Dance classes focus on getting people with Parkinson's moving

It seems antithetical to common sense: a dance class for people whose most severe symptom is difficulty in movement.

Yet in dance, the challenge that movement poses for people suffering from Parkinson's dissipates as they begin to feel the joy of the dance and the beat of the music - forgetting how arduous it is to move. Dance frees them, said dance instructor Rachel Balaban of Middletown, R.I., who leads a dance class once a week at Connecticut College in New London, Conn., for people with Parkinson's.

"They release themselves from their body and what they can't do, and then they focus on what they can do," said Balaban, who leads a group of Parkinson's patients through gentle stretching to dance that varies in flavor - including jazz, African and French moves.

"People do only what he or she can do, up to their ability," said Stan Wertheimer, a Mystic resident and president of the Connecticut Parkinson's Working Group, which funds the class through donations. "People aren't being judged or evaluated, they are asked to enjoy themselves.

"If you can't do it, don't do it. I noticed smiles all around the room - people were having fun," said Wertheimer, who convinced his group to sponsor the dance class and is also a participant.

Dance for Parkinson's has caught on, with dance companies such as Mark Morris in New York specializing in offering classes as a therapeutic tool for people with Parkinson's, as well as their caregivers.

The first controlled study that evaluated the benefit of dance for Parkinson's found that patients who participated regularly in tango dance classes showed significant improvements in balance and mobility when compared with patients who did conventional exercise. The study was conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

"The most recent data shows that people who are active and have Parkinson's disease do better and require less medication," said Dr. Anthony Alessi, chief neurologist with The William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich.

Parkinson's is a neurological disease that causes brain cells to die, which then reduces dopamine, the chemical messenger in charge of the initiation of movement. As a result, people with Parkinson's develop stiffness, the inability to move quickly, loss of balance and rigidity of joints.

And while studies show people who have exercised their entire lives fare better at keeping those symptoms at bay, Alessi said people who just begin exercising also reap the benefits of movement - especially if it is designed in a therapeutic modality such as dance, yoga or t'ai chi.

"Dance is a perfect activity in addition to their medication. It's a good way to keep Parkinson's patients more active and safe from falling," Alessi said.

The benefit of dance is the body will also move in a side-to-side direction - the best way to break falls, Alessi noted.

For Jean Lariviere of Norwich, the class was an excellent exercise - with added benefits.

"It's a social event," Lariviere said. "Rather than exercising by yourself you have sociability."

And the Parkinson's dancers weren't alone - all of them had come with a caregiver, and by the end of the class, the mood in the room was considerably lightened.

Dance, Balaban points out, is also beneficial with the music, which uplifts the class with songs such as "Be Happy."

"Dance therapy seems to be proving to be a very useful modality for patients with (Parkinson's disease). In some magical way, dance seems to be able to override some of the abnormal brain circuitry in a subset of patients. What a miraculous phenomena to see someone who struggles walking, dance," said Dr. Michael S. Okun, the National Parkinson Foundation medical director.

Norwich Bulletin