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These Parkinson's patients find relief at the barre


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Now a dance between art and medicine.

Shana Fischer of Arizona PBS of Arizona PBS reports this story, filmed before COVID, for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Shana Fischer: Each step taken by the dancers inside this rehearsal room is a victory, a blow against a disease that has caused their bodies and their minds to betray them.

Marlene Blakeney: My husband died in 2006, and I had become aware of some symptoms at that point.

Shana Fischer: Marlene Blakeney recalls the moment she noticed changes in herself.

Marlene Blakeney: Looking back, my first indicator is that I couldn't use a mouse with my right hand anymore.

Shana Fischer: She says, a few months later, her right leg wouldn't move like her left.

Marlene Blakeney: And I thought maybe I had had a stroke, when I finally went to my primary physician, and she sent me to a neurologist that ran all kinds of tests and diagnosed me.

Shana Fischer: The diagnosis? Parkinson's disease. Not one to feel sorry for herself, Marlene dove head-first into treatment. She was looking for another tool to fight the disease, and learned dance can help ease some of the symptoms.

Marlene Blakeney: It's like saying, I'm taking control. You know, I am taking back this control from the Parkinson's.

Shana Fischer: The class, which meets twice a week, also gives Marlene a chance to interact with other Parkinson's patients, like Ed Coyoli. For Ed, being back in a dance setting is bittersweet.

Ed Coyoli: I love dance and ballet in particular, because my wife and I were dancers, part of us -- a junior ballet in Southern California called San Gabriel Civic Ballet.

And she was one of the young ladies that was in the core. And they asked the two of us to partner each other.

Shana Fischer: They have been married for nearly 50 years. Then, about six years ago...

Ed Coyoli: I woke up one morning in spring, spring morning, and I felt a trembling in my left arm, and I said to myself, I think I have Parkinson's.

Shana Fischer: It took some time to get the diagnosis, but Ed, sadly, was correct. He was one of the 60,000 people diagnosed with Parkinson's each year.

Ed has taken it hard. He says he feels let down by his body, and struggles at times to accept what the future may hold.

Ed Coyoli: I don't feel I'm in control. That's for sure. I know I can't do what I used to do. But I have a passion for it, and I'd rather do it this way, as a dancer and a singer. And those are my two passions. So, I'm using those to fight off or manage this disease.

Shana Fischer: Debbie Braganza is a former ballerina who teaches the class.

Debbie Braganza: They have got to keep moving. That is one very, very important aspect of Parkinson's that they're finding out. It's just as important as the medication, to keep moving.

Shana Fischer: After a warm-up, Braganza launches into fairly complex routines that include dance exercises, like arm movement and footwork. Some of it is done while seated, others at the barre.

All of it is to improve flexibility and strength. One of the biggest issues with Parkinson's is a loss of body control.

Debbie Braganza: Dance class is great, because it's not like a gym class where you're just working your one muscle at a time. Dance takes you in all different directions and moves a lot of different muscles, which they need to move as many as possible.

Shana Fischer: The routines also works their minds. Parkinson's is caused by the death of brain cells that produce dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that carries messages between neurons. As the disease progresses, there is a struggle with memory loss and comprehension.

Debbie Braganza: Their brains are working like mad. They are processing. They are understanding everything that I am asking them to do.

Most of them have not taken a formal dance class. Their average age is 70. And here they are, they find themselves in a dance class. They're learning ballet terminology, which is in French. I mean, it's throwing them into a completely different environment.

Shana Fischer: Braganza is very proud of her students, and hopeful. She takes their victories and setbacks personally.

Debbie Braganza: It's meaningful to me because my father had Parkinson's for over 20 years. So I'm very familiar with Parkinson's.

Shana Fischer: About a year ago, her father passed away. Watching her students has helped her with her grief.

Debbie Braganza: The reward that I see every day is these people coming through class. What we achieve in the room is, to me, almost icing on the cake.

Shana Fischer: And it's a reciprocal relationship. The students see this as the one place where they can forget they have Parkinson's and let go.

Ed Coyoli: I would just say, if you have Parkinson's, I want you to stand up, put one foot in front of the other, and move forward.

And I still believe that. You just have to keep going and not quit.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Shana Fischer in Phoenix, Arizona.

Judy Woodruff: Let's hope they have been able to continue virtually during the pandemic. Wonderful story.

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