Dance class in Antwerp helps people with neuro-degenerative illnesses


Inspired by a Dutch example, two friends with Parkinson’s disease recently founded a dance class for people with neurological diseases and disabilities in Antwerp

Photo by Nick Hannes

An uphill battle

On 13 October, Come2Dance, the first dance class in Antwerp for people with neurodegenerative illnesses like Parkinson’s disease, opened at a local dance school. Two friends who have both had Parkinson’s disease for 10 years, Dirk Beckers and Sandy Kools, are behind the initiative. They say they organised the classes to help themselves and others cope with the disorder.

The Come2Dance classes (pictured) are specifically designed to have a relaxed pace, and they’re more focused on getting the mind to work with the body and creating a positive environment, than on demanding dance moves. They are also accompanied by a separate dance course aimed specifically at wheelchair users.

“It’s really something people need,” says Beckers. “It’s not always easy for us to go out, and sometimes you have to go with someone, but we need each other.”

Kools, 40, and Beckers, 56, got the idea to start a dance class for Parkinson’s sufferers after seeing a television programme about Dutch ballet dancer Marc Vlemmix. He opened a dance school for Parkinson’s patients after he was diagnosed with the disease himself. “We wanted to start something for more than Parkinson’s patients, something for all people who have Parkinson’s, MS and other such diseases,” Beckers says.

Red tape struggles

Beckers and Kools had a long and arduous journey in setting up Come2Dance and had to start from scratch since neither of them had a dance background. They did have a great love for music in common. Beckers claims he owns 10,000 CDs and has been to 1,000 concerts, and Kools was once in a jazz ballet. They searched and found a dance teacher, Andreas Braaten. At the time, he worked as a physiotherapist at the practice where Beckers received his physiotherapy and hydrotherapy.

You can see them thinking: ‘It’s normal to do this’

- Easy Moving founder Majika Beffie

Beckers and Kools’ subsequent requests for funding support were rejected because the future of the project could not be guaranteed due to their health. They say there were also troubles with politically separated local municipalities that would not come together on the issue.

At one point, Beckers composed a poetic letter to the authorities in which he asked for help, and defended dreamers by quoting John Lennon. His plea went unheard, marking a turning point for the two friends. “That was the moment that we thought it was over,” Beckers says, “but then we thought of looking for a place where we could start with a group that already exists.”

He and Kools searched for a school, and eventually settled on the Easy Moving dance school in Antwerp's Deurne district. Easy Moving was working on the launch of a modern wheelchair dancing class at the same time, and immediately agreed to host Come2Dance.

“We made the decision to work with Beckers and Kools because we felt so sorry that they did not have a place to do this, or the possibility to start,” says Majika Beffie, who was a classical ballerina before opening Easy Moving. The school in Deurne has been running for 23 years, so with them the insurance and paperwork for the class was largely already in place, and they were able to get their G Sport badge for handicapped activities. 

A daily challenge

Parkinson’s is one of the most destructive neurodegenerative diseases around. Worldwide, there are some 6 million people with the condition, with an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 known cases in Belgium. Dealing with the condition can at times be tough, but for Beckers and Kools, incorporating positive elements into your life as much as possible is important, even though it is a daily challenge. “One bad day doesn't make a bad year,” says Beckers. 

We do it for all the people that come

- Come2Dance co-founder Dirk Beckers

Dance helps tremendously because it tackles many of the movement-related issues that come with Parkinson’s. “Professional dancers have been trained all their lives to work on posture, balance, strength, flexibility and co-ordination, and to use that for dancing and creating. And it is exactly these issues that people with Parkinson’s are facing problems with,” said Vlemmix in a TEDx talk in Breda, the Netherlands, in 2013.

The Antwerp initiative is open to all people with disabilities, including wheelchair users, whether they be inherited at birth, post-traumatic or related to illness. The classes, which are both priced at €50 for one season, are split into two groups. Come2Dance I is a class specifically for wheelchair users, and Come2Dance II is for those that fall into the other groups.

The Come2Dance classes start off lightly with some exercises on chairs, before moving up to the bar, and finally arriving at standing exercises done to the rhythm of a selection of music. Beckers says Braaten, a physiotherapist and dancer from Norway, is perfect to teach the class as he is used to working with Parkinson’s patients and understands the disease well.

Beffie of Easy Moving remembers her surprise after the first class. “It’s amazing what Andreas is doing; he made them happy. You can see them thinking: ‘It’s normal to do this.’” By the end of that class, everyone was moving to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”.

“We do it for all the people that come – not for ourselves. We have nothing in it other than meeting new friends and new people,” says Beckers.

Menegemlei 30, 2100 Deurne

First dance class for Antwerpenaars with neuro illnesses opens.

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