The Indian dance company empowering people with Parkinson’s disease

Exercise, including dancing, can help to preserve and improve movement, mental health and cognition

Hrishikesh Pawar dancing at the Hrishikesh Centre of Contemporary Dance in Pune, India
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Kurtkoti was never a regular dancer. But now, at the age of 76, he and his wife Sarojini enthusiastically make it to a dance session three times a week.

He is one of many senior citizens who attend the Hrishikesh Centre of Contemporary Dance in Pune in Maharashtra, western India, mastering dance steps that are an amalgamation of ballet, Kathak and jazz. Like Kurtkoki, many of the dancers have Parkinson’s disease.

Hrishikesh Pawar, a dancer and choreographer who lives in Pune, has been running these free dance classes at his centre since 2009. Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects how the brain communicates with muscles in the body. Symptoms include involuntary tremors, slowness of movement and stiff muscles.

“I was born and raised in a traditional Marathi family, where dancing was not considered a profession, but my school had very good extra-curricular classes, where we competed in theatre, music and dance. While I was in college, I started taking interest in dance and theatre and this led to me starting my Kathak classes. I was the only boy among female dancers and classical dance gave me discipline and confidence,” Pawar says.

In 2005 he was invited to join a dance teacher training programme in Dresden, Germany. In 2007 he returned to India, wanting to combine his experience in modern and traditional forms of dance by starting a dance school. He started the Prayathna Film and Dance Festival in Pune in 2008, something that has gone on to become a platform for people from all over the world to perform modern and contemporary dance.

“It was at the first festival where we screened Why Dance for PD by the Mark Morris Dance group in Brooklyn, who had started offering free classes for Parkinson’s disease patients,” he says. “Some senior citizens from the Parkinson’s Friends Association in Pune were part of the audience and they requested a special screening for their members.”

More than 300 senior citizens saw the film in April 2009, and it was at that point that Pawar thought of starting special dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease.

“I collaborated with doctors at a local hospital, Sancheti Hospital, and asked them to host a few sessions, as I also had access to neurologists, therapists and specialists to understand how to deal with people with cognitive disabilities,” he says.

He started a pilot programme for three months with three classes a week, starting off with as few as three patients in his class. He later moved the classes to his dance studio, and slowly but steadily the demand for the classes picked up. Now he has evening and morning sessions and has taught more than 1,000 people.

“Besides the benefits of the movement, it’s the socialising that participants most enjoy, and the opportunity to meet other people like themselves, and that is good for them,” Pawar says.

“Many are initially scared or anxious to go outside their homes, because of their condition, which is physically challenging and they are wary of how people will react to them. I have students who travel for over an hour to be at our dance classes, and we even continued on Zoom during the pandemic.”

Dance therapy has been shown to benefit patients with Parkinson’s disease in numerous ways. A research paper published by Gammon Earheart says that dance-based balance training has been shown to be successful in improving balance in elderly individuals and dance could also enhance their strength and flexibility.

“There is plenty of evidence now to suggest that exercise of various kinds can help with preserving and improving movement, mental health and cognition in the elderly. In Parkinson’s disease, tremors, stiffness and slowness are the cardinal features as also are problems like falls, forgetfulness and depression,” says Dr Ennapadam S Krishnamoorthy, a neuropsychiatrist and founder of Buddhi Clinic in Chennai..

Shobhana Tirthali and her husband Gopal Narayan Tirthali (who has had Parkinson's disease for more than 20 years), are associated with the Parkinson’s Friends' Association and started taking the classes online during the pandemic because they live far away from the dance school.

“My husband looks forward to these classes and is able to participate for the full hour. There was a time he could not walk and used to sit on a chair and still try some of the movements. We also try and participate in the annual events that the dance school holds,” Shobhana says.

“It is a great initiative and we are proud to be associated with it.”

Updated: June 09, 2023, 6:02 PM