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Have fun and feel the music: Filipino choreographer helps people with Parkinson’s dance their way through life

Novy likes to improvise and spice up his classes with dance moves called “Wave Dance" and “Cute Cute.” Source: Novy Bereber

Novy Bereber’s dance class is not the usual one. Sayaw PD, a dance NGO he formed in 2019, caters to a niche community, primarily to people with Parkinson’s Disease or PD, as well as their carers and their families.

It’s 5PM in Sydney and Novy Bereber is busy setting up for an online class. He adjusts the framing of the video, before settling on a chair, and greeting his students enthusiastically.

“Remember, guys,” he says, “there is no right and wrong here. No stress, we’re just here to have fun!”


Highlights

  • Novy Bereber is a Filipino-Australian choreographer and dancer from Iloilo City, who has been residing in Australia for 11 years.
  • Seeking to retire from professional dancing, Novy grabbed the chance to apply for the job, and attended the Dance for PD Australia workshop.
  • The dance classes, besides helping the students improve their balance and coordination, gives them confidence, and a sense of purpose.

novy bereber, sayaw pd, dance for parkinson's
Armed with a ringlight, a smart phone and microphone, Novy prepares for the streaming of his dance class.
Novy Bereber

As the music streams, Novy asks his students to imagine raising the sun to the left, raising the sun to the right, then forming a rainbow with both hands.

Later, he adds foot movement to the dance choreography, maintaining the same effusive energy in a class clocking an hour. He adds perky movements like “Cute Cute”, or “Beauty queen wave”, to the amusement and glee of his students.

Parkinson's and dance therapy

Affecting 6.3 to 7 million people globally, PD is a progressive nervous disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain responsible for body movement, causing shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with walking, balance, and coordination. It usually attacks people between the ages of 50 and 69.

Dance, according to a 2018 study (‘Dance Therapy’ as a psychotherapeutic movement intervention in Parkinson’s disease) has been found to help improve motor function of Parkinson’s patients. A connection is sparked when music plays. The brain connects to the motor and sensory cortex, stimulating movement.

How it all started

When Novy spotted a job advertisement for a dance for PD teacher, he had no idea what Parkinson’s was, but dance and teaching he was intimately familiar with.

novy bereber, sayaw pd, dance for parkinson's
Novy at the New South Wales Art Gallery
Novy Bereber

 

His extensive career included seven years in Ballet Philippines, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, after which he started performing internationally—Winter Olympics in Canada, the Australian production of The King and I, among others, as well as choreography work for theatre performances and musical events.

Novy shares, “my partner said, why don’t you just try it? You know what, I’ll attend the workshop. Eh ang dami ko pang energy after the show, wala pa akong gagawin (I still had a lot of energy after wrapping up the King and I. I had nothing to do.) And I did the workshop, and the rest changed my whole life, the rest is history.”

From performing to teaching with purpose

After finishing the workshop in Australia, Novy would then take additional classes in the founding headquarters of Dance PD, in Brooklyn, New York, established by choreographer Mark Morris.

Upon Returning to Australia, Novy began applying what he learned, first as a dance teacher for the elderly and PD patients in Pennant Hills, New South Wales.

novy bereber, sayaw pd, dance for parkinson's
Novy Bereber with his Penant Hills class
Novy Bereber

"They are not stable, they’re shaking. So, how can you teach them to move and dance? Sanay ka to teach dancers (You’re used to teaching dancers), or people who are capable of doing everything, so this is another level of challenge,” Novy says.

Most of the dances are done sitting down, but this didn’t stop Novy from thinking of creative ways to make sure his students have fun.

Combining contemporary dance, ballet, theater dance, folk dance, and improvisation, Novy has always strived to make students feel that they are dancers in his class, not patients.

novy bereber, sayaw pd, dance for parkinson's
Preparing for a recital in Penant Hills
Novy Bereber

“The key here is to lift up their spirits, to think positive, and appreciate life. We don’t want them to feel they’re in therapy. It’s kind of negative to remind them of their condition. So one has to be really creative and imaginative in teaching dance,“ Novy enthuses.

Sometimes, improvising on the module he learned from Dance for PD, Novy would come up with kooky ways to liven up the dances, such as the “Wave Dance.”

“I taught them to wave. Wave like your loved ones are going home! Bye, take care! Next, wave like a beauty queen! They loved it! "

"Then wave like the Queen of England. Then, last, wala na akong maisip (I couldn’t think of anything else), wave like a drag queen,” Novy shares, adding that he was scared some of his students, most of whom are senior citizens, would get offended. But all of them did wave like drag queens, huge smiles on their faces.

Catch one of Novy’s classes, and see how much energy and passion he pours into dance and teaching.

novy bereber, sayaw pd, dance for parkinson's
Novy always thinks of creative ways to make sure his dance students are having fun.
Novy Bereber

“You have to give at least 1000% of your energy. Some of them don’t have reactions, so kailangan mong pasukin yung kaloob-looban nila (You have to reach out to their hearts). Sometimes, right after the class, ubos ang energy ko. Bagsak ako sa kama (I fall down on my bed from too much exhaustion),” Novy says.

Giving back to the Philippines

In 2019, a homecoming in the Philippines prompted Novy to start his own Dance for PD organisation.

In his hometown in Iloilo, he found out his aunt is suffering from PD, and has fallen back on lying in bed all day. Their relatives had seemingly given up. On television, he watched a news report in Capiz province about a PD patient, who was suspected of being possessed by a bad spirit.

He knew he needed to do something, spread more awareness about PD in his hometown and around the Philippines.

novy bereber, sayaw pd, dance for parkinson's
Sayaw PD takes their dance classes online.
Novy Bereber

 

Together with Filipino-born Australian events director Juan Ignacio Trápaga, and Sayaw technical director Will Laxa, Novy formally founded Sayaw PD, with the goal of establishing a headquarters in the Philippines in the future, preferably in Iloilo.

However, due to the pandemic, Novy and his partners quickly had to pivot the classes online.

“I started out looking like a fool. Basta sasayaw ako sa Facebook. Pero go lang ako ng go. Kasi na-miss ko magturo ng dance sa studio eh. Bahala na, basta magtuturo ako. And then, to my surprise, ang daming nanunuod. Mayroong taga-US, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Philippines. (I’ll just do this on Facebook, I’ll go for it. Because I really miss teaching dance. Come what may, I will do it. To my surprise, a lot of random people, from different parts of the world, tuned in.”)

novy bereber, sayaw pd, dance for parkinson's
Novy teaching his dance classes online
Novy Bereber

The hard work paid off. Sayaw PD was recently ranked the third most active PD online class, third to Dance for PD New York, and Dance for PD Australia.

For Novy and his partners, it gives them great and priceless joy to continue doing this advocacy. The classes, besides helping the students improve their balance and coordination, gives them confidence, and a sense of purpose. It offers them something to look forward to, in a community where they can be themselves.

For Novy, the show must go on. “Sometimes, we’re always looking for the bigger picture, and we forget to appreciate the littlest things.People with Parkinson’s, they couldn’t even hold a glass of water, or pull themselves in bed in the morning."

"Basic things, but we learn to appreciate the little things. It keeps us grounded, everything, all the problems you have right now, they’re nothing. Because these people, people with PD, they’re still here, and they’re still fighting.”

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