Health

Dancing with Parkinson’s

In a Brooklyn, New York studio, rhythmic movement classes are easing the symptoms of a devastating disease and building an understanding community

December 27, 2021
A group of people with Parkinson's disease sit together in a circle with one arm raised, dancing.
The first dance classes for people with Parkinson’s disease were small, only about six people. Today, Dance for PD attracts dancers from 38 countries, according to David Leventhal. [Courtesy of Chris Currie]

Thirty arms – more, when you count the ones on Zoom – twist up to the ceiling in time with the plinks of the upright piano, mimicking the tangled branches of a growing tree. A beat later, pairs of hands float back onto laps, like leaves drifting on a breeze down to solid ground.

Analogies like these, presented by an energetic instructor dressed all in black, guide the dancers’ movements for the remainder of the hour-long class. Their bodies trace the silhouette of Japan’s Mt. Fuji. Limbs extend to cast open imaginary drapes. Biceps flex against the resistance of an unseen stuck sliding door.

Many of the dancers have been coming to these afternoon classes for years. Manny Torrijos, 72, has returned week after week for over a decade. To Torrijos, a former bank examiner, attendance is about enjoying life and the community he’s found in the airy studios of the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, thanks to its innovative Dance for PD program for people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. 

During the pandemic, the program’s popularity has soared, with the shift onto Zoom rocketing participation from 650 dancers to more than 1,800, some from as far away as India and South Africa, says David Leventhal, one of the founding teachers. 

Characterized by symptoms like tremors, difficulty moving and rigidity, Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder that gets worse over time. There is no known cure. People living with Parkinson’s can also experience a constellation of “non-motor” symptoms: apathy, depression and changes in thinking.

Parkinson’s symptoms sometimes make it difficult for Nancy Petaja, 77, to get herself out of bed and head downtown to class. But she has continued coming to classes each week since 2012, and “I always feel better after,” says Petaja, a retiree who currently volunteers as acting director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group after decades of work experience with a performing arts organization and as director of learning and development for a bank.

Over the years, a few people would continue coming to class even after Parkinson’s limited their movement so much that they were unable to leave their wheelchairs, some of the dancers tell me. It was a transformation when they got to class: The participants watched their peers lift their hands and move them in time with the music.

More than one million people live with Parkinson’s in the United States, with 60,000 Americans newly diagnosed each year, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. Medications are helpful, but not perfect, says Karolina Bearss, a researcher at York University in Toronto, Canada who studies the effect of dance on Parkinson’s disease symptoms.

Patients’ brains adapt quickly to doses of levodopa, a common drug used to treat the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s. Over time, they end up having to take more medicine to reach the same level of function, according to Bearss. And higher doses can mean worse side effects, like involuntary movements and confusion.

The flowing motions of dance seem to help with Parkinson’s symptoms, and classes like those offered by Dance for PD can be an important supplement to medication. Researchers have shown that dance can improve both motor and non-motor symptoms – like a person’s balance, gait, mood and quality of life – over short stretches of time.

And dance might be effective in the long term as well. Bearss recently co-authored a scientific study with York neuroscientist Joseph DeSouza that assessed people with Parkinson’s symptoms using the Movement Disorder Society Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale. In the recent study, 16 people with Parkinson’s attended a dance intervention, which interspersed short bursts of faster dancing with lower-intensity seated movement, once a week for three years. 

Bearss and DeSouza compared the progression of Parkinson’s symptoms in the dancing group over the three-year period with that of 16 non-dancing peers with Parkinson’s. The non-dancers experienced typical annual progression of their motor and non-motor symptoms. The dancing group, though, did not experience the same decline, according to Bearss and DeSouza. The results were published in July in Brain Sciences. 

It’s hard to tease apart which aspects of group dancing drive the therapeutic effects, but Bearss points out that it is a “whole brain exercise.” Looking at oneself in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors engages the visual system, listening to music lights up the parts of the brain that control hearing and sashaying with dance partners in a room full of people stimulates the touch and pleasure parts of the mind, says Bearss. 

Dancing in a group is also just plain fun. When Petaja came back to the studio for the first time after a COVID-induced hiatus, she described the atmosphere as “electric.” 

And no matter how well-intentioned an exercise program or other therapeutic intervention, it will only work “if people are motivated to continue and stick with it beyond a few weeks,” says Judith Bek, a research psychologist currently based at the University of Toronto who studies the relationship between thinking and movement in people with Parkinson’s disease and in other populations. Dance for PD has provided that motivation for Tom Dean, 60, a newly retired architect, who says he never saw himself in a dance class but has been a regular attendee for the last several months. 

While it is unclear whether the musical component, or consistent hour of exercise, or visualization is the key, participants at the Mark Morris Dance Center tend to come back to the socialization piece. “We’re all in the same tribe,” says one of the dancers.

The group offers practical support, too. When the Dance for PD community ballooned during the pandemic, Petaja met a woman tuning in from across the country, in Colorado. Months later, when she visited Colorado with her son, Petaja made it a point to connect with her new friend in person. 

They walked through her friend’s house together. Petaja noticed how her friend organized her home to adapt to changes in her function as her Parkinson’s progressed, and Petja applied some of those strategies in her own life when she returned. People in the group learn from each other, Torrijos explained.

Back in the Brooklyn studio, the hands of the clock near 4:15 as the last of the afternoon light slips away. The piano quiets and the group of dancers gathers hand-in-hand in a corner of the room. One by one, each turns to the person next to them and squeezes their hand, acknowledging their neighbor with a bow of the head. The “pulse” makes its way quietly through the group.

The power of dance sessions like these for people living with Parkinson’s disease is multi-dimensional. For Torrijos, though, the reverence of this final part of class epitomizes the most important aspect of the hour. “We show each other the love we feel for the group,” he says.

About the Author

Emily Harris

Emily Harris majored in chemistry at Williams College, where she also deepened her interests in neuroscience and psychology. Before SHERP, she worked as a research assistant for a longitudinal study on aging. Emily looks forward to making health and medical information accessible and relevant by combining storytelling with the translation of scientific concepts. Raised in New Hampshire, she enjoys trail running and hiking.

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