Veronica Nugent first saw the effect of music on people living with Parkinson’s disease when her father hoisted himself out of his wheelchair and strode across a Texas dance floor to a live rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
That was more than a decade ago, and Nugent’s father has since died. His memory, she said, lives on in her work as a dance teacher for others living with the condition in the Richmond area, where weekly classes attract dozens.
“It’s a special thing. Because I lived far away, I couldn’t help my dad. This is in memory of him,” Nugent said during an interview at Simply Ballroom, her Chesterfield County dance studio.
At the studio on Wednesday mornings, a few dozen chairs form a wide circle of dancers dealing with different stages of Parkinson’s disease. From their chairs, the dancers point their toes, lift their hips and hold up their arms to the rhythm of the music. Dancers and teacher joke throughout the class and warmly welcome late-comers all hour long.
“I can move and retain my control,” said Terry Kyle, 71, who has been attending Nugent’s class for four years with his wife, Louise. “Every Wednesday I look forward to it.”
Louise Kyle, 68, said that after her husband’s first class, he came home swinging his arms to The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira.”
“When he leaves here, he moves with more energy. The exercise is so good for him,” she said.
Parkinson’s disease is a disorder of the nervous system that disrupts dopamine production and limits movement. That can often include tremors, freezing or slowness of movement.
Nugent said the rhythm in music can often help temporarily “unlock” movement in her students and others with the condition, allowing for comfortable exercise.
“It’s not a cure,” Nugent said. “But it’s exercise, mood-lifting. It’s a happy place for a population that can become homebound and lose social connections as the disease progresses.”
Dick Carlton, 75, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s eight years ago and said the draw of the dance class for him is the “fellowship of people” who share his struggles.
Terry Kyle agreed. “I just enjoy being here with other people, because we all have the same problems roughly,” he said.
A southern Texas native, Nugent became a ballroom dance teacher in the Washington, D.C., area in the early 1990s. It was during a visit home that she saw the potential for dance to better the lives of people like her father.
Soon after, she contacted the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., which trains dance teachers to work with students who have Parkinson’s disease, and Lynn Klanchar, who at the time led a local support group for people with the disease. The class launched in 2011.
The class is free of charge to the dancers, and Nugent volunteers her time and studio space. Nugent later helped start a nonprofit to support additional teaching staff, refreshments and other costs called the Richmond Parkinson’s Dance Project.
Nugent said she is working to expand the program in the Richmond area. Earlier this year, a new class launched at the West End Academy of Dance.
“The program has just grown and grown,” Nugent said.