Humans of CSU: Professor makes moves with Parkinson’s patients

Emma Iannacone

Isaac Newton’s first law states objects in motion stay in motion. This rule applies not only to gravity, but to the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects motor abilities and dopamine levels, causing those diagnosed to have problems moving, speaking and writing. It can also result in stiff muscles, tremors, instability and depression.


Typically, people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s in their 60s. While the disorder does not directly cause death, people can die from falls, asphyxiation or organ shutdown among other problems associated with the progression of the disease.

In order to help people improve their motor capabilities, dance professor Lisa Morgan found Moving Through Parkinson’s in 2012 through the music therapy program. The program aims to improve coordination and spatial awareness.

“Our goals are to build confidence to move with freedom and ease, acquire tools to use on a daily basis and build strength and endurance and, overall, to improve our well-being as we interact, share and move together,” Moving Through Parkinson’s said.

Classes are held twice a week in the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging, a community center focused on researching healthy and successful aging.

Morgan has been dancing her whole life. She’s taught dance for 25 years and came to CSU in 1996.

“Over the years, I’ve done a lot of different pieces, but now what I’m really focused on is dance education,” Morgan said.

She prepares students to be dance teachers by using the pedagogy teaching method, which is the “study of how knowledge and skills are exchanged in an educational context.”

Morgan is also involved with the music therapy program at CSU. No stranger to therapeutic dance, she has helped people recovering from injuries target problem areas of their body through movement.

“I think in another life I wanted to be a physical therapist or work in the medical field,” she said.


Working across generations, Morgan said Moving Through Parkinson’s has been a great place for people to interact with a diverse group of ages, which she believes is beneficial.

“Anytime we can get people to interact with different people of different ages in the community is really cool,” Morgan said. “I think it gives as much joy to the students as it does to the people living with Parkinson’s.”

Moving Through Parkinson’s also serves as a learning lab for students in music therapy and occupational therapy majors by allowing them to work closely with patients.

Music therapy students like senior Hannah Lentz and graduate student Bailey Staber provide music accompaniment for the classes through a practicum placement.

“We’re basically in the background for most of it,” Staber said. “We kind of just provide music to whatever they’re doing and trying to match it and support it.”

Students majoring in occupational therapy work more closely with patients by helping and providing support when needed, so Morgan can continue the classes. The extra help from students serves to make the classes a well-oiled machine.

While the classes might not be for everyone, there are some patients who have been attending lessons since its founding, such as Billie Pawlikowski.

“(Billie’s) physical change has been amazing,” Morgan said. “When she first came (to class), she had a lot of weakness issues, alignment issues, and confidence issues. And now she’s just beyond confident.”

When she was first attending Morgan’s class, Pawlikowski couldn’t get out of a chair. She said the class has made an enormous difference in her life, and the lives of her classmates.

“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have the class,” Pawlikowski said.

Morgan focuses on finding strategies that help people improve strength, coordination, balance and confidence. She’s currently looking to find ways to help with what she calls “freezing,” a symptom of Parkinson’s where the body stops moving when a person’s walking, causing them to fall forward or regress to small shuffling movements.

“As I’m getting into my later years of teaching, those are things that make the biggest difference, is when you help to make a difference,” Morgan said. “It validates what you’re doing.”

Students also feel inspired after seeing their patients overcome obstacles.

“They’re so resilient and inspiring,” Lentz said. “It’s absolutely amazing to be in their presence. We learn so much more from our clients than our clients can ever learn from us.”

Morgan says that it isn’t just movement that helps people’s conditions improve. Surrounding oneself with a support group is key.

“We laugh with each other and support each other,” Morgan said. “In my personal joy of teaching, that’s been biggest reward, is realizing I can help make a difference for them. There is a support group out there, you just have to ask.”

Emma Iannacone can be reached at or on Twitter @EmmaIannacone.