Monday, September 24, 2012

Radical Steps- Civilizing Parkinson's Disease through Dance

I do not have happy feet. My feet can be downright surly. Uncooperative. Intransigent. At times they refuse to do the simplest things asked of them.  So I took them dancing.

You're thinking "Pete, as the personification, the very incarnation of raw Alaskan woodsplittin', mountain bikin', frigid temperature toleratin' toughness, what in the world are you doing bellying up to the ballet bar for plie practice?"

Fair question. The answer? If I want to maintain my wood splittin', mountain bikin' etc. I need to control the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease as well as possible, as long as I can. Dealing effectively with PD means keeping up your underlying fitness. Dance is an effective way that this can be done. So says the National Institute of Health:

"Dance may address each of the key areas that have been identified as being important for an exercise program designed for individuals with PD. First, dance is an activity performed to music. The music may serve as an external cue to facilitate movement, thus addressing the first recommended component which is the use of external cues. Dance also involves the teaching of specific movement strategies, which is the second recommended component of a PD-specific exercise program. For example, in Argentine tango participants can be taught a very specific strategy for walking backward. They are taught to keep the trunk over the supporting foot while reaching backward with the other foot, keeping the toe of that rear foot in contact with the floor as it slides back and shifting weight backward over the rear foot only after it is firmly planted. Dance also addresses the third recommended component, balance exercises. Throughout dancing, particularly with a partner, one must control balance dynamically and respond to perturbations within the environment (e.g. being bumped by another couple). In fact, people who have danced habitually over their lives are known to have better balance and less variable gait than non-dancers. Additionally, dance-based balance training has been shown to be successful in improving balance in elderly individuals."
We are fortunate in Anchorage to have an instructor specially trained by the Mark Morris Dance Program for Parkinson's, Carolyn Lassiter. I went to one of Carolyn's classes (Offered Tuesdays at the Alaska Dance Theater building, 550 E 33rd Ave in Anchorage, from one until two in the afternoon.) It's free, and to get you in the mood to move, there is live piano music. Class started gently with seated exercises then progressed to slightly more advanced moves while we stood at the bar in case we needed it for balance. As we went through the routines, I felt my body warming up. The pleasure of  moving in rhythm to the music began to take hold. And there was the companionship of the other people who had to work as I did against the limitations imposed by PD. What's not to like about this?

I'll be back to Carol's class. The stakes here are high. The better we maintain our ability to walk, to balance, and to flex our bodies, the less chance we will suffer falls, make trips to the hospital, and run the risks that this implies. Furthermore the closer we can approximate our old "normal" lives, the more we will be able to endure the weight of Parkinson's Disease. And the longer we can keep ourselves going, the more chance we will have to benefit from any new developments in Parkinson's care.

Here is a chance to catch Parkinson's off guard. Our natural tendency is to want to fight Parkinson's Disease. But what if we can charm it with a dance?



Adele said...


Charm it with a dance? That is a delightful idea. To face it under a different set of expectations is an idea I've heard from you before. i think it was in your book that you suggested that fighting PD was not always the best or only Metaphor for life with Parkinson's.

I study karate. In the martial arts, you do the same kinds of center-of-gravity shifting movements, where you don't have the opportunity to look where your feet are going. You have the opportunity and responsibility to practice keeping your balance. Martial artist also practice "Specific movement strategies." In karate they are called kata. Footwork, balance, rhythm, speed, and full extension of the muscles are all important in kata. In karate, though, there is no external music. Kata are practiced against unseen enemies. The main difference between kata and dance is the martial artist practices using power.

I like martial arts for Parkinson's survival and health. I like your description of thr same things about dance. They both are ways to invite the body to explore its capabilities, not its disabilities. The charm of the dance, for me, is its acceptance of current conditions, while you ere hoping for something better.


Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Hi Adele, how long have you been doing karate?

Adele said...

Peter, I started studying Tae Kwon Do in 2006. I earned a first degree black belt in 2010. Last summer when we moved to Mississippi, the best place for my husband and son and I to continue our studies was the Shotokan Karate school here in Clinton. So we took off our black belts and started over a year and a month ago.

It has all been since I have had Parkinson's. it has been very important to my sense of myself and for my physical health.


Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

We had a woman in our support group who did a form orf martial arts. She found it useful for symptom control. We had her instructor come in and he hit it off well with one of the guys, ended up spending time with him on his own. I would think, given what they are finding out about dance, much of the same would apply to the martial arts. I don't know of any studies of this. You may be on the cutting edge of the next big thing in pd therapy!

Adele said...

Could be. Boxing has gotten some press but not research, I think. I think martial arts will always make some people nervous but even though I am slow, my reflex responses to someone else's movements are surprisingly quick. Certainly the teachers I have had have been some of the finest men I have ever known.

They say the best exercise is the one you will do. This is one I love.