Dancing With Parkinson’s (DWP) is a Toronto-based not-for-profit that has been designing and delivering specialized dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) since 2008.  It is a program that is based on providing in-person dance classes.  Until recently, it was offering 15 weekly dance classes throughout the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).  But on March 12, 2020 DWP had to suspend all of its dance classes due to COVID-19.    

As the Founder and Executive Director of DWP, I was devastated.  My mind was actually quite paralyzed for the first week or so after closing our doors.  To be honest, I thought this meant the end of DWP as an organization.  Part of this was based on my assumptions about the program; I truly believed that the program could only be effective if it was delivered in person.  Key ingredients in our model, such as touch, for example, simply could not be implemented if we were unable to meet with participants face to face.  The other part was practical.  DWP has very limited operating costs and relies heavily on its annual dance-a-thon fundraiser held every Spring as well as regular class fees.  So, I really thought the pandemic signaled the end of DWP.     

Once the shock had subsided a bit, I still didn’t have a clear idea of what to do.  But I knew one thing: I didn’t want to give up on the core values and mission that had driven me to create DWP in the first place – a belief that bringing seniors out of isolation and creating a safe, welcoming space for connection through dance could make a difference in their lives.  I also knew that the pandemic and the social distancing measures put in place to stop it could leave seniors even more isolated than ever.  I wanted to find a way, really quickly, to keep our seniors connected.

This line of thinking led me to pilot short online dance classes for our existing DWP community.  The online classes were so well-received that I quickly began offering 20-minute online dance classes seven days per week.  Class participants started asking me if they could share the class link with their sister, brother, and friends.  My friends asked if their mom, dad, aunt, or uncle could join.  I soon realized that all seniors, not just those with PD, could benefit from these classes, especially at a time when so many people were feeling the physical and emotional strains of social isolation.  There are now more than 400 seniors on our online class roster and these participants login from all across the country.  We even have some participants from outside of Canada.  The participant numbers are growing daily.

Challenges of Adapting to Online Delivery

Have there been challenges?  Sure.  For one, I am not very technologically inclined.  So, this has been a bit of a learning curve for me.  I am still working on improving the quality of the classes in terms of sound and picture, for example.  There have also been a handful of seniors that needed some support in setting up and using the online platform, so we walked them through this offline.  But, for the most part, participants have accessed the online classes fairly seamlessly.  In fact, some seniors have even shared tips with me about specific features of the technology!  I think the biggest challenge and the worst part of adapting the program to an online delivery method is that some seniors don’t have access to the technology needed to join the classes – and these are the people who most likely would benefit the most.  This is something that needs to be addressed.

Some Surprises and Learnings

Innovating the program in this way has been surprising on a number of fronts.  First of all, I am surprised that seniors are still able to make meaningful connections with each other and feel energized, uplifted, physically conditioned, hopeful, and so on.  Many of the same outcomes we tried to bring about before in our in-person classes are happening now through the online technology.  Do I think touch is still important?  Yes.  And I will be super excited to give everyone a big hug when we are allowed to resume our in-person dance classes.  But maybe it is not the primary way of connecting people; there are other ways.

Second, I have received initial feedback that some seniors find the online classes meet their needs better than the in-person classes.  This goes beyond the convenience aspect of the online method, which is not terribly surprising (for example, it makes sense that seniors with PD would find it easier to attend a class in their own homes rather than organizing transportation and spending the time and effort to make it to a geographically distant class location).  For the online classes, I spotlight video myself, which makes me really big on the screen.  This may make the class feel more intimate or one-on-one in nature.  Some participants say that this helps them focus better on the class exercises, as they are not distracted by the movements of others in their peripheral vision.  That participants could actually benefit more from the online version of the class came as a big surprise to me.  This is a pretty deep learning.

Finally, I am shocked by how much this is touching me – how emotionally connected I feel to all of the dance participants and the new friends I am making.  I am meeting new seniors all the time and quickly feeling very attached to them.  There is something very raw and human about this whole experience.  This fits with DWP’s philosophy – come as who you are in the present moment. We accept you and you accept us. People are being so vulnerable and open and this is a very scary and uncertain time.  But DWP is still able to create this safe and joyful place to go.  I am excited about the fact that DWP has a life beyond what the plan was.  I am excited to be innovating again and making some new plans that might end up impacting more people than we ever thought we could.