Dancing with Parkinson’s

For International Dance Day, Dr. Sara Houston tells us how an innovative dance programme offers both physical and mental stimulation for those suffering with Parkinson's disease.

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As an academic who specializes in a relatively new area of study, I have to cope with people looking at me a bit oddly – “did you say you study darts?” they ask, mishearing out of incredulity. “No, dance,” I say, “I study people dancing.” Still the funny looks. Why would anyone want to research dance?  Dance is entertaining, but that comes with the tag of not being serious.

Well yes. And no. I lead a research project examining a dance programme in London, United Kingdom. Over five years of studying it, I have grown to realize that dancing may become very meaningful to people.

I study people dancing with Parkinson’s Disease. Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative condition that gradually robs people of the ability to move well. Movement slows, muscles become rigid, posture is compromised. Often people develop a tremor, voices may diminish and depression is common. Physical and social worlds shrink as Parkinson’s progresses. Social isolation becomes a problem.

I was asked by English National Ballet in 2010 to evaluate its 12-week pilot dance class for people with Parkinson’s. The pilot became a regular dance programme and the evaluation turned into a three-year research study, bolstered by a BUPA Foundation prize in 2011. The controlled, mixed-method research engaged with dancers with Parkinson’s in London, Oxford and Liverpool.

My team have measured changes to stride patterns, muscle rigidity and posture, we have measured balance confidence, fall rates and progression of Parkinson’s, we have interpreted people’s responses in their diaries, interviews and focus groups.

The dance programme is one of a growing number worldwide offering dance, not as a therapy, but as art, to people with Parkinson’s. Participants learn adapted extracts from the company’s repertory, dancing to its music and create their own movement on the theme. They are given behind-the-scenes talks and treated to tickets to see the company perform.

You may have visions of ballerinas performing multiple pirouettes, of men leaping across the stage. A dance for Parkinson’s class doesn’t use the virtuosity of ballet, but it does use its principles: the outward focus, extension of arms and legs, pressure of the feet on the floor, lift of the torso, use of various movement qualities.

The sessions start seated in a circle. Everyone is included this way. Participants progress to standing, then move across the floor. There is a group dance. There is laughter and banter, but it is also serious.  It takes concentration to achieve some of the exercises. Dancing demands sequencing and patterning of movement. It demands multitasking and focus. It invites interpretation and imagination.

Dance for PD

It is perhaps an odd choice for a ballet company to offer classes for those with a movement disorder, but it was inspired by the successful programme in New York, run by the contemporary dance company, Mark Morris Dance Group. The programme is known as Dance for PD and it has been a model for dance for Parkinson’s classes around the world.

Dance for PD also has trained dance teaching artists in over 12 countries, including many in the UK where a network has been set up to sustain and develop the practice. The root of these successes, however, lies in the determination of people with Parkinson’s to dance.

My research participants are passionate about dancing, despite some never having contemplated doing it before being diagnosed. Dancing hits the spot physically, socially, emotionally and artistically. It is powerful.

Dancing is enjoyable exercise affecting people physically. Participants with Parkinson’s are able to move more fluidly to music, to perform more exact, more focused movement. They are able to put on clothes more easily up to two days after the class, reach tins from the top shelf. But these are short-term measures. Dancing does not cure Parkinson’s.

The real value of dancing resides in how it enables people to value themselves, to step out of the role of being a patient, to value their ability to create, rather than feel they have nothing to offer, to perceive themselves less disabled than their clinical profile indicates, to build relationships with others, to have the confidence to do other social activities. For one woman, it is about feeling beautiful again.

The study shows that the value of dancing is multifaceted. It is not just about exercise, or about meeting people. There were aspects we didn’t anticipate, for example, the effect dancing had on social participation.

In response to this, the next phase of the project will examine how dance might influence autonomy and participation in society. Patient autonomy is a hot topic for people with Parkinson’s. What if dancing helps with this? What if dancing helps people with Parkinson’s feel more empowered to decide how to live their life, to live well with Parkinson’s?

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maggie chute

thank you so much for insightful article – my brother has parkinsons and i sent it on to him..my son is a dancer/teacher so i also have a vested interest in helping his employment!

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