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Fighting Parkinson's, With Dance

For someone who has Parkinson’s disease, movement can be the greatest challenge. That’s why doctors are urging Parkinson’s patients to hit the dance floor.

Most of the people on this dance floor are more familiar with the Parkinson’s shake than the Harlem Shake. Still, instructor Misty Owens shows no mercy.

“Throw that arm! Keep that energy!” She shouts at the two dozen or so people on the wood-floored dance studio.

For years, Owens taught in New York, where she co-founded the Dance for Parkinson’s Disease Program. The group has classes in cities across the country. When Owens returned to her hometown of Dallas a few years ago, she started this one at a Texas Health fitness center in Dallas.

“This is the first time dance is really being used for Parkinson’s,” she says.

The progressive brain disease, which causes a loss of brain cells that release the chemical dopamine, makes it difficult to walk and balance. Exercise of any kind can help prevent falls and build strength. But its dance that’s gaining popularity in the Parkinson’s community.

“The premise is that dancers use their brains to control their bodies and this is a neurological disorder stemming from the brain so why can’t this help people who have problems getting their bodies to move,” Owens says.

Finding The Rhythm

In a blue track suit, Jim Rosenbloom, 69, follows a routine that involves feet tapping, body tilting and finger snapping. He says the class looked a lot different when he first showed up.

“It was all women!” he says, laughing. “I got here and I thought I was going to get razzed by the other people in the other groups but it wasn’t like that at all, men were curious to say I heard you went, how is that? They started coming and I’d say it’s half and half now.”

Which makes doing the cha-cha or tango a lot easier.

Rosenbloom has had Parkinson’s for a decade. His hands tremble when he talks and the disease has taken a toll on his shoulder. A few years ago his doctor told him he might need rotator cuff surgery. That’s when he decided to give dance a try.

“I started this and after two months he said you’re doing everything I need you to do you’re making the movements you couldn’t before and we’re not going to operate on you,” Rosenbloom says.

It’s not cured, but he’s able to live with it.

Ballet As Medicine

This is no special therapy session, pliés and tendus are taught like any other modern dance class. Even if some people can’t quite turn their legs to reach third position, or tap dance like Fred Astaire, that’s not the point. The choreography pushes students to flex and stretch and build confidence.

Micahel Desalomsis a neurosurgeon at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. He says memorizing dance routines can help people with Parkinson’s learn to coordinate everyday movements that the disease makes challenging to orchestrate.

“Dancing is not easy and it requires a lot of different muscle movement balance and coordinating all those movements together,” Desaloms says. “So in doing that not only are you getting an aerobic workout but it is giving your brain connections a workout.”

Studies show it’s the music component of dance that may be key to improving balance. People with Parkinson’s sometimes experience freezing episodes, where they can’t take the next step. The rhythm in songs can remind patients with Parkinson’s to keep moving. And, Dr. Desaloms points to another advantage. 

“About twenty percent of patients with Parkinson disease get depressed,” he says. “And being involved in these activities and keeping physically active can really help with depression as well as motor movements.”

Dance class participant Jim Rosenbloom says the class has given him new friends, and even a new outlook on the disease.

“I’ve learned to think of this as just another obstacle in life to overcome. It’s not a death sentence, he says. “I’m going to fight this with every ounce I got, and its working so far.”

And what better to train for that fight, than a little bit of cha-cha, or tango?

Dance Details & More Info

*Dance for Movement Disorders classes are held every Tuesday and Thursday from 2:00 to 3:15 p.m. and the first Saturday of each month from 11:00 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. at the Finley Ewing Cardiovascular & Fitness Center: 5721 Phoenix Drive, Dallas. For more information, call 214-345-4224. 

*Instructor Misty Owens will be out of town in July, teaching classes at the Mark Morris Dance Studio in New York where the Dance for Parkinson's Disease Program was started. She will return to Dallas in August.

*The Dallas Area Parkinsonism Society (DAPS) co-sponsors the class with Texas Health Presbyterian. You can attend a free monthly educational meeting at DAPS Monday, September 9, 1:00 p.m., at University Park United Methodist Church, located at the corner of Preston Rd. and Caruth Blvd. Carolyn Dobson, Neurologic Music Therapist, is the scheduled speaker.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.