Loyola University Chicago


Department of Fine and Performing Arts


Healing through dance

Healing through dance

Loyola instructor Sarah Cullen Fuller (center) founded the Parkinson’s Project, which uses dance to help people with the disease deal with their symptoms. “By the end of one class, they are often moving with more freedom and with less obstacles and tremors,” Fuller says. (Photo: Natalie Battaglia)

By Tanner Walters  |  Student reporter

Every week, Loyola dance instructor Sarah Cullen Fuller helps Chicagoans with Parkinson’s disease deal with their symptoms in a non-conventional way: by teaching them to dance.

Fuller founded the Parkinson’s Project at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to provide dance opportunities for people with the disease, a disorder of the nervous system that progressively impedes movement.

“I felt very much connected to trying to find ways to bring dance to populations that might not otherwise have access to it,” Fuller said. After completing a workshop with the Dance for PD program in New York City, Fuller decided to develop her own program at Hubbard Street.

Hubbard Street now offers three free classes a week as part of the project. The success of the class inspired the creation of the larger Adaptive Dance project, which now includes a program for dancers with autism.

Teaching artists incorporate chairs for dancers who are less mobile than others. Fuller emphasized that the classes are not designed to be physical therapy sessions, but to allow participants to grow as artists.

“It really is a dance class like any other,” Fuller said. “It’s rooted in classical modern and ballet techniques.”

But the classes are far more than dance sessions. Studies have shown that dance programs can alleviate symptoms for Parkinson’s patients, Fuller said, and she sees these positive effects with every class.

“I see it benefiting our dancers, even from a dance lens. Even by the end of one class, they are often moving with more freedom and with less obstacles and tremors,” Fuller said. “While these dancers are dealing with a degenerative disease, the way that they are accumulating information by way of dance technique is kind of astounding.”

The classes have been just as powerful as a way to bring together a community of people with the disease and those who love them, who are encouraged to come and dance as well.

“This is a group of people who celebrate holidays together, mourn the loss of people together, enjoy the birth of people together,” Fuller said. “It is a community that extends way beyond the class itself, which I feel so grateful to be a part of. It’s been such a benefit just to me personally.”

In October, dancers from the Parkinson’s Project joined Loyola students and others for a “community movement session” at the In/Motion film and dance festival. The session was a response to a screening of Capturing Grace, a documentary about the Dance for PD program that served as a model for Hubbard Street.

The Parkinson’s Project dancers also were featured in the Virtual Dance Ensemble, a project headed by Loyola dance instructor Amy Wilkinson and alumna Sarah Prinz. It seeks to “explore and transform the idea of community by bringing individuals from vastly different backgrounds together through the joy of movement,” across digital platforms.