Dancing with Parkinson’s

Marge Sklar teaches a class geared toward people with Parkinson’s disease and their caregivers. (Photo by Tom Buchkoe)

by Marge Sklar & Ruth Almen

Imagine you are Rafi Eldor, Ph.D. and professor of Economics at Tel Aviv University. The year is 2008 and your doctor has just told you that you have Parkinson’s disease and will need nursing care within five years. Where do you go from here? Eldor had an interesting response. In order to stave off the effects of the disease and lead as normal a life as possible, he became a ballroom dancer. Eight years later, Eldor is still teaching and dancing. And, no, he does not need nursing care.

Parkinson’s disease (PD) affects more than 1 million Americans, with approximately 280 in Marquette County. PD is a disorder of some parts of the brain that control movement. The nerve cells that normally produce dopamine in the brain stop functioning normally and some die prematurely.

People living with PD commonly have uncontrollable tremors, suffer from kinetic problems such as sudden freezing or not being able to maintain their movement, have slower movements, postural imbalance, lack of control over the facial muscles and are subject to falls more so than the average person. Non-motor symptoms, such as depression, loss of sense of smell, gastric problems and cognitive changes can also be caused by PD. While dopamine normally decreases as people age, PD disables the nerve cells that produce dopamine, so it is lost at a much faster rate than normal aging.

Many of those with PD must replace dopamine to keep symptoms under control. Proper drug dosages are difficult to assess initially, and even when the correct dosage is found, there is no guarantee the drugs will work as desired. After time, the drugs can stop working effectively, causing a need to increase dosage. However, there is a maximum amount of the drug that the body can take, and some with PD reach a maximum dosage and the drugs can no longer control the symptoms. The drugs used to treat PD can also have unpleasant side effects, such as drowsiness, nausea, lightheadedness, confusion and rapid heartbeat.

PD itself is not fatal, but its complications and side effects make it rank within the top 15 causes of death in the United States. Parkinson’s disease usually affects people over the age of 60, but it can occur in people in their 20s.

Easing the symptoms of PD is possible without medication. “Motion is lotion” is a common adage heard from physical therapists and other practitioners who deal with movement difficulties. This certainly holds true for those living with PD. At a recent symposium held in Kingsford, the speakers reiterated this message over and again.

“You may have Parkinson’s, but Parkinson’s doesn’t have you,” keynote speaker and director for Southwest Parkinson Society, Jo Bidwell said. “We want you to live that quality of life with Parkinson’s. And if they do things like exercise and take their medication properly, they can live that quality of life.”

According to the Michael J. Fox Foundation, “exercise can ease several of the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including balance, flexibility and gait speed.”

It turns out that dancing is incredibly good for you, and that holds true for people living with PD. Dancing engages both mind and body. The Albert Einstein College of Medicine conducted a 21-year research program, and concluded that “Dancing Makes You Smarter,” and enumerates the long-term cognitive benefits of dancing.

While this research focuses on the ability of dance to help stave off Alzheimer’s and other age-related cognitive functions, there is an expanding body of research in exercise programs to improve quality of life for those with PD. Studies indicate that Dance for PD taught by professional dancers and dance teachers positively affects both motor functions and quality of life aspects.

The Journal of Neural Transmission reports that balance, tremor, gait and depression scores improved after an eight-week session of weekly dance classes. Several of the participants continued to attend dance classes four years later. In post-class interviews, participants reported physical, emotional and social benefits in post-class interviews. This was true of caregivers as well as participants with PD.

A study performed in Japan randomly assigned people with PD into three groups: one group attended a weekly dance class; a second group attended a PD weekly exercise group; the third group was asked to continue normal activities. The exercise and dance groups met for one hour per week for 12 weeks. Dance was more effective in improving motor function, cognitive function, and mental symptoms than were either of the other two options. The study concluded that dance is an effective method for rehabilitation in PD patients.

Other studies show similar outcomes. Dancing can improve quality of life, balance, gait, postural stability and control over hand and facial muscles. It can decrease or lessen severity of tremor, reduce the likelihood of falls, and decrease rigidity often associated with PD. Furthermore, the benefits of dance carry over into everyday life competencies. Benefits are reported to be long-term following participation in a 10-week dance class led by professional dancer/teachers. There is evidence that dancing gives better outcomes than other types of exercise. This may be due in part to the social aspects of dance. In short, dancing is good for you and especially good for those with motor/cognitive disorders.

The Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn initiated the Dance for PD program in 2001. There are now centers across the world teaching dance based on the Mark Morris program.

Often, those with PD suffer from impaired gait, poor balance, tremors and slower movement. Some with PD use walkers or wheelchairs. Teacher training focuses directly on the motor and non-motor symptoms. Teacher trainees undergo a series of learning experiences designed to teach them about the disease and to make their choreography and teaching specific to dancers with PD. All the movements used in a PD dance class are designed to be done from either a seated or a standing position, ensuring everyone is included in the class.

A typical class is structured as follows: first there is a sequence of upper body stretches followed by a series of lower body movements; next comes a seated full-body workout; then the dancers use a barre or a chair back to perform standing exercises; finally, there are some across the floor movements. Even the across the floor dancing incorporates seated dancers.

Marge Sklar, owner of and instructor at Dance Zone, recently completed the on-line Dancing for PD course and also attended two workshops at the Mark Morris Dance Studio in Brooklyn. The workshops were intense; there were classes in ballet, modern, tap, jazz, Afro-Carribean dance styles; there were also classes in Tai Chi, somatics, rhythm, music and clowning. After each lesson, the dancers were taught how to apply what they learned to a Dancing for PD class, especially how to design dance choreography so that all students, no matter what their abilities, are included.

Sklar found it challenging but invigorating to keep pace with the professional performing dancers after all these years. It was certainly encouraging to be included among these professionals with one goal—to help those with PD take control.

Michigan has seven locations that offer dance classes for those with PD. The newest offering is right here in Marquette. The class is sponsored jointly by Lake Superior Hospice and Dance Zone. The class is based on the techniques and principles learned from the Mark Morris Dance for PD program. Sklar has taught ballroom, square, contra and social dancing in the area for around 30 years.

The class is geared toward the participants and the day’s lesson plan is adjusted as necessary to meet the abilities of the dancers present. Class meets Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 to 11:15 a.m. and Saturdays from 1 to 2:15 p.m. It incorporates everything from slow arm warm-ups to ballroom and tap dancing, which can be done while seated. Class is open to those with PD, caregivers, family and friends. Class is free, but donations to support the program are gratefully accepted. Absolutely no dance experience is necessary. Two left feet? Don’t worry. You can’t trip while dancing in a chair.

The Negaunee Senior Citizens Center also holds a Parkinson’s Support Group on the fourth Monday of each month. There will be a special showing there of Dave Iverson’s award-winning film, Capturing Grace, at 2 p.m. Monday, February 27. The film shows the daily lives of several dancers with the Mark Morris Dance for PD program and their preparation for a public performance.

Marquette’s YMCA offers a Pedaling for Parkinson’s class. Classes are seven weeks long and meet three afternoons per week. No experience is necessary.

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