Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community

 

Moving experience

Dance program helps Parkinson’s patients 

Dance for PD allows Parkinson's patients to express themselves artistically while improving their motor skills and mood.

   

Sherry Brown walks gingerly into the dance class, her right elbow anchored at her side, her hand cupped in a ball. Her balance is uneven, so she takes care in finding a seat among the circle of chairs in the light-filled room at the Stanford Neuroscience Health Center. As the slow, rhythmic keyboard music begins, her arms, stiffened by Parkinson’s disease, open in a wide, upward arc as if embracing the sky.

“You get a sense of your body and are pushing your body to do things you don’t think you can accomplish,” said Brown, who was diagnosed in 2008 with the neurodegenerative disease. “There is something about the music and movement together that seems to help at a different level. I come out of the class feeling energized and relaxed, all at the same time, and ready to move.”

Brown is among some 20 students who have found a welcoming community at the Dance for Parkinson’s Disease class, also known as Dance for PD. The class not only is physically therapeutic but often gives students a psychological boost. People struggling with movement and speech because of the disease say the sessions are liberating, providing a new way to express themselves.

Conscious learning

The program began 15 years ago in Brooklyn, New York, and now is offered in 16 countries; it was introduced at Stanford Medicine last year with the opening of the new neuroscience center. It is not a traditional dance class but rather a group artistic experience. Teachers use elements of classic and social dancing, together with imagery, poetry and live music, to inspire participants to move in creative ways. The results translate into daily life, studies show, as participants demonstrate an improvement in walking and fine-motor skills, such as tapping a finger, and feel a lift in mood and a better sense of self that comes from gaining more physical control.

“Dancing has all the elements Parkinson’s patients can benefit from: extension and flexibility and moving with intention,” said Damara Ganley, a professional dancer and trained Dance for PD instructor. “Dancers are trained to be in their bodies in a conscious way, and Parkinson’s patients also are learning to be in their bodies in a conscious way.”

Parkinson’s, which affects as many as 10 million people worldwide, can cause rigid limbs, tremors, lack of muscle control and slowed movement. Patients may have impaired walking and balance and are more prone to falls. Some also suffer from depression and may experience a cognitive decline, with slowed thinking or memory issues.

An aspect of therapy

Helen Bronte-Stewart, MD, MSE, a Stanford professor of neurology and neurological sciences and a former professional dancer, said she always tries to incorporate exercise, yoga and dance as part of the standard therapy for her Parkinson’s patients.

“As physicians, we stress the importance of physical activity, social interaction and mental stimulation to our patients with Parkinson’s disease,” she said. “Dance for PD gives them all three. But it is much more than a possible therapy or treatment: The PD dancers have told us this type of dance restores their self-image and brings them joy.”

Sherry Brown says that dance classes have improved her balance and mobility, and give her a positive mental boost.

   

When the neuroscience building was in the planning stages, Bronte-Stewart said she was determined to include a dance studio and helped design the space with a flexible floor and glass walls on two sides. She and Ganley obtained a grant from the National Parkinson Foundation for the class, which is free and is open to all in the community.

The program was started in 2001 by Olie Westheimer, executive director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, who walked into the Brooklyn studio of the Mark Morris Dance Group one day with the idea of creating a dance class for members of her group, said David Leventhal, a former Mark Morris company member who is now Dance for PD’s program director. Leventhal became one of the first instructors.

“I thought it was the most enjoyable teaching experience I’d ever had because people were so focused on learning and trying to absorb as much as we had to offer,” Leventhal said. “They were so engaged as students right away, because for them it was not just an activity they added to their week but an essential portal for them to experience what possibilities were still available to them. It became a way of accessing their true selves—who they were as people, rather than as patients.”

Backed by research

Leventhal said the program initially met with some skepticism in the medical community.
“There was one neurologist who told us, ‘I think the program is great. But I can never recommend it because dancing is a frivolous activity and that would tarnish my reputation as a serious doctor,’” he said. “I think there is a lot of misconception about the amount of learning and skill and the amount of brain work and physical work that somebody has to do to execute a dance. It’s the opposite of frivolous. It directly addresses what people are struggling with. I think that over the past 15 years, people have come to recognize that.”

In fact, published studies have shown that Parkinson’s patients who do some form of dance experience measurable physical and psychological improvements. More than a dozen studies have shown that twice-weekly dance classes improve balance, motor skills, freedom of movement and endurance. Study participants also describe many improvements in the quality of their lives, with one saying, “I want to fly. It gives me a swinging feeling. I feel relaxed after the dance lesson. Before, I’m always very stiff.”

In addition to physical benefits, dance classes may counter some of the cognitive and mood issues that affect patients, who sometimes withdraw and suffer social isolation and poor self-esteem. The classes offer an opportunity to mix with others in a social setting where everyone is accepted regardless of limitations, and studies show that participants feel their mood lighten and their anxiety decline.

Bodies in tune

“There is joy in the dancing class,” said Juan Bulnes, a 74-year-old computer scientist who attends regularly with his wife, Margaret. “We do some of the same movements as in other classes, like tai chi or physical therapy, and here we do them with an added, special flair that comes from conscious dance movements, such as gracefully waving your hands to imitate falling leaves, rain, wind or reaching for the stars. Integrating physical exercise, rhythm, music and imagination makes dancing a very liberating experience.”

Brown said the class, together with her medication regimen and other physical activities, has helped to improve her balance and flow of movement and given her the ability to do things, like stand on her toes, that she couldn’t do before.

“I think the rhythm helps keep things more even. I feel my gait is more even. In general, my body feels more in tune — more rhythmic,” she said. “I feel that with all the things I am doing — the exercise, the dance, the medications — I am definitely delaying the severe symptoms of the disease. I am pleased that I am able to have the life that I have at this point.”

The dance classes are part of the Stanford Neuroscience Supportive Care program.
To learn more, call 650-721-8500 or go to stanfordhealthcare.org/for-patients-visitors/neuroscience-supportive-care-program.

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