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Freedom in Dancing - How Dance Classes can Benefit People with Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is a progressive movement disorder affecting the body's nerve system. It is associated with the degeneration of the basal ganglia and the loss of the signalling chemical, dopamine. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation estimates there are between seven to ten million people worldwide living with Parkinson’s disease and that the average age of diagnosis is over 60 years. Common symptoms are impaired movement, slowness of movement, muscle rigidity and a difficulty in initiating movement.

There is no known cure for PD, but there are several treatments available to assist in managing the disease. PD is classified into classes of severity, the disease is progressive in nature, and so treatment depends on the nature of the individual’s symptoms. Surgeries, medications, deep brain stimulation treatment and physiotherapy are all approaches/ methods that can be utilised. Recent studies have suggested that exercise can potentially slow down the progression of Parkinson’s. Traditional forms of exercise are balance training, treadmill training or strength training. However the role of dance as therapy and exercise has been revisited in the last few years with positive results. There is even some suggestions that early intervention may improve or prevent a deterioration in some functioning with those diagnosed with PD.

“One of the many ways in which Parkinson’s affects you is that it affects the way you move — your posture, your stride, your balance,” Pamela Quinn (professional dance with Parkinson’s Disease) said. “Dance is an art form that deals with these very issues.

The first PD dance class was initiated in 2001 by the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and Mark Morris Dance Group. Since then a range of different PD therapy dance classes have been created worldwide. Dance classes include ballet, contemporary, Irish, ballroom and even jazz classes. Dance participants were shown to grow in confidence, posture, gait function, strength as well as balance.

There is something unique about dance classes and no one yet understands how it affects the neural activity in a PD’s brain. There is only speculation on the mechanisms of how dance may affect the brain. It's theorized that the auditory (musical prompts), visual (watch the technique and replicate it) or somatosensory (spatial movement of the feet) cues in the dance classes, bypass the diseased basal ganglia and find alternative pathways to activate body movement. Fisher et al. suggests that exercising causes the brain cells to find ways to use dopamine more efficiently. Sacco et al. speculated that dance provided a means to activate the areas of the brain that had reduced function.

Dancers rely on muscle memory, and this is no different with PD dancers. The repetition of movements, along to the rhythmic music is thought to better facilitate movement, as the dance classes forced conscious attention on specific body movement. It is theorized that this conscious attention, when repeated, created muscle memory which allowed the body to perform movements without conscious attention later on.

Muscle memory in Argentine tango classes taught a very specific strategy for walking backwards and turning, which benefited participants who had difficulty initiating walking. Participants commented that they felt a sense of freedom from the disease during classes. Even though someone may be experiencing a lot of PD symptoms, such as muscle tremors or muscle stiffness, during classes their muscles will remember the movement and perform the actions.

Dance classes were also found to improve the quality of life for PD’s dances and their caregivers . Individuals could find support, connect with their partners physically, forget about PD, have fun and socialise with others during class. In particular, freestyle dance classes enabled dancers to express their imagination and emotions in a physical way.

Dance also has the generic benefits of exercise, such as improving cardiovascular functioning, sleeping issues and constipation. Two or three weekly sessions of at least 60 minutes in length, over a course of six to twelve weeks, provide the ideal dose of dance for those with PD.

Further research is needed to reveal the mechanism in which dance provides these positive benefits for those with mild to medium PD symptoms. Also as studies so far have focused on those with mild to medium symptoms, more research is need to see if dance can benefit those with more advanced forms of the disease.

If you have or know someone with PD and you or they hav always wanted to give dancing a try, come along to a class at MarShere (once cleared with your/their physician to be safe). You can even signup for the first class free

Want to read more? Have a read of our sources.

2016 Parkinson's Disease Foundation, Inc. ‘Statistics on Parkinsons’

Therapeutic Argentine Tango Dancing for People with Mild Parkinson’s Disease: A Feasibility Study Front Neurol. 2015; 6: 122.

Dance as Therapy for Individuals with Parkinson Disease - Eur J Phys Rehabil Med. 2009 Jun; 45(2): 231–238.

Debaere F, Wenderoth N, Sunaert S, Van Hecke P, Swinnen SP. Internal vs external generation of movements: differential neural pathways involved in bimanual coordination performed in the presence or absence of augmented visual feedback. NeuroImage. 2003;19:764–76.

Petzinger, Giselle M., et al. "Enhancing neuroplasticity in the basal ganglia: the role of exercise in Parkinson's disease." Movement disorders 25.S1 (2010): S141-S145.

Sacco K, Cauda F, Cerliani L, Mate D, Duca S, Geminiani GC. Motor imagery of walking following training in locomotor attention. The effect of ‘the tango lesson’ NeuroImage. 2006;32:1441–9.

Hackney ME, Earhart GM. Recommendations for implementing tango classes for persons with Parkinson disease. Am J Dance Ther (2010) 32(1):41–52.10.1007/s10465-010-9086-y

Dance as Therapy for Individuals with Parkinson Disease - Eur J Phys Rehabil Med. 2009 Jun; 45(2): 231–238.

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