Novy Bereber

The Sayaw PD Founder

Dancing for a new life

Former Ballet Philippines choreographer and dancer Bereber has returned to the country not to stage another spectacular performance, but to help Filipinos with Parkinson’s disease (PD) regain confidence and meaning in their lives through dance.

The Sydney-based dancer hopes to bring to the country his years of experience as one of the pioneer instructors of Dance for Parkinson’s in Australia, especially to underprivileged patients in the Philippines.

“Dance saved my life. That’s why it’s time for me to share and bring it back. Before I left the Philippines, I promised myself whatever I learn abroad, I’ll bring it back. I think this is the right time to start,” Bereber, who hails from Iloilo, tells STARweek.

He was thinking of “semi-retiring” after his dream performance at the Sydney Opera House of The King and I with an Australian cast. But a post at the opera house’s bulletin board changed the 39-year-old’s life.

“To be honest I really didn’t know what Parkinson’s was. I just saw on the bulletin board of the opera house the Dance Teacher Workshop for Parkinson’s Disease. The only thing that came into my mind then was dance, and I wanted to do it,” he says.

Bereber got the support of his partner, Philippines-born Australian performer and creative director Ignatius Jones (Member of the Order of Australia), who encouraged him to pursue his mission. He later learned that one of his relatives and a cousin of Jones’ have Parkinson’s, something that ignited his interest even more.

“I did the two-week workshop (with Dance for Parkinson’s in Australia) and then little by little it changed my perception on life, and how I appreciate simple things,” he says. He is the first Filipino to teach in Dance for PD in Australia.

Parkinson’s disease, also called shaking palsy, is a brain disorder that leads to shaking, stiffness and difficulty with walking, balance and coordination. It usually attacks people between the ages of 50 and 69.

To learn more about the craft, Bereber flew to New York on his own to undergo training with David Leventhal, the man behind Dance for PD.

“I attended advanced training for almost three weeks with the founder of the Dance for PD himself, and that was when I realized that it was really my calling,” says Bereber, who has worked as a Pilates instructor and choreographer in Sydney for the past 10 years.

The Dance for PD started in 2001 as a non-profit collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group. The Dance for PD program in Brooklyn, New York serves as a model for a network of affiliated programs in more than 120 communities in 43 states and 16 countries.

Studies show that dance addresses several of the problems that come with Parkinson’s disease. Apart from improving movement and balance, it has also a positive effect on the person’s mental well-being.

Bereber says they don’t want their students to feel that they are in therapy. Participants in the class are encouraged to approach movement like dancers rather than patients.

“Sometimes I feel that I’m teaching ghosts because they do not show emotions. You have to be very, very strong while doing it,” he says. “It must really come from your heart so they will follow you.”

Bereber teaches at the Sydney Pennant Hills thrice a week. He travels one and a half hours from his home to teach his students, most of whom are old.

Among Bereber’s students is Australia-based Filipino Rosa, who always waits for her favorite dance instructor.

Rosa, who is in her 60s, regularly brings him food and combs his curly hair after their class.

“When I was a child, I was very close to my grandmother. That’s why I think I have that charm,” he says.

Bereber recalls Rosa wouldn’t talk to anyone during her first days in class. But after two months, Rosa was able to stand up, and walk and socialize after six months.

As a dance instructor for PD, Bereber treats his students as ordinary dancers. But he says he is very careful so they would not sustain any injuries. Because their balance and movement are affected, people with PD are more likely to fall and hurt themselves.

“You need to be very creative and at the same time partner that with good music. You must make sure there’s relaxation too because when the movements get very quick, they get tired,” Bereber says.

During the one-hour class, the dance students can share stories and make new friends, Bereber says. “They create a new community,” he adds.