As Science Catches Up with Decades of Anecdotal Evidence that Dance Helps People with Parkinson’s Disease, Local Efforts Converge at ADF | Dance | Indy Week
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As Science Catches Up with Decades of Anecdotal Evidence that Dance Helps People with Parkinson’s Disease, Local Efforts Converge at ADF 

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It's one thing to read an article in a medical journal about how dancing can assuage the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. But Susan Saenger, a dance and movement therapist with the American Dance Festival's Parkinson's Movement Initiative, was watching it happen right in front of her.

She and occupational therapist Lindsay Voorhees were teaching their Dance for Parkinson's class at Broad Street Studios, using the soundtrack from The Music Man. At the end of the session, one student found she couldn't leave. She was "frozen," a Parkinson's condition in which the person's feet feel glued to the ground.

"Well, march out," Saenger said, and started singing "76 Trombones." The student immediately walked out of the room. The instructor's unconventional request lifted an everyday movement out of the woman's subcortex, where habitual gestures like walking are stored, and into the problem-solving cortex, a part of the brain unaffected by Parkinson's.

"Anything that demands a new physical response is an answer to the problem," says Voorhees. "We ask, 'Can you get from here to that counter to take your pills if you think of it as a dance?' And people have said yes." Voorhees hastens to add that it doesn't work all the time, and that dancing doesn't represent a cure for the world's second-most common neurological disease, which affects some six million people, most over age sixty.

But dance "is one of the most immediate things that we know can really help people in their lives," Saenger says. "We already know a lot about what can enhance quality of life, and finding movement you love and engage in consistently—we know that works."

Science has been catching up with the anecdotal evidence suggesting that dance can not only make people with Parkinson's feel better but also reduce the severity of their symptoms. Over the last decade, dozens of peer-reviewed articles have found that dancing can improve the motor and cognitive functions, mental symptoms, and quality of life among people with Parkinson's.

In 2001, the Brooklyn Parkinson's Group proposed a dance class for its patients to the Mark Morris Dance Group, already one of the top modern dance companies at the time. As the classes' popularity spread—and research began confirming its medical effects—the company's Dance for Parkinson's program spread to two hundred and fifty communities in twenty-four countries.

Duke student Alana Jackson founded NC Dance for Parkinson's during her senior year in 2013, and recruited Voorhess and Sanger over the following years, first as volunteers, then as teachers. Last year, ADF began coordinating that effort with those of Poe Wellness Solutions into a cohesive program of weekly free classes at the festival's Broad Street Studios. A grant from the Parkinson's Foundation, with funds from its annual Moving Day North Carolina walkathon in Raleigh, made the series possible, including Saenger and Voorhees's dance classes, Pilates for Parkinson's, and workshops and outreach classes in Tai Chi and physical and music therapy.

According to Julia Pleasants, ADF's community engagement manager, the initiative reached more than one hundred and thirty people in its first year, which concluded in late June with a workshop in Argentine tango led by local dancer and Culture Mill codirector Murielle Elizéon, who is also the only local choreographer on ADF's mainstage season (see sidebar). The festival has applied for funds to continue the program after its summer hiatus.

Saenger, Voorhees, and Pilates instructor Meg Poe resist labeling their classes as therapy.

"People with Parkinson's are always going to therapy," Saenger says. "Their lives are filled with doctors' appointments. They don't want another therapy. They want to feel like they're just living their lives."

That makes the ADF classes "the anti-therapy," a room where people can leave Parkinson's—and their usual roles as patients and caregivers—at the door. Voorhees says the teachers attempt to "create a space where there is freedom from the limitations that Parkinson's can impose on the mind and body." That space also has to suspend the judgments found in ordinary exercise classes.

"It takes the stress of, 'Am I doing it right?' away and allows all of us to be in our own bodies however we can," Saenger says. "In this class, there is no Parkinson's, and no observers. There are only dancers." She pauses for a moment, grins, and adds, "There are no mistakes. There are only solos."

How rare is such an environment for people with Parkinson's? A student in Poe's Pilates class told her, "This is the first time I felt I belonged somewhere in six months." Paula Easton, a neighborhood coordinator with Fearrington Cares, says the ADF classes have been "the beginning of a turnaround for me. When I left that first class, I called a friend and said, 'This is the most wonderful thing I could have found.'"

Easton believes the classes have helped her keep her Parkinson's at bay. "My muscle movement is better, my control of movement is better, my stiffness and muscle weakness are improving, and it helps with my body awareness. I just feel more in control of my movement and everything I do."

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