David Leventhal from Dance for PD®

An interview with David Leventhal from Dance for PD® August 18, 2023 by George Ackerman, Ph.D, J.D.




David Leventhal is a founding teacher and Program Director for Dance for PD®, a program of the Mark Morris Dance Group that has been used as a model for classes in more than 300 communities in 30 countries. He leads classes for people living with Parkinson’s disease around the world and trains other teaching artists in the Dance for PD® approach. He’s co-produced five volumes of a successful instructional video series and helped conceive and design Moving Through Glass, a dance-based Google Glass App for people with Parkinson’s. He’s received the IADMS Pioneer Dance Educator Award (2021), Martha Hill Mid-Career Award (2018), World Parkinson Congress Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Parkinson’s Community (2016) and was a co-recipient of the Alan Bonander Humanitarian Award from the Parkinson’s Unity Walk (2013).


Leventhal has contributed chapters to the Bloomsbury Handbook of Dance and Philosophy, Moving Ideas: Multimodal Learning in Communities and Schools (Peter Lang), and Creating Dance: A Traveler’s Guide (Hampton Press), and has served as co-author on a number of peer-reviewed articles. He is in demand as a speaker at international conferences and symposiums, and has spoken about the intersection of dance, Parkinson’s and health at the Lincoln Center Global Exchange, Edinburgh International Culture Summit, University of Michigan, Rutgers, Penn State Hershey Medical Center, Brown, Stanford, Columbia, Georgetown, Tufts, and Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Liège (Belgium), Peking Union Medical College Hospital, among others. He serves on the board of the Davis Phinney Foundation, is an advisory board member for the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Arts and Humanities Program and the Johns Hopkins University/Aspen Institute NeuroArts Blueprint, and is a founding member of the Dance for Health committee for the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS). As a dancer, he performed with the Mark Morris Dance Group from 1997-2011, appearing in principal roles in some of Mark Morris’ most celebrated works and receiving a 2010 Bessie Award for his performance career. He enjoys hiking, cooking, tennis, and coaching his son’s soccer team.




Please tell me a little about your background and what got you involved with awareness –


I started working with the Parkinson’s community when I was still a professional dancer in Mark Morris’ company. I started training in ballet when I was eight, and trained intensely throughout my youth. When I started college, I had pretty much given up on the idea of being a professional dancer, but I fell in love with modern dance. When I graduated, I moved to New York to audition, and I started working with Mark Morris’ company soon after. My interest in working with people with Parkinson’s stemmed originally from an interest in teaching—I was very interested in opportunities to teach people other than professional dancers or pre-professional dance students. The thought of teaching people with movement challenges was intriguing—and it ended up being more satisfying and compelling than any other teaching I do. At first, I was balancing a full-time performing schedule with my teaching work – and I loved that balance. Now, I don’t perform any more so I can dedicate myself to facilitating classes for people with Parkinson’s around the world.


Can you tell me more about the foundation?


The Mark Morris Dance Group’s Dance for PD® program offers internationally-acclaimed, research-backed dance classes for people with Parkinson’s online, in New York City, and through a global network of partners and associates in more than 300 other communities in 28 countries. In classes, participants are empowered to explore movement and music in ways that are refreshing, enjoyable, stimulating, and creative. Dance for PD® provides comprehensive teacher training and certification, creates innovative instructional media, and nurtures relationships among other organizations so that classes based on our model are widely available. Evidence from more than 45 peer-reviewed scientific studies serves to underpin the effectiveness and benefits of the Dance for PD teaching approach. The program has been featured in such media channels as The New York Times, USA Today, CBS, NBC, CNN, NPR, and The Guardian and has received multiple awards for its groundbreaking work.


What is your passion and how did you get involved in Parkinson’s awareness and hope for a cure?


I reignite my passion for working with this community every day because I can see how much dance helps support the lives of people with Parkinson’s and their families. The kinds of connections we create in class, and the relationships we build with each and every one of our participants, are sources of deep satisfaction and nourishment for all of us in the Dance for PD community. Dance is a powerful vehicle for Parkinson’s awareness because our fundamental values are based around the idea of possibility, not limitation. Dance invites an awareness of what people with Parkinson’s can still do, and do well, powerfully and with grace.



What type of goals do individuals with Parkinson’s have when working in the field?


I think people come into our program with many different goals. Some people come to work on a very specific physical skill, like balance or coordination. Others join us because they are looking for an expressive or creative outlet, while others love the social aspect of our program. What’s compelling about the Dance for PD model is that there is something for everyone, regardless of your goals, your level of mobility, or your stage of PD. And when goals aren’t being met, we try to meet them. For example, a few years ago, people told us they wanted a more rigorous all-standing class – so we created one, and now offer it twice a week in two locations in New York City as well as via Zoom. It’s called Dance for PD PRO.


What type of training and how long are the programs?


People join our programs for as long as they can – once most people find a class, they stay in that class until they’re not able to participate any more. Our classes are also based on open enrollment – people can join any time – and they run all year, with a few weeks off here and there.. We’ve had people dancing with us for more than 15 years. Our program models the training that professional dancers do – and professional dancers need to train and ‘take class’ throughout their lives. That’s true for our PD dancers as well. The class is structured like many other dance classes – a progressive warm up that activates the body, mind and spirit, followed by supported standing and then traveling activities. The teacher decides which dance styles and techniques to include based on their own training and the preferences of the participants. Although our standard progression starts seated and progresses to standing, participants are welcome to stay seated the entire time – or stand the entire time. Our teachers are trained to help participants adapt and translate the choreography according to their unique considerations.

In terms of teacher training, we offer a robust training program for dance teaching artists who want to do this work. The initial training involves 30 hours (with a requirement that people have teaching experience)…and we also have a certification program that requires an additional 50-100 hours of training.



What effect can it have on Parkinson’s fighters?


There are more than 48 peer-reviewed studies on the impact of dance on people living with Parkinson’s. These studies point to measurable, significant improvements in gait, reduction of tremor, improved stability and short-term mobility, increased facial expression, and a sense of social inclusion, as well as enhanced executive function. A recent study concluded that dancing every week for three years significantly slowed symptom progression. Anecdotally, what we observe, day in and day out, is that people become more accomplished dancers. They’re able to sequence movement more easily, and move with increased grace, confidence, and musicality. They work on strategies that dancers use to support balance and rhythm and find tools they can use to initiate movement and keep moving with a consistent rhythm once they start. They also work on expressing things powerfully through gestures, facial expression, and voice. They learn specific repertory, technique and movement vocabulary based primarily on ballet, modern, tap, jazz, folk dance, and improvisation, and get to develop a sense of mastery over the movement and their bodies. Of course, dance addresses very specific issues that start to go away with a Parkinson’s diagnosis, but primarily we’re interested in the change of attitude that comes when people with Parkinson’s engage in an artistic learning environment like a dance class. At the end of the day, the benefit people feel is that they are dancers, not patients.


What would you like to see as a future goal for your programs?


We are interested in expanding our program so that anyone living with Parkinson’s anywhere in the world has access to enjoyable, high-quality programs. We also want to focus our resources on deepening existing relationships to provide richer programming (performance opportunities, for example) and providing professional development opportunities for our network of teachers. We’re also working to increase access to high quality dance classes across multiple channels, not just in studios. We put lots of focus on launching and sustaining group classes, but over the past few years, we’ve fostered initiatives that leverage technology to provide greater access to the Dance for PD program—free Zoom classes offered most days of the week, a popular At Home instructional video series, and a digital library with more than 300 classes available on demand. We hope that through live and virtual experiences, people with Parkinson’s wherever they will be able to experience and benefit from the dance experience. We’d also love to continue to pursue relationships with medical centers and insurance companies who are starting to fold Dance for PD programming into their regular community offerings.



What events do you participate in?


We participate in a number of regional Parkinson’s conferences around the US and internationally, helping to support awareness and introduce new audiences to the power of movement and dance. We are a proud organization partner of the World Parkinson Congress, and have attended every Congress, in some form, since the first one in 2006. We are also regular presenters at the Parkinson’s Unity Walk, where we’ve offered an interactive demo class for the past ten years. We’re also active presenters in conferences on the arts and arts in health side of the field, sharing our knowledge and encouraging other artists to share their talents with the Parkinson’s community.


How can someone get in touch and sign up to help? What is your website?


People are invited to contact us through our website: We also have a toll-free number: 1-800-957-1046.


If you had one final statement or quote you could leave for the Parkinson community, what would it be?


“There are no patients – there are only dancers” – Reggie Butts, Dance for PD participant.





Dance for PD® (2023). Dance for PD. Retrieved from (Photo Credit)