Parkinson’s and dance: Melanie Brierley’s story

Published: 7 Feb 2019

Parkinson’s and dance: Melanie Brierley’s story

Dance practitioner Melanie Brierley travelled to the USA in 2014 and 2015 to research the benefits of dance and movement for people with Parkinson’s disease. Her findings have helped her to develop her own practice and to offer new opportunities for people with Parkinson’s to enjoy the benefits of dance.

The journey

Melanie is a founder member of Dance for Parkinson’s Partnership UK, a voluntary organisation providing opportunities for people with Parkinson’s to dance. In 2014, the year she was awarded a Churchill Fellowship, she had been delivering dance classes to people with Parkinson’s for five years.

“A diagnosis of Parkinson’s can dominate a person’s perception of their life, as well as other people's perceptions of their life. Dance provides a way of shifting these perceptions. Some people find they enter a class with restricted and rigid movement, and leave moving with more coordination or fluidity. But what is most notable is that people leave class in a much better mood. They are smiling and laughing.” – Melanie Brierley

Below: Melanie Brierley

Melanie Brierley

For her Fellowship, she travelled to the USA to meet with leading practitioners in this field. A highlight of her trip was spending three weeks in California with John Argue, the creator of ‘The Art of Moving’, an innovative style of dance practice for people with Parkinson’s. This involves precisely taught movements that are applicable to both creative dance material and everyday activities. Melanie encountered people who had attended Argue’s weekly classes for many years and said that they relied on these sessions to get them through the next week.

The results

The practices that Melanie witnessed on her travels have greatly influenced her own work. She has developed her own brand of dance classes for people with Parkinson's, called ‘PD Flow and Connect’. An important element of these classes is exploring a sense of movement flow through weight transition and by slowly building movement momentum during class. The relational field between people is also apparent, with these connections providing a means of enhancing personal and community growth. Connectivity is also explored throughout the body, and in relation to the surrounding space, so that movement flows from outside stimuli which are then internally perceived as felt experience.

Engaging in four years of research with a studentship from the University of Roehampton, Melanie has developed one-to-one dance sessions in people’s houses as ‘Home Performance’. In these sessions, she has been particularly influenced by John Argue’s emphasis on developing movement to support everyday activities, and this has helped her to tailor sessions to each individual. Each session is co-created, meaning that both Melanie and one to one participants create new movement ideas and solve problems together, thereby supporting self-efficacy in people with Parkinson’s.

Below: Melanie holds a one-to-one session with Robert Hey on Silverdale beach, Lancaster

A one-to-one session on Silverdale beach, Lancaster

“With one-to-one classes, I'm able to focus entirely on one person. This means that I can notice subtle changes and responses to movement, and find out more about each person, such as their goals, and their likes and dislikes with regards to movement and music.” – Melanie Brierley

Melanie has seen these one-to-one sessions stimulate people’s creativity. One participant, Robert Hey, has taken up poetry, art classes, tai chi and yoga since he began working with her. Importantly, these classes can reduce isolation and loneliness for people who are unable to leave their house to attend a group session.

Through her dance and health business, Conscious Bodies, Melanie also works with people recovering from Stroke or living with Dementia, Muscular Dystrophy and Multiple Sclerosis. She is the lead dance artist at Pioneer Projects in North Yorkshire, where she delivers weekly classes and training whilst working alongside visual artists in projects such as ‘Bridging the Gap’, a three-year Big Lottery-funded programme located in care homes.

Melanie is a member of Dance for Parkinson’s Partnership UK’s advisory group, whose role is to direct the development of high-quality dance classes throughout the UK. Her Fellowship has enabled her to bring new perspectives to the group’s work and to help ensure that a range of practices are available for people with Parkinson’s who want to engage with dance.

Top picture: Melanie leads a session at the Lancaster Parkinson's UK group

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