Darlene Denzer danced through life.
She could do-si-do, fan kick and plié. After she got married, she and her husband two-stepped and polkaed.
“My husband sure liked to kick his heels up,” she said with a laugh.
During a routine doctor’s visit six years ago, however, Denzer was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disorder. The Cottage Grove woman didn’t let that stop her. She dragged her husband to ballroom lessons for a year until they finally called it quits.
Then, one day during a physical therapy session, Denzer happened to see a pamphlet about a dance class for people with limited mobility.
Now every Thursday, she joins as many as a dozen other dancers at the Jewish Community Center in St. Paul. Even though her slowly progressing disease makes movement more difficult, she takes part in the seated warm-ups, stretches and short dance sequences.
While it’s one of only two such classes in the state, programs like it are spreading across the country.
“Dance is one of those things that just makes the patient be able to flow with their movement when they can’t otherwise move,” said Dr. Lynn Struck, a neurologist at UnityPoint Health-Des Moines. “There’s no explanation of why it happens, we just know it works.”
Classes with rhythmic movement can reduce symptoms, improve mood and give people with Parkinson’s and other diseases an opportunity to socialize, said David Wheeler, executive director for the National Parkinson Foundation Minnesota.
“Movement is really important,” he said. “The idea is to move to music to be with other people and to say, ‘I may have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s does not have me.’ ”
While the classes are designed to be fun, they’re no small feat for the dancers.
“It’s not easy for me,” Denzer, now 73, admitted. “The crouching down takes some doing.”
But for an hour a week she gets to dance.
Unlike many dance classes, this one starts with chairs.
Instructor Libby Lincoln leads the dancers through a few basic exercises — rhythmic arm-lifting and foot-tapping — while they’re seated. Then they do some positions borrowed from yoga and a few jazz movements. Finally, they graduate to sashaying across the linoleum floor in a sequence of moves, in this case a jazzy number set to the “Pink Panther” theme.
Lincoln snaps her fingers to the syncopated beat as she glides across the floor. The dancers cautiously follow her lead. Though several walk with some difficulty or need the stability of a walker, they mimic Lincoln as she points her toes and tosses her arms into the air.
Lincoln, a longtime jazz dancer, started the St. Paul class after a member of her family was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.