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.

Small steps

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.

About three years ago, she teamed up with Erin McGee, therapeutic recreation specialist for the HealthEast Care System, to model the class after one created by the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York. Now there are more than 40 similar programs nationwide.

Dancers, not patients

Parkinson's, which involves a loss of brain cells controlling movement, affects an estimated 1 million people in the United States. In addition to tremors, Parkinson's can cause slowed walking and speech, and sometimes dementia.

Because Parkinson's can be an isolating disease, Lincoln said, the dance class is a way for participants to socialize in a nontherapeutic setting.

"So much of the daily routine of people with Parkinson's is therapies of different kinds that are focusing on their Parkinson's," Lincoln said. "Here the focus is not on Parkinson's. You are not a Parkinson's patient in the class, you are a dancer. We are addressing true dance technique. It's all about the dance, not the Parkinson's."

Sally Lamirande, a 71-year-old Woodbury resident, said since her diagnosis her mood has gotten better after attending the class: "I should probably be doing this every morning."

To Lamirande's surprise, the class has become a highlight of her week.

Denzer and Lamirande, now fast friends, met at a Parkinson's support group several years ago. They attend the dance class almost every week. While they have more mobility than some of the other dancers, they admit that swinging their arms and striding across the floor can be tiring.

"When I first started I thought this was going to be simple. 'I'll just put up with it,' " Lamirande had said when she was diagnosed four years ago. "But it does get you moving and thinking. Your brain is working all the time."

After performing the "Pink Panther" sequence several times, Lincoln asks the dancers to form a circle in the middle of the room. She reminds the students that there will be a class again next week, then praises them for their hard work.

The pianist plays a soft, gentle melody as the group links hands. One by one they take turns bowing. It's their way of congratulating each other — and themselves — on finishing yet another dance.

Karen Zamora • 612-673-4647