We met with Alex Tressor, a former Broadway dancer who founded Parkinson’s On The Move, to discuss ballet, beloved pets, and coming of age in the Soviet Union.
Parkinson’s On The Move
We first met Alex at ‘Music as Medicine’, a seminar focused around the therapeutic benefits of music and dancing for people with Parkinson’s. Alex performed short examples of several styles of dance, accompanied on violin by Dr. Alexander Pantelyat. We were struck by his easy humour and positivity at the talk, and were surprised when he emailed Charco to express an interest in learning more about the CUE1 and our team.
‘I’m always amazed to meet people who want to help people with Parkinson’s’, Alex says. ‘The more I get involved with meeting people, I realise how many good, nice-hearted, wonderful people are trying to help. It makes me feel like we’re doing something positive and creative. I think creativity is going to win the game.’ Of course, Alex himself is one such helpful person. Co-founded with his wife Alexis, Parkinson’s On The Move has proved an invaluable resource for people around the world. With Parkinson’s On The Move, Alex and Alexis have built a trove of useful advice, including videos, articles, and tips on how to manage your Parkinson’s, and keep your mind and body as healthy as possible.
Moving to New York
Alex was born in the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, within months of Yuri Gagarin’s epoch-making journey into outer space. Indeed, Alex’s biography as a whole resembles the inventions of a Hollywood screenwriter. With his mother working as a juggler, Alex spent his early years in the circus, before emigrating to the US as a teenager. Looking back on his childhood, it is to his mother that Alex credits his sunny disposition. ‘My mum was very funny; she never did anything without laughing or telling a joke.’ With an early life spent in the circus, he then spent a period travelling across Russia, before attending boarding school for nine years.
Of his time at boarding school, Alex is matter of fact: ‘my parents had to work, and I had to get an education. So I didn’t see them for nine years that much. If you don’t make friends quickly, if you don’t laugh about a lot of stuff in life, it can get pretty scary, especially in Soviet Russia at the time.’
This resolve would carry Alex through a whole new set of challenges when, in 1976, he and his family emigrated to New York City. He was seventeen at the time, and only started ‘learning English shortly before we arrived’. It was this isolation which, in part, drove Alex to first take up dancing. ‘I started because I was literally bored out of my mind’, he laughs. ‘I knew no one. Just to meet friends, I said to my stepfather, “can I go take a ballet class?”. He said, “are you crazy? You’re seventeen years old, what are you talking about?”. You know, people start when they’re three years old.’ Nonetheless, Alex persevered. ‘I ended up dancing – well, not dancing – studying ballet first, because my stepfather was a ballet master. I knew nothing about ballet other than that it was on TV all the time in Russia, and there usually had to be some skinny girls and very, very butch men. I somehow ended up working, joining a company in Sweden. I came back to a couple more years of ballet school, and ended up doing Broadway musicals.’
Diagnosed at 47
Following in his stepfather’s footsteps – ‘a phenomenal ballet master’ – Alex later transitioned into education himself, teaching ballet to students of all ages. It was during this period that he received his diagnosis. In 2007, Alex was told that he had Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease (YOPD). ‘I was… forty-seven’, he recounts; ‘I’ve lost count of how old I am now. So don’t ask’. The first indications of Parkinson’s were minor; so minor, that most people may not have even noticed them. As a dancer, however, Alex was hyper-sensitive to ‘any deviation from the normalcy of movement. First, it was the oddest thing. I noticed that my right hand was not brushing my teeth in the usual, natural way. Then my legs started dragging. Then my right shoulder stopped moving.’ His doctors suggested shoulder surgery. Alex considered this as a possibility – ‘I thought, well, I used to throw grenades in Russia. Maybe I tore something back then’ – but he knew the problem extended further than a torn ligament. Eventually, he agreed to the shoulder surgery.
Shortly after, he received a definite diagnosis of Parkinson’s. ‘That was a shock to the system. I don’t smoke, I don’t really drink or party all that hard. Of course’, he adds, ‘we only had one party in the Soviet Union – and that was pretty boring.’
Alex describes his feelings immediately after being diagnosed: ‘The initial shock was there, but I was more upset with the fact that I just didn’t know enough about it.’ He left his doctor’s, ‘went across Central Park to a bookstore, and picked up Parkinson’s for Dummies. That upset me more than anything. Literally, on the first page, you’re reminded that there is no cure. I had already heard that news from my doctor. I don’t necessarily need to hear it all the time.’ He soon found jogging to be a useful way of managing his symptoms. His inspiration? ‘I started jogging because I happened to see a video from Pittsburgh University of two monkeys. One was running on a treadmill; the other one was just sitting there, acting like his agent. The one that was running was actually doing very well. They did a PET scan, and saw that the brain activity was absolutely normal.’
Progressing on my Terms
Jogging (monkeys or not) will clearly never supersede Alex’s lifelong activity of choice. ‘Dancing’, he reflects; ‘it’s as complex as science, and as difficult as breathing’. One of the best ways to slow the progression of Parkinson’s, as is being increasingly shown through research, is to keep fit and exercise regularly. Alex found that he was uniquely placed to achieve this. The very same skills which had made him a successful dancer were now essential in combating his Parkinson’s. Keeping his movements fluid, strengthening obscure muscles, keeping to strict regimes of diet and exercise: all these traits were to attain a new level of significance in Alex’s life. He knows that his Parkinson’s will never fully go away, but he can ‘defeat it to the point where it’s a crawl. It’s progressing but, fortunately, it’s progressing on my terms.’
Alex resolved to use his experience, as both a teacher and a dancer, to pass on this knowledge to other people with Parkinson’s. He now holds dance classes for the Parkinson’s community (recently moved online due to the pandemic). For Alex, these classes have required a whole new way of conceiving dance teaching. The benefit of the classes, he tells us, may often not even come from the dancing itself. ‘You’re giving somebody a chance to feel better for an extended period of time. We want to transform it into something that becomes habitual, that at home they will turn on the music and move across the room. Then, of course, you have to add strength, and balance, and all those other complicated things; but hopefully, with the music and the movement, they will want to take that next step.’
Alex believes that temporarily diverting people’s focus from their problems can make a huge difference. During classes, he is ‘not asking them to dance, so much as I’m asking them to pay attention to something other than Parkinson’s.’ Alex has produced a number of videos over the years, all of which provide further opportunities for distraction. Favourites include short film ‘Shaken, Not Stirred’, and the rousing ‘Patriotic Parkinson’s Dance’. Alex informs us that Lucky the dog, who takes centre stage in instructional video ‘How to Wash a Schnauzer’, is keeping well. ‘He’s good. He’s just shaggy, like a bear. He can’t get a haircut because everything’s closed, you know?’.
Regarding his own condition, Alex is characteristically unphased. ‘It’s easier than going to a Broadway audition. I tell you, after you’ve gone through that in your life, everything else is nothing. You know, I often wonder what would have happened if I didn’t get this. It actually scares me a little bit, what kind of person I would be. Just the regular ballet master: teaching ballet classes, Russian accent, glass of Chardonnay. You know, it scares me if they ever find a cure. Am I going to go back to being just a regular old person? Well, hopefully not.’
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