/join-us-2 (Dance for PD)

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