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Parkinson's Dancers Focus on Dance, Not Disease

Posted Nov 13 2009 10:00pm

You’re not going to observe any signs of apathy or depression in these Parkinson's dancers in Colorado Springs and Brooklyn. In fact, even talking about Parkinson’s Disease is forbidden in their dance classes. Their focus is on dance, not disease.Check out the following story:

Controlled Moves

Story from: New Bern Sun Journal  - by Brian Newsome  - ‎June 27, 2009‎
Colorado Springs, Colorado -   Barbara Willis moves with the steady grace you might expect from someone who's taught dance for decades.

Her eyes are closed, and she seems lost in the music.

Her moves are slow and purposeful. She tells the class to take deep breaths and reach upward.

The five students, a hodgepodge of elderly and middle-aged men and women, sit in folding chairs and do exactly as she says.

"It's amazing how, if you have a tremor, it will disappear during this song," Willis, 73, tells them. "These moves are difficult for us, but the music overcomes it."

Two things have brought them together in this mirrored studio in southwest Colorado Springs: Parkinson's disease, and a belief that dancing and movement can help fight it.

For an hour each week, they march, they balance, they dance back and forth to music, all with the idea that they can use movement to combat a disease infamous for taking it away. Some of their caregivers also participate.

"Parkinson's wants to take you and fold you in half and never let you go," Willis says, as the students prepare to stand beside their chairs and lift one leg off the ground.

Every move is a way to slowly unfold again.

Willis' class, held at Spectrum Wellness and Rehabilitation Center, was born out of her personal experience with the disease.

A dancer since her youth, she was diagnosed in 1999.

She consulted a hand surgeon when writing became difficult. He sent her to a neurologist who immediately suspected Parkinson's.

For someone who'd built so much of her life around movement, getting diagnosed with a disease made famous for robbing people of mobility was an especially cruel blow.

She decided to keep dancing, if for no other reason than to preserve her peace of mind. To her surprise, the sessions seemed to help with the symptoms.

She had better balance, better posture and more smoothness in her motion.

Her neurologist, impressed with her progress, urged her to start a class for others.

Unknown to her, a similar program was taking place in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Eight years ago, Olie Westheimer, a dancer married to a prominent Parkinson's researcher, started a Parkinson's support group in Brooklyn to help her husband in his job.

Westheimer was looking for activities to help patients get their minds off the disease when she learned that the world-famous Mark Morris Dance Group had moved to town.

She called to see whether the group would be interested in hosting her support group.

The program has been featured in the national media and has become a model that's led to startup programs worldwide, Westheimer said.

The idea began with a love of dance, but, like Willis, she quickly began to realize its benefit as a kind of therapy.

"The aim of the class is to try to move as beautifully as you can."

"It sounds crazy, but it works," Westheimer said.

Willis' students have said they are able to move a little more freely during and after their classes. But anecdotes don't go far in science, and researchers are in the early stages of exploring how movement and exercise affect the disease.

One such researcher is Margaret Schenkman of the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center, who is leading a study to examine a variety of exercises for differences in their effectiveness against Parkinson's.

Previous studies have shown exercise to be beneficial to Parkinson's patients, she said, but whether that's because it somehow helps repair the brain or simply compensates for the disease's deficits is a mystery. Some animal studies have linked exercise with reversing the progression of the disease, but what happens in animals doesn't always prove true in humans.

Her study is at least a year away from completion.

Willis, a retired nurse who worked in neurology, and Westheimer are both well-versed in science, as well as dance, and they say the intersection of performing arts and Parkinson's is not as strange as it might seem at first.

Dance, they say, requires an intense focus on movement, balance, vision and a number of other techniques you might find in a physical therapy session.

"You'd never have a dancer saying, ‘Oh, I use cognitive strategies to dance,'" said Westheimer, but that's exactly what they're doing

"Science is now beginning to understand what dancers know."

Willis said the "mindfulness" of dance and the power of music add something that other exercise does not.

Dr. Brian Grabert, a neurologist at Colorado Springs Health Partners, treats about 200 Parkinson's patients, including Willis and some people involved in her dance program.

In general, he said, those who exercise appear more upbeat and less apathetic, and they tend to report having fewer falls, one of the most serious consequences of the disease as it progresses.

There's one thing that Parkinson's patients find in these classes that they can't find in a doctor's office or rehab session: fun.

Ric Pfarrer, 55, a financial planner and president of a Parkinson's support group, attends Willis' class. He said the chance to come together and have a good time with patients going through the same thing can be as valuable as any physical benefit.

That's a sentiment shared by many others.

Peggy Robinson, 60, said, "I like feeling like I'm not all alone."

At Westheimer's classes, in fact, talk about Parkinson's is not allowed because the emotional escape is one of its strengths. "There's no problem talked about in our class," she said. "We're just dancing."

Considering that 80 percent of Parkinson's sufferers have experienced bouts of depression and report feeling isolated, that's nothing to take lightly.

Grabert said apathy is one of the most common mood disorders associated with the disease, but that's not something he's seen in Willis and other Parkinson's patients who dance.

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