March 13, the Dance for PD program in New York City offered its regular 11 a.m. Friday class to 25 enthusiastic participants at Ballet Academy East. That evening, we officially suspended all in-person programming in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
For the past 19 years, Mark Morris Dance Group has been welcoming people living with Parkinson’s and their families to experience the joys of dance in creative, musical and social environments, first at its Brooklyn headquarters, and as of March 13, in nine class locations all five boroughs of New York. On March 14, we entered a new reality.
When we suspended programming, we took two actions right away: we opened our archive of recorded classes–usually behind a membership wall–to everyone, for free, on our website; and we began offering free community classes via Zoom, first three a week, then seven and currently 12, including two levels of Dance for PD, Dance for PD en Espanol, Sing for PD, meditation, yoga and Pilates, all offered specifically for people living with Parkinson’s.
More than 600 people from all over the world tune in and dance with us each week on Zoom, with another 2,500 utilizing our pre-recorded videos. After class, we utilize Zoom’s breakout room feature to foster small group discussion and support. But our program team always asks ourselves the same questions at frequent intervals–as well as we think we’re doing, who is not in the room? Who is not being served? How can we do better? Due to stay-at-home orders, a number of our participants were completely isolated. They didn’t have computers or internet service, and they were now lacking the social support that our live classes had provided until March 13.
We had to act. For some time, I had been following the field of audio description–the skill of transforming the details of live performance for the blind and visually impaired. A number of theaters around the world are providing this service for audience members. Even though we are not trained in this technique, I realized that we could use the fundamental elements of audio description to provide a Dance by Phone experience for members of our community who were, quite literally, cut off from the virtual world and were hungry for some kind of somato-artistic journey.
Over the course of a week in April, I recorded a series of dance activities with clear, open-ended verbal prompts set to music from Dance for PD’s late music director William Wade. Each activity was under three minutes–the amount of time our VOIP phone system would allow on an out-going message–but each felt like a complete dance and established a creative space that I hoped would bring focus, artistry, comfort and enjoyment to anyone with a phone. I uploaded these recordings to our virtual phone service–each with its own extension number–so that people could select which dances they’d like to do. Over the next week, we watched as calls came in from New York City but also from around North America (the phone service uses a toll-free number for the US and Canada so there’s no charge for the caller). Combined with our live phone-in support groups, we felt like we’d found an imperfect but practical creative liferaft for our community–a way to dance your way, on your schedule, with a basic telephone.
As with many innovations during this time, our Dance by Phone resource is here to stay, even when we go back to virtual classes. We plan to continue to add content, and to create a parallel menu for the millions of Spanish speakers in the US. With Dance by Phone, creative wellness is now just a phone call away.
Photo credit: Amber Star Merkens
Program Director, Dance for PD®