Local Dancer Provides Moving Experience for People with Parkinson’s

Princeton Ballet School (PBS) instructor Rachel Stanislawczyk describes aspects of her profession as being rooted in a “homemade” recipe with a particular connection to her grandfather. The ingredients include no sugar, but the finished product is sweet with a filling of hope.

The product that Rachel references is Princeton Ballet School’s Dance for Parkinson’s Program, a new initiative taught and inspired by Rachel, who is a certified instructor of the Elemental Body Alignment System.

“ In Parkinson’s Disease, the brain neurons, responsible for producing the neurotransmitter Dopamine, no longer work. However, dancing to live music is a homemade recipe for producing dopamine in the brain…I saw this happen with my own grandfather,” said the 22-year-old Rachel, a Middlesex County native, who just graduated magna cum laude with her BFA in dance and choreography from Virginia Commonwealth University.

Two years ago right before she was about to return to school after summer break, she wanted to visit her grandfather “just one more time,” because he was suffering intensely from Parkinson’s disease “and I was unsure as to how much longer he had to live. He had stopped speaking and was unable to hold up his head. I wheeled him into the living room, turned on classical music and started to move his limbs to the music – with a technique I had learned in one of my classes. I worked from his ankles up to his neck and by the time I finished, he was holding up his head and actually speaking. My grandmother walked into the room and was astounded. Her jaw actually hung open. I could not save his life, but I was able to give him a small gift of life at the end of his life. It was that experience that really sparked my interest in the power of dance for people with Parkinson’s disease.”

Rachel obtained an internship with the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group that was responsible for starting in 2001 the nation’s first dance program for Parkinson’s, called Dance for PD. After her six months internship, the dance group hired her for a variety of administrative and training jobs and now she is a lead teacher in the Dance for PD program.

With a special fondness for the American Repertory Ballet’s Princeton Ballet School where her passion for dance was fueled, Rachel, decided PBS ought to produce a Parkinson’s dance program. Several weeks ago Rachel, who started taking dance classes at PBS in 2003, made a Parkinson’s dance program proposal to the board and was honored and humbled when the board accepted her proposals. The classes are going on until the end of August and depending upon the response from the public, the classes may become a permanent part of the PBS class repertory.

“American Repertory Ballet’s Dance for Parkinson’s program creates a warm sanctuary for movement exploration and a social atmosphere to support artistic venture. The classes will have live musical accompaniment by one of ARB’s staff of professional musicians,” said Rachel. “This inclusive program is open to all levels of ability, and although participants’ may experience therapeutic relief, this class is not considered therapy. It is solely a place where people come together to move, share, and enjoy the elements of dance.”

Rachel’s dance goals have come a long way from her childhood dance dreams of landing roles in the ARB’s spectacular Nutcracker production.

“I have always been interested in the reason why we dance? To me, this reason is much larger than to put on a performance. There is a distinct therapeutic sensation I feel while moving to music, a quiet exchange of listening and responding. This is the exact magic that happens in a Dance for Parkinson’s class,” said Rachel, who never stands still when it comes to going forward with her profession. In addition to all of her teaching responsibilities, she is pursuing a master’s degree in dance education at Rutgers University.

The children of Princeton Ballet School’s Founder Audree Estey pointed out the special affinity PBS has for this new program.

“As a dancer, a teacher and PBS founder, Audrée would have loved the inclusion of a program for people with Parkinson’s disease, because she sought to provide opportunities for everyone to know the joy of movement and dance, no matter their limitations,” said her children, Larry and Carol Estey. “As someone who late in her life lived with Parkinson’s, our mother would have cherished the opportunity to be with others, moving to live music, embodying that joy again in a safe environment. Bravo to PBS for offering this program!”

It sounds like a recipe that is rich in humanity – and bound to inspire the many young dancers now aspiring for roles in ARB’s Nutcracker, just as Rachel once did.


Princeton Ballet School is the official school of American Repertory Ballet, which is headquartered in New Brunswick with studios in New Brunswick, Princeton and Cranbury. For more information about the Dance for Parkinson‘s classes for people living with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers, please contact Rachel at RStanislawczyk@arballet.org, or call Lindsay Cahill at (732) 249-1254, ext. 19.




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