Ballroom dance beneficial for those with neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease

Rob McLaren swayed from side to side as several rows of people all switched their weight from one foot to the other, a simple activity to the unknowing eye.

For these individuals, this was a difficult task.

And though McLaren stands tall at 6 1/2 feet, he can no longer reach his full height without actively persuading his spine to stay straight.

He was attending the Power of Dance, a Parkinson Society Maritime Region education and awareness event in Dartmouth last spring. He was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease 2 1/2 years ago and has used movement to keep up his quality of life.

“For a while there, I couldn’t lift either arm above shoulder height,” said McLaren, whose original symptoms involved a slow deterioration of his usually active lifestyle, as he could no longer do daily tasks the same way.

“It wasn’t a matter of strength, more just immobility.”

His wife had been taking Pilates classes at Interlude Mind Body Fitness in Dartmouth, and he began taking private lessons with Kim Kraushar, one of the business’s owners and instructors, to help improve his range of mobility.

The classes worked, and Kraushar was inspired to extend this particular service.

“We’re offering a special program to people with movement disorder,” said Kraushar, who teaches conscious walking and helps patients improve at everyday things like getting in and out of chairs or bed with ease, control and confidence.

“It’s the people that walk through my door, for me they are my teachers. If they have different challenges, I’ll strategize with them and then I’ll research what it is that their needs are and develop the programs really organically.”

Another benefit from this physical activity is the association with others with a similar condition and the strength that comes from that bond. This was also the idea behind the conference.

“There’s over 6,600 people in the Maritime region that live with Parkinson’s, and at best there’s probably (400) to 500 people that are members of our organization so we’re trying to reach out to a broader audience of people,” said Bob Shaw, CEO of the society.

Eighteen experts, including researchers, physiotherapists, naturopaths, chiropractors and natural nutritionists came out to offer advice.

Though no cure for Parkinson’s has been found, several studies to improve patients’ quality of life are underway.

In the meantime, the option to increase movement and sociability is available through the physical therapy of tango.

Carole Hartzman and her husband, Carl, went round the room, balancing each other’s weight, each body guiding the other in a natural rhythm —forwards then back, turning round all the time. The music slowed to a patient pace as they endearingly shared a gaze, enjoying their embrace.

“I taught Spanish at the university level, and I love Spanish and I love Argentina, and Argentina has this wonderful tango and I used to go to clubs and see it but I never danced it; I never danced tango and never thought I would,” said Hartzman, who has had Parkinson’s for 12 years.

She joined Tea & Tango, a free dance program for ambulatory people with neurological conditions who meet, tango and have tea together, last year.

“I can be walking very slowly, I can be stumbling, there can be all kinds of problems rolling around, and as soon as that music is put on I can dance tango. It’s like you just move into it and everything else falls away. That other movement that you don’t want just goes away.”

Martina Sommer and her husband, Lorne Buick, started the program in 2013, after Sommer’s father phoned to share the news that the dance form that brought the couple together also offered therapeutic benefits to those with his illness.

“I felt all along there’s something to tango because of the embrace; it’s very gentle and it’s improvised and the music is very emotional and so it has all these different channels of reaching your brain and reaching your health; it’s very holistic,” said Sommer.

It’s thought that the influence of the music and dancing with a partner uses a different pathway in the brain, bypassing the damaged part.

“The main features or symptoms of Parkinson’s are either stopping in place or a tremor, so we found that both of those disappear when people are dancing,” said Buick.

At the moment, movement may just be the best medicine.

As originally published in The Chronicle Herald

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