After her career as a professional performer came to a close, Emily Pozek, a dancer in residence at the University of Florida, said she found a new way to continue her passion for dance by starting UF’s Dance for Life program.
“I really just found my calling,” Pozek said. “I have always loved dance and knew I wanted it to be a part of my life. Now, I am able to use something I love so much, and everything that I have learned as a dancer, to help another community of people.”
Dance for Life, a 16-week dance program taught by Pozek, provides weekly dance classes to people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and their significant others with the goal of improving participants’ basic coordination and range of motion.
Offered through the UF Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration and the UF Center for Arts in Medicine, Dance for Life classes are taught Mondays at the McGuire Theatre and Dance Pavilion from 1 to 2:15 p.m. and Wednesdays and Fridays at the Senior Recreation Center, 5701 NW 34th St., from 2 to 3 p.m.
Pozek said each class begins with dance sequences geared toward stretching, twisting and aerobic movement that can all be done while seated in chairs.
“Starting in the chairs is really important because a lot of people with Parkinson’s disease have a harder time walking or moving,” Pozek said. “We start the classes in chairs so that everyone can participate.”
John Wright, a Dance for Life program participant, attends the class three times a week and said that this is his favorite part of each class.
“The class is a good way I can exercise,” Wright said. “The like the stretching exercises best. They are set to music, and they help make the rest of the movements easier.”
After about 30 minutes of dancing in chairs, participants go through a dance sequence that helps them stand up from the chair, she said.
“This is really important because it can be applied outside of the dance studio and implemented in real life because we get up and out of chairs all day,” she said. “People with Parkinson’s disease have range of motion issues where they have a hard time getting up from chairs. We applied a dancer’s view on it and used dance techniques to help them stay balanced as they get up and out of the chair, which translates beautifully into their daily lives.”
Once participants are standing, Pozek said they proceed to the ballet bar where they go through a series of exercises, such as plies and tendus, and then finish the class with an activity that changes on a weekly basis.
“The reason [dancers] study ballet is because it promotes very good posture and alignment, which is important to maintain throughout your life, especially as you age,” she said. “This series is especially helpful for the participants because it really helps with balance and coordination.”
Pozek is assisted by volunteers, such as Samantha Saffer, 19, who helped with a dance class as part of her work with Alpha Epsilon Delta, UF’s pre-health honor society.
“I thought the class was a ton of fun, but I actually found it really challenging,” Saffer said. “The positive atmosphere allowed me to just be silly and have fun while learning the routines, and the participants enjoyed the upbeat environment as well.”
This atmosphere is a unique element of the program, Pozek said.
“We have a patient who said she went to a Parkinson’s disease support group, and she said it was awful because all they did was talk about how awful Parkinson’s is,” she said. “In our class, we don’t really talk about Parkinson’s. They know that it is a safe place if they want to talk, but we talk to them as if they are dancers and as people.”
Michelle Smith, 19, who volunteered with Saffer, said she found the class enjoyable because of the influence it had on the participants.
“I noticed during the class that the more severe patients were able to control the shaking and twitching to a point, which was incredible to watch,” Smith said. “I think that activities such as dance are wonderful for patients with conditions that are a physical ailment because it helps them gain some control over their body, even if it’s just for a short time.”
Saffer said patients are also able to benefit mentally from the program.
“I think dancing goes far beyond just working on mobility and joint movement and works on the mind of participants as well,” Saffer said. “Dancing is definitely therapy for the mind. The class gives patients something to look forward to and allows them to see improvement in themselves.”
Consequently, Pozek said that the participants are not the only ones who learn from the program.
“The biggest thing I have learned is just how truly amazing the human body is,” she said. “It is amazing to see what our bodies can do, but also what they can inhibit us from doing. We have participants that come in with very large movement disabilities due to their Parkinson’s disease, and it’s amazing to see how dance, movement and stretching, which is something that I love, is helping them have an easier time.”