Bellingham is lucky to have a vibrant arts and culture scene in a relatively small community. Whatcom County residents have a plethora of options at their fingertips: monthly art walks, local artists, independent cinema, public art collections, the historic Mt. Baker Theatre and the Whatcom Museum. But what happens when our friends, family or neighbors develop a neurological disorder like Parkinson’s Disease? They should still be able to experience the joy and freedom people feel when engaged in the arts.

Pam Kuntz, a dance instructor at Western Washington University, has created a local community where those living with neurological disorders can participate in the art of modern dance. Here they gain support from others experiencing the same struggles and also enjoy the benefits of relieved symptoms while they participate in class.

The classes, led by Pam Kuntz, are designed to give people a sense of joy and community through dance. Photo credit: Angela Kiser and Juliette Machado for Kuntz and Company.

These classes came to life in 2010 after Kuntz created a dance piece with Jim Lortz and Jo Pullen, called Stories From Jim and Jo. In this performance Lortz shared his story of living with Parkinson’s Disease and Pullen shared her story of living with Multiple Sclerosis. After the performance, Kuntz met Rick Hermann who is living with Parkinson’s. She invited him to participate in an upcoming piece, called In the Context of Life. “After seeing him dance, I was struck by how graceful he was,” says Kuntz. “He’s graceful and poised anyway but when he was dancing, his Parkinson’s symptoms were lessened. When he had the intention of expressing himself through movement, there was an obvious difference. I was intrigued.”

Kuntz and Hermann decided to start a dance class for people with Parkinson’s together. Hermann reached out to Bellingham’s Parkinson’s community while Kuntz researched the best ways to teach dance to those who may have trouble with balance and tremors.

The Kuntz and Company production of “Wrinkles…Grace in Time” brought five women in their 70s and 80s to the stage to share their stories through dance. Photo credit: Angela Kiser and Juliette Machado for Kuntz and Company.

Kuntz and Hermann opened the classes to everyone with movement and neurological disorders in an effort to create a sense of community. By building a large group of participants, their class still feels full and joyful every week, even when some participants are not able to attend.

“Some of the participants have been coming since the beginning and they’re really great dancers,” says Kuntz proudly. “Sometimes they look at me like I’m crazy when I say that, but it’s true. They were not trained dancers before this class but their technique is really solid now.”

Each session (nine to ten classes) is focused on a theme, such as “Circles and Spirals” or “Building of Patterns.” The free, weekly classes are one-hour long and structured like most dance classes. Participants and their caregivers can expect to stay seated for a warm-up that includes movements from modern dance with a focus on strengthening the center of the body. The group comes to a standing position at the ballet barre and practices movements that will form a combination at the end of class.

Kuntz and Company tackles tough topics by sharing stories through dance. “Airings…voices of our youth” spoke about the pressures young people face. Photo credit: Angela Kiser and Juliette Machado for Kuntz and Company.

Music plays an important role in the class as well. Michael Bajuk accompanies the class with percussion and keyboard for the warm up and barre portions. Near the end of each class, Kuntz selects a song tailored to the participants, usually from the 1950s to 1970s, that they’ll easily recognize. “There’s a lot of research about recognizable music from your past,” says Kuntz. “It’s familiar and the beat is already in your body without having to work at it. Their physicality comes alive when they hear a song they recognize.”

“We had one gentleman in class who walked with two canes because his balance was so bad,” recalls Kuntz. “When I would turn on music that he was familiar with, he could walk across the room to the beat.”

In addition to the joy participants experience during class, they’re also gaining strength and feeling valued as part of a community. “I work hard to really acknowledge everyone in the room and make sure they know we’re glad they came,” says Kuntz. She does this to ensure every person in the class knows how important it was that they just showed up for class.

Kuntz and Company offers free, weekly dance classes to people with Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological disorders. Photo credit: Angela Kiser and Juliette Machado for Kuntz and Company.

Kuntz and her dance company, Kuntz and Company, perform modern dance pieces that share stories about the human condition. The topics can be tough for some people to talk about – prisons, bullying, body image and death – but Kuntz feels passionately that audiences can learn about our world and the people around them through dance.

The dance classes for people with Parkinson’s Disease and other neurological disorders are held at Ballet Bellingham. Kuntz and Company provides these classes with a grant from The Janet and Walter Miller Fund for Philanthropic Giving. Past donors have included Chuckanut Health Foundation, Peace Health Neurology and APDA NorthWest Chapter.

If you or someone you know would like to participate, just check the current schedule and show up. There is no need to pre-register.

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