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The seven men and women with Parkinson's disease sit tall in their chairs as a recording of birdsong fills the dance studio.

They imagine they are trees, with arms extended, limbs swaying with the breeze.

"Let your tree speak its truth," says Juan Carlos Claudio, the modern dance professor leading the class comprised of those with Parkinson's and University of Utah students who volunteer to help.

"Perhaps gesture to the clouds or speak to the sun."

The dance is a warmup — for the limbs and the imagination — during a weekly class each Tuesday at the U. for Parkinson's patients, the first of its kind in Utah. It's free and open to those with the degenerative disease.

Claudio started the class this spring after training at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, which pioneered dance as a therapy for those with Parkinson's. Dance for PD programs are taught in more than 100 communities.

Nationally, 1 percent of the population over age 65 has the disease. The rate is nearly double in Utah, a fact that researchers hope to explore with the help of a new Parkinson's registry.

The class, "Grey Matters: Stretching the Mind, the Body and the Spirit Through Dance," is a collaboration of the U.'s departments of modern dance and physical therapy.

The dancing is intended to be fun and creative, but it also is based on research about the disease, says Claudio, who runs the class with the help of Lennie Swenson, a doctoral student in physical therapy who has a bachelor's degree in modern dance.

Dancing has been shown to help those with Parkinson's improve motor skills, cognitive functioning and emotions.

To start the class, Claudio has the Parkinson's patients and volunteers awaken their nerves by tapping their feet and patting their hands along their arms, legs and trunks.

Ron Kallinger, 78, says the dance moves force him to make big movements with his arms and legs, exercises that counter his natural inclination to keep his limbs close and his movements small.

Those with Parkinson's, for instance, often shuffle their feet.

"There are times I go home and I'm exhausted," Kallinger says.

Swenson teaches the student volunteers from the modern dance and physical therapy departments how to take vital signs and watch for exhaustion in the dancers.

But she doesn't like the volunteers to hover too closely, "so they can have the enjoyment of being a dancer, not a patient."

Daniel Gwin, a 62-year-old former cellist and bassist with the Utah Symphony, says dancing "teaches me what I can and cannot do."

And 70-year-old Sylvia Mathis says dancing helps her with coordination and balance, as well as cognitive functioning.

"We're on a high when we finish," Mathis says. "You hear music now and you want to dance."

Claudio would like to build the program at the U., adding a second weekly class and enrolling more dancers with Parkinson's.

"Every time I get out of here, it reaffirms my commitment," says Claudio, who loves that it combines his original love of science — he has an undergraduate degree in biology — and dance. "This is both of my worlds coming together."

For his students, the class softens the edges of their disease.

Bruce Hiller, 67, says that in the two years since he was diagnosed, he has found that Parkinson's means, "Your mind makes an appointment your body can't keep."

But dancing helps.

He's even found himself dancing to rock music at home, when no one is watching.

Twitter: @KristenMoulton