Alumni Profiles

Janet Hamburg

Dancer helps those with Parkinson’s rediscover everyday movement

Hamburg close-up
UB degree BS ’73, magna cum laude; Favorite place in Buffalo Albright-Knox Art Gallery; Last book read he Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge; Where to find her online at www.motivatingmoves.com or www.dance.ku.edu

For Janet Hamburg, movement and healing are intimately connected.

In Motivating Moves for People with Parkinson’s, her DVD/video of seated exercises coproduced by the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, Hamburg demonstrates techniques to help those with Parkinson’s improve their breathing, flexibility, balance and vocal range. “Feel as though your head were a helium balloon floating up, up,” Hamburg tells participants in the taped exercise class, as they gently rotate their necks to a Debussy-like accompaniment. The original piano music by Robert Abramson—a faculty member at the Juilliard School—mixes blues, jazz, classical and more to match the lunging, pressing, punching and other exercises.

Motivating Moves stems from her late mother’s experiences with Parkinson’s and also from many years working with Parkinson’s support groups. The exercises do more than strengthen and stretch muscles, however. “They allow people who have been robbed of their unique sense of rhythm, timing and phrasing to feel pleasure in moving again,” says Hamburg. The overall approach is based on the work of dance theorist Rudolf Laban (1879–1958) and his protégée, Irmgard Bartenieff (1900–1981), a dance researcher who also trained as a physical therapist.

Now a professor of dance at the University of Kansas and a certified Laban Movement Analyst, Hamburg has been interested in “moving bodies through space” since her college days at UB. With no dance major available and not enough time to implement one herself, she opted for a special major in social and urban systems engineering; urban mass transportation planning was her particular focus. “I thought it would give me a quantitative edge,” she says of her studies that included mentoring by both civil engineering and architecture faculty. Meanwhile, she continued to study dance at UB.

In 1973 came a pivotal moment. With her parents in town for graduation weekend and a cap and gown purchased, Hamburg skipped the ceremony rather than miss performing in choreographer Merce Cunningham’s Field Dances. The production was being staged outdoors at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery by company member Valda Setterfield and couldn’t be missed. “I had been focusing on what I thought was my career path for the past four years, yet denying how important dance was in my life.” Hamburg later earned an MA in dance from Mills College, while absorbing her earlier training at UB.

“UB served me well,” she says. “It taught me to be interdisciplinary, applying movement theory and principles of anatomy and kinesiology to the everyday movement challenges we all face.”

Story by Ann Whitcher-Gentzke, with photo by Earl Richardson