The Power of Movement
Words By Brigid Elsken Galloway
Photographs by Ross Mantle
Back in 2000, Olie Westheimer was leading a support group in Brooklyn for people with Parkinson’s disease. Her class was diverse, and so were the ways that PD affected her students. She heard one woman describe the great mental preparation it took to do one simple task: get up from the table, walk to the kitchen, grab a plate and come back.
For Westheimer, that struck a chord. “The sequence of things she taught herself to do—where to focus, how to move her arm, what to think about in order to turn around—I thought, ‘Wow, she’s thinking like you learn to think in ballet!’ ” she says.
Westheimer wasn’t a physician, but she dove into the clinical literature. Experts in movement therapy had outlined a wide series of training cues to help people with PD move more easily. “I realized they were using some of the same tools dancers use,” says Westheimer, who trained in ballet as a younger woman. “Professionally trained dancers had so much to teach.”
Thinking like a dancer has yielded 14 years of results, and dance classes for Parkinson’s have come into their own. Studies indicate that dance may help with mobility, gait and balance. Programs have turned up all over the world. All of that started when Westheimer approached the Mark Morris Dance Group in 2001.
The company had just opened a studio in Brooklyn and was looking for ways to become more involved in the community. So Westheimer, Mark Morris Dance Group and Brooklyn Parkinson Group joined forces to begin the Dance for PD® initiative.
David Leventhal (who is now program director) was one of the first instructors. He knew very little about Parkinson’s disease—and that was fine with Westheimer. “Olie didn’t want us to teach to Parkinson’s symptoms,” he says. “She wanted us to teach a dance class. So that’s what we did.”
The benefits were evident from the start. The dancers taught the group the art of telling a story with the body. Expressive movement often required exaggerated and interpretive motion. That helped, because people with Parkinson’s can be less aware of their limited movement. Describing how and where to move the body through imagery helped participants remember the sequence of movements in a dance phrase. Musical accompaniment and rhythm helped participants think consciously about flow and form. The program helped them access other parts of their brains to plan out and execute movement.
“Over time people start to think like dancers,” says Leventhal. “One gentleman in California started to freeze in a grocery store. Because he had been taking our classes, he decided he would think of his journey to the checkout as a dance. By thinking about it imaginatively, he was able to use that strategy.”
Roadmap for Mobility
Movement disorder specialist Claire Henchcliffe, M.D., can confirm that auditory cues can come in handy when it comes to freezing. “Medicines don’t help freezing or gait very much,” she says. “Freezing is a major risk factor for falling, so the use of dance to overcome it is pretty important.”
Henchcliffe is director of the Parkinson’s Institute at Weill Cornell Medical Center and a member of Dance for PD’s scientific advisory council. Her theory is that dance uses multiple neural networks, which may provide more benefit than traditional exercise. (See sidebar.) “It’s learning a sequence of steps, following a rhythm, working with a partner or other dancers, working with visualization,” she says. “All these activities together are extremely complex.”
Research on the program and programs like it keep turning up positive results. According to preliminary studies, dance programs may improve fine motor function, flexibility, coordination, balance and facial expression of participants. Researchers in Freiburg, Germany, have reported significant improvement in motor scores and a decrease in rigidity after just a one-hour dance class. Regular participation showed an “improvement of quality of life and of the well-being of the patients and their caregivers.”
Most recently, a small study conducted at the English National Ballet’s Dance for Parkinson’s program indicated that participants “were highly motivated, with 100% adherence, and valued the classes as an important part of their lives. Additionally, results indicated an improvement in balance and stability.”
Not all of the results are physical. Participants also benefit from the fun, social nature of the programs. They can help to ease isolation and depression. “My patients who go to that group seem to be coping better,” Henchcliffe says.
Today classes are taught in more than 100 communities throughout nine countries, including India, Great Britain, Belgium, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. Each instructor translates the principles into his or her own language of dance.
That personalized approach is essential to the success of the program. Christina Ridenhour helped start Dance for PD in San Francisco, in 2010. Now there are two dance classes a month. “One has electronic piano and is very funky and rhythmic. The other class has more traditional piano accompaniment,” she says. “There’s a real feeling of positivity and coming together.”
Students arrive in varied states of mobility, including wheelchairs. Ridenhour often sees marked improvement in motor function as a participant evolves from patient to dancer.
“The desire to participate is powerful,” Ridenhour says. “It’s beautiful to be in a place where the disease is accepted. You can acknowledge it, but you’re also not defined by it.”
Want to dance? Ask your physician before starting any physical activity. Visit DanceForParkinsons.org to find a program near you.
Benefits of Dance
A once-a-week, one-hour dance class may help with the most common Parkinson’s symptoms.
- It Helps You Move: The program can help improve mobility and rigidity, as well as gait and tremor.
- It Helps When You’re Standing Still: It can also help with stability, as well as stationary activities such as facial expression and fine motor skills of the hand.
- It Strengthens the Gray Matter: The demands of concentration, learning new steps and recalling sequences challenge mental function and may improve cognitive flexibility.
- It Builds Bridges: Dance programs can enhance the social life, health and everyday life strategies of PD patients.
Originally printed in MoreThanMotion, Summer 2014.