With instructor Cari Coble leading the way, they moved their hands and arms about as if they were maneuvering the strings of a marionette.

 

Then members of Coble’s class — most of whom have Parkinson’s disease — tried to mimic her movements as if they were Alice in Wonderland looking through the looking glass. But there were no wrong moves, no possibility of being lost to a Wonderland rabbit hole, she said.

“It’s all interpretive,” she said. “If you fall in the hole, we’ll come and get you.”

The free dance therapy class is the brainchild of Coble, a dance professor at Jacksonville University who is working toward becoming Northeast Florida’s only certified Parkinson’s dance therapy instructor. Teaching a community class is a required part of the certification process at Dance for PD in Brooklyn, N.Y.

But Coble said she also has other motives: to help two local relatives who have the disease and to show her students there are “other aspects of dance” to consider as careers once they graduate. For her relatives and the community, she views the weekly class not so much as therapy, but opening up “dance arts” to people who might think they are unable to participate.

“Everybody has the right to dance, everybody should be able to dance,” she said. “You don’t have to be good at it. You just have to enjoy it.”

Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. Dance therapy classes allow patients “to experience the joys and benefits of dance while creatively addressing symptom-specific concerns related to balance, cognition, motor skill, depression and physical confidence,” according to Dance for PD.

“The bad thing about Parkinson’s is that your body is acting strange … but the mind is all there,” Coble said. Dance therapy can give patients “more stability in … day-to-day life, even in the first week,” she said. “Having an activity where you’re not focused on what your body can’t do but on what it can do is really beneficial.”

Jay van Gerpen, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic’s campus in Jacksonville, said he was “very enamored” of such dance therapy.

“It’s well-known that patients with Parkinson’s have better functional outcomes with exercise, particularly types associated with movement such as walking and dancing,” he said. “Indeed, exercise has been shown convincingly to decrease the rate of disease progression in Parkinson’s. Dancing has the added benefits of enhancing balance and increasing socialization for Parkinson’s patients. It’s also fun.”

At a recent class in a JU dance studio, Coble and dance student Hanny Mena Smith led a handful of Parkinson’s patients and accompanying friends in a series of exercises. They were accompanied by largely upbeat — but not exhaustingly upbeat — music. They twisted, they clapped, they stretched their arms toward the ceiling and toward the floor. They gestured as if they were pushing, then pulling something with their arms, and flowing-river movements.

When Coble moved a dance barre to the center of the room, they held on and mimicked ballet dancers’ movements.

“Elevate, balance, step up, stretch,” she said. “Rock, step, step, step.”

When “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played, they mimicked the movements of pitcher, catcher and hitter.

“Sliding into home,” Coble said, “may not be the best choice.”

Her cousin, Gail Cobb, 76, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2004. She said the exercises help loosen her up, and the group-setting of Coble’s class keeps her going.

“Exercise is probably the best thing to do with Parkinson’s,” she said. “But it’s hard to get motivated by yourself.”

Class members follow Coble’s movements at their own ability and pace, so some arms may stretch further than others. Some may take more breaks than others. But everyone accepts everyone else’s limits, Cobb said.

“If we all did it perfect, we wouldn’t be here,” she said.

Florence Le Fur, 77, was diagnosed 13 years ago. The class is a bright spot in her life, she said.

“It’s just fun,” she said. “When something’s fun, you want to do it. … When you put music in it, it’s even better.”

Despite Parkinson’s, she and other patients in the class are still alive and kicking, she said, “because we move.”

Beth Reese Cravey: (904) 359-4109