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How dance is helping fight Parkinson's disease

By Mark Andrews | Health | Published:

Angela O'Connor remembers her first dance class in January.

"I just remember I couldn't stop smiling, I hadn't smiled so much for such a long time," she says.

But the event in a church on the outskirts of Shrewsbury is no ordinary ballet class. All the members of the group are suffering from Parkinson's disease, and are using dance as a form of therapy in the first class scheme of its kind in the West Midlands.

"I tried tai chi, and various other forms of exercise, but for some reason exercise to music is so much more appealing," she says. "I don't know why, but there is something about moving to music which gets you much more involved."

So evident was the joy on Angela's face that her husband Nigel had no doubt about what to get her for a present when she celebrated her 66th birthday. Her first ever pair of ballet shoes.

Retired nursery school manager Angela, who has suffered with the condition for 17 years, got the idea for the class after seeing a report on Channel 4 news about similar schemes being run elsewhere in the country. But while such schemes are extremely popular in the United States, her Take a Chance and Dance group is thought to be the only one of its kind in the West Midlands.

"When I saw it on television I tried to find if there was a group in Shrewsbury, but the nearest ones were in Liverpool and Cardiff," she says.

"I asked around some friends, and we formed a group in Shrewsbury."

Dance teacher Annie Moody and neurological physiotherapist Sandy Ramsay also got on board, and about eight turned up for the first meeting at Belle Vue Methodist Church in Shrewsbury on January 9.

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Word quickly got out, and now, less than three months on, the group has grown to 30 regular members, and has been forced to move to larger premises at Shrewsbury Baptist Church in Claremont Street.

Annie says the difference the group has made in less than three months in phenomenal.

"The difference is quite extraordinary to see after just 10 classes, even for me," she says.

"You just have to look at the way they stand at the start of the lessons, the way they hold themselves.

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"It gives them self-confidence, they realise they can move much better than they thought they could, and it also improves their fitness.

"They are moving to the music, rather than to silence, and it makes a huge difference, they are beautifully held and beautifully placed."

Sandy adds: "You see people walk out of the class straighter and taller, and with smiles on their faces.

"I have worked with people with Parkinson's for many years, so I knew the benefits of exercise and dance. My mother suffered from Parkinson's, she's dead now, and she would have loved something like this."

But while the classes are taken in the style of a traditional ballet class, the group is keen not to be pigeon-holed as a ballet class, and does explore a variety of different music styles. Even the rousing marches of American military bandmaster John Philip Sousa get an airing for some of the more energetic dance moves.

"We usually use the Sousa marches for the bar work," says Annie.

The group is also supported by the Shrewsbury Food Hub, which provides the coffee and pastries.

Ironically, Angela says she never had any inclination towards dancing before, although she did enjoy watching ballet at the theatre.

The concept of ballet as a form of therapy for Parkinson's disease can trace its origins back to 2001, when Olie Westheimer, director of the Brooklyn Parkinson Group in New York, asked her local ballet group to devise a programme of serious, rigorous, dance classes for members of her group.

Westheimer knew how valuable the dancers’ expertise in balance, rhythm, control and sequencing might be to those with Parkinson’s disease. She figured that learning to dance might allow them to push against the physical and creative limitations imposed by the illness, and two members of the Mark Morris Dance Group, with a composer and pianist, began offering free monthly classes.

The motor problems that affect people with Parkinson’s disease are mainly down to voluntary rather than instinctive movements. Little is known about the reasons why, but dancing to music, imitating a teacher and developing a muscle memory of dance sequences appears to temporarily stop the problem.

Morris now runs a network of schemes across the US and nine other countries across the world. In Britain, it was picked up by English National Ballet, which started running classes just over seven years ago. At the same time, Roehampton University's Sara Houston began a study into the therapeutic benefits of dance for Parkinson's sufferers.

There are thought to be 120,000 people in the UK who suffer from the condition, and there is no known cure, but Houston reports immediate improvements among those who took part in the Kensington sessions.

"Parkinson’s alters people’s ability to move voluntarily," she says.

"Muscles may become rigid, tremors may develop and movement and thought may slow down.

"Falls, mental illness and social isolation are often accompanying problems. There is no cure for Parkinson’s and medication becomes unreliable over time."

Along with colleague Ashley McGill, Houston measured changes to balance, stability and posture, observed movement qualities, participant interaction and analysed the value of attending.

"The small study suggested that balance and stability had improved and that participants were able to move more fluidly while dancing," says Houston.

"The class was also highly valued as a cultural activity, as a focus for socialising and as a source of mutual support. "In addition, the results suggested that participants were using movement capability that they already had but had not necessarily had the confidence to use, or realised that they could use."

Houston and McGill carried out two studies: an initial pilot investigation, which ran for 12 weeks during 2010 and 2011, followed by a comprehensive three-year project which was completed in 2015. During the second study, many of the participants were issued with special T-shirts with sensors to monitor body movements.

It concludes that dancing can help sufferers nurture an active lifestyle, not just physically, but also socially.

"The main benefits of dancing with Parkinson’s are in the mental activity it provides and in emotional and social health and well-being," Houston says.

Her research also found that cognitive functioning, psychological health and relationships also indicated that the dance programme was providing particularly strong support for participants.

"We can conclude that dancing is a good and challenging mental workout for people with Parkinson’s and allows some participants to cope better with symptoms and disability," she says.

"It offers a positive environment where there is a community of support through dance, allowing participants to nurture positive attitudes to the future and a sense of independence.

"It was also evident that the dance class was a place to experience freedom and capability in spite of what was happening in participants’ daily lives, but which had the potential to expand into everyday life."

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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