Stanford Dance Division brings documentary about dancing with Parkinson's to campus

Stanford faculty and students explore approaching Parkinson's disease with intentional movement. Screening of documentary Capturing Grace by a Stanford alumnus is the centerpiece of two days of events during Parkinson's Awareness Month.  

Dancers with Parkinson's disease

David Leventhal, director of Dance for PD, teaches a community class. Stanford’s Dance Division, Dance for PD and the Mark Morris Dance Group are presenting a film about dance and Parkinson’s disease on campus Friday and Saturday. (Image credit: Eddie Marritz)

The tagline for Dave Iverson’s documentary film about dance and Parkinson’s disease, Capturing Grace, is, “There are no patients. There are only dancers.” The quote from a patient in the film underscores the transformative power of intentional movement not as therapy or treatment, but as joyful expression. The line is an invitation to leave your hospital gown at the door and just dance.

Stanford’s Dance Division and the San Francisco Dance Film Festival in association with Dance for PD and Mark Morris Dance Group are co-presenting two screenings of Capturing Grace. The first screening is Friday, April 17, at 7 p.m. in Cubberley Auditorium and the second is Saturday, April 18, at 1:30 p.m. in Cemex Auditorium. The screenings are ticketed but free to Stanford students. The film is the centerpiece of a two-day exploration of the intersection of dance and medicine.

Since his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2004, Stanford alumnus Iverson has been an education champion for the progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects movement. He wrote, reported, directed and co-produced the 2009 PBS Frontline documentary My Father, My Brother and Me, using his family’s saga with the disease as a starting point to explore the larger issues of scientific research, the quest for a cure and the political controversies surrounding stem cell transplants. He also works as a contributing editor for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. People in the Bay Area will know Iverson as the long-time Friday host for the KQED radio program Forum.

Capturing Grace, Iverson’s latest project, is about what happens when the legendary Mark Morris Dance Group joins forces with people with Parkinson’s to stage a unique dance performance.

Iverson discovered Dance for PD while filming his Frontline documentary. “I visited a class and there’s a short scene we included in that earlier film. But I knew when I was there that first time that someday I wanted to go back. Something happens in that dance class. I felt it the first time I was there and I continue to feel it every time I visit a class, with camera or without,” he said. “Something transformative happens that has to do with both the experience of dance and the experience of community.” He observed that people in the class didn’t talk about Parkinson’s much and the goal of the class isn’t to translate dance movement into skills for daily living, like getting up out of a chair or buttoning a shirt. The goal is artistic expression. 

“One thing I’ve come to believe about Parkinson’s is that it’s a disease of subtraction. It takes things from you one by one. And one of the many things I learned from the people in the class is that if you are confronted with a disease of subtraction, you better believe in addition. You better start adding things back into your life. For the people we profiled in Capturing Grace, I think dance helped get them back on the plus side of the ledger.”

When Diane Frank, dance lecturer in the Dance Division, was approached by the San Francisco Dance Film Festival about screening Iverson’s film on campus, she felt a strong sense of alignment and shared purpose with the filmmakers and the dancers in the film. Frank  said she believes that dance is a transformative experience for all and that dance practice serves to build a sense of wholeness in people.

“Dancing is not simply a set of bio-mechanical skills. Dancing is driven by intent; dancing externalizes expressive purpose. Experienced together, dancing creates community,” Frank said. “I want our dancers to see that transformative and generous experience, captured so well in this film.”

Frank easily found enthusiastic campus co-sponsors for the Stanford screenings, crediting the university’s interdisciplinary inquiry tradition and particularly the Stanford medical community’s commitment to exploring how arts practice intersects with medical practice, for both patients and physicians. Frank also found a kindred spirit in Dr. Helen Bronte-Stewart, a former dancer who is now the director of the Stanford Comprehensive Movement Disorders Center, the co-director of the Stanford Balance Center, and the division chief of movement disorders in the department of neurology and neurological sciences. She also directs the Stanford Human Motor Control and Balance Laboratory.

Frank and Bronte-Stewart built two days of programming around the film.

The two screenings are followed by panel discussions and Q&A with Iverson, Bronte-Stewart and David Leventhal, a former dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group and the current director of Dance for PD. The discussions are moderated by Dr. Maren Grainger-Monsen, a physician, filmmaker-in-residence and director of the Program in Bioethics and Film at the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics.

Iverson and Leventhal will give a presentation about the collaboration between the dance company and Parkinson’s patients, the power of art and the intersection of dance and health on Friday at 1:15 p.m. The presentation is in Pigott Theater in Memorial Auditorium and is free and open to the public.

Saturday at 10 a.m., Leventhal will lead a community dance class in Bing Concert Hall Studio for Parkinson’s patients, students and the Stanford community. Participants will have the chance to unpack their movement experiences, and Leventhal will share his thoughts on teaching and his vision for the Dance for PD program over lunch. This event is sold out, but the organizers have a wait list.

April is Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month. Meaningfully, these campus events underscore an increased awareness of the intersections of dance, medicine and the benefits of continuous arts practice. “Dance in community sustains health and provides a way for lives to be continually engaged in motion and continually expressive of the human condition even while challenged by PD,” said Frank.

Bronte-Stewart chronicles the history of Dance for PD by relating that “it started as an idea, was born as an experiment, and has emerged as an innovative global program that has launched in more than 100 communities in nine countries, impacting thousands of people with Parkinson’s, their families, and care partners.” Stanford Healthcare offers Dance for Parkinson’s classes at the Neuroscience Hoover Pavilion.

Frank pointed out that dance therapy addresses all manner of physical, social and emotional imbalance. “Sometimes these needs are extreme, significant or progressive physical disability or disorder, severe depression or autism for example. Sometimes dance therapy is used to enhance, restore or maintain balance, a sense of general well-being, a sense of groundedness, a sense that the body is engaged fully in patterns of movement that restore breathing, complete range of motion,” she said.   

Similar to Leventhal’s career path, Frank reported that numerous Stanford dancers have gone on into professions that focus on the body in some substantial way. They are now primary care doctors, physical therapists, K-12 teachers, dance teachers, and neurosurgeons. “Their life’s work has been informed by their dance experiences while undergrads at Stanford. As dancers, they experienced the body’s sense of wholeness, its capacity to act, to express, to communicate. They carry that sensibility, that focus, into the work of their chosen fields,” she said.

Recalling his own Stanford experience as an English major, Iverson remembers taking a class in Renaissance literature from the late Professor Rob Rebholz. One day in class Rebholz read Ben Jonson’s poem “On My First Son.” “Rebholz was a fabulous teacher and could hold a class in the palm of his hand. And when he finished reading that poem, he looked up and said ‘That’s the best poem that’s ever been written.’ I’ve always remembered that moment. I think it taught me something fundamental about the power of human expression and the importance of doing something as well as you possibly can. And maybe even more, it taught me that when you believe in something, sometimes you have to go out on a limb, you have to be willing to go as far as you can in order to pursue a particular dream.” 

As for Iverson’s Parkinson’s progression, he said he’s doing really well. “Parkinson’s is a very idiosyncratic condition. There’s an old saying that ‘if you’ve met one person with Parkinson’s, you’ve met one person with Parkinson’s.’ Progression varies hugely as do symptoms. I think I got lucky and drew the right card. I’m also fortunate in that the medications work really well for me in controlling symptoms. And I’ve been obsessive about exercise and I think that’s made a huge difference as well.”

Media Contacts

Robin Wander, University Communications: (650) 724-6184, robin.wander@stanford.edu
Diane Frank, Dance Division: (650) 723-1234, dfrank1@stanford.edu