Dance your cares away with Rachel Balaban


Rachel Balaban and her students /Photos | Irina MissiuroRachel Balaban and her students /Photos | Irina MissiuroBrown University’s Ashamu Dance Studio is still empty as DAPpers, the dance class for the aging population with a special emphasis on movement challenges, doesn’t start for another 45 minutes. The nearby chair is broken, but Rachel Balaban, the regional coordinator of “Dance for Parkinson’s Disease” and the instructor of the upcoming class, doesn’t mind sitting on the floor. In fact, she appreciates an opportunity to stretch as she feels sore from the class she took the day before. It’s important to Balaban to be a student as well as a teacher. Discussing teaching and the class itself, she smoothly moves from one topic to the next, deftly anticipating the looming questions with the grace of a gazelle.

Balaban is back at her old stomping ground. As an undergraduate at Brown in the 1970s, she danced and pursued the possibility of dance therapy as a concentration. Eventually, Balaban figured out that she wasn’t meant to be a professional dancer and chose clothing design, the field she explored for more than 20 years. While working for a sportswear company in New York, her career path was disrupted by her now-husband’s business move to Newport. Caring for an 8-month-old at the time, Balaban sought work on her own terms. She started a successful clothing line, but found design to be isolating. Longing for the social nature of dance, she took advantage of her third daughter’s entrance into school to pursue dance.

In the late 1990s, Balaban joined the Arabella Project, a modern dance group in Providence for mature dancers that Julie Strandberg, professor of Performance Studies at Brown and her teacher, formed along with others. Mingling with dancers, Balaban realized that she wanted to continue being involved in the field. After some expressive movement training at Kripalu YogaDance in Massachusetts, she began teaching novices. The experience left her frustrated, because she found it challenging to keep a core of attendees.

Balaban was introduced to Dance for Parkinson’s Disease, a program that Mark Morris Dance Group started in Brooklyn, and she participated in a workshop that trains sufferers to dance. The idea appealed to her because it allied with her mission to share the power of movement with people. Balaban explains,

“This was a perfect place for me to reach people who want desperately to feel freedom in their bodies that they were starting to lose because of their condition.” Sufferers’ range of motion becomes limited, but dance allows them to forget about the impairment for the duration of the class. Dance becomes more than just a physical aid; it serves as an effective outlet for flexibility, balance and coordination.

Additionally, the benefits are evident on a cognitive level, one that deals with movement sequencing, patterning and memory. Each week, dancers create new neural pathways, enhancing their imagination that’s responsible for creativity, play and spontaneity. Balaban says that classes such as DAPpers are valuable because music has a way of organizing brain patterning. What’s more, the psycho-social aspect is a fundamental reason for the class’s success. Balaban emphasizes the value of belonging, connecting and being a part of something for people who are detached and depressed. She supports her statements with numbers – the adherence rate for these dance classes is 99 percent. Balaban sums up, “It’s a safe place. No matter how badly they might be feeling, once they’re here, they feel better.”

In fact, Balaban became so confident that dance classes for Parkinson’s sufferers are crucial to their well-being that she approached Strandberg about creating an undergraduate course, Artists and Scientists as Partners (ASaP), the result of a research project that’s dedicated to implementing the arts within a holistic healing approach. The idea is for the students to witness the positive effect that dancing has on those suffering from Parkinson’s and autism, patients who – in the future – might be prescribed such classes to reduce the need for medication and physician involvement. Because the second four weeks of the course focus on the role of the arts in healing and on the ways arts enhance the patient-doctor relationship, medical school students participate. DAPpers was made possible with a 2014 grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA) and from a private donor within the class. But the funding has run out and, Balaban says she might have to charge a fee unless the class receives another grant or donation.

Watching the dancers express themselves in the cozy, artistic environment, it’s obvious that they receive a substantial benefit from the class. The atmosphere recalls a family get-together, a gathering of like-minded individuals who are comfortable in front of one another. One of the four Brown student assistants participates alongside the older crowd. Balaban says that the intergenerational aspect and the location of the class allow the attendees to feel like they’re real dancers, creating and inventing routines.

In February, the DAPpers will have a chance to show off their interpretation of a classic modern dance. Like a folktale, the dance will see numerous transitions. First, Balaban will watch the Brown University dance program’s étude. Then, she will modify it for the class. Afterward, the DAPpers will perform it during the ASaP symposium, held in conjunction with American Dance Legacy Initiative (ADLI), on holistic approaches that benefit Parkinson’s sufferers. Finally, Central Falls High School will present its version of the routine. The cycle adheres to ADLI’s mission to preserve, archive and teach modern dance. It also allows the DAPpers to be a part of something bigger, to transcend the boundaries of the class, joining the college and the dance communities.

Staying true to the welcoming nature of the discipline, Balaban insists that the class is open to everyone, including the dancers’ children, grandchildren and caregivers. She says, “I’ve seen incredibly tender interactions. They can be playful during this hour.” Balaban enjoys what she does so much that she feels guilty even saying that she’s working. “What’s so fulfilling is that I’m getting to teach what I love, imparting to undergraduates how to integrate real-world experience with their studies.” Brown students are not the only ones who see how incredibly important the arts are. The dancers are the first to reap the benefits.

Mudge Anderson appreciates the music, the movement and the spirit of the class so much that she’s even willing to put up with “the lousy parking on the East Side” to be a part of this “wonderful concept.” Joyce Colaiace says that being a DAPper lets her feel better both mentally and physically; she’s “noticed quite a bit of improvement.” She too is not deterred by obstacles, explaining that she braved the wind and the rain because the class makes her concentrate on balance and movement. Likewise, Diane D’Errico takes pleasure in being free without embarrassment. She says the class challenges make her feel alive.

Balaban starts the class with “Heavenly Day” by Patty Griffin, believing that the underlying rhythm and the mood the tune evokes are most important. Throughout the class, she tells her students how to move in painterly terms: “You bowl, swoon, make a beautiful figure eight.” As she yells over the music, “Let the torso ripple,” they smile. Despite the presence of classmates, the dancers are in their own worlds, inhabiting the environment they create in their thoughts. Nothing kills the joyful mood. When a worker comes in to fix some broken chairs, Balaban puts him at ease too, “You can dance with us!” And dance they do. Per their teacher’s instructions, they become Olympians, sweepers, “Thriller” dancers. The possibilities are endless.

IRINA MISSIURO is a writer and editorial consultant for The Jewish Voice.