Why people with Parkinson’s are dancing at Stanford’s Neuroscience Health Center

I’m a therapist. And I was taking notes after a session I would start writing and I couldn’t quite finish the sentence. When I went to the doctor she had me write a sentence or two and walk up and down the hall and I came back in the room and she said, “You have Parkinson’s disease.” Eight years ago I had been diagnosed with Parkinson. My first reaction was, “Let me think about this.” I was hoping that the doctor is wrong. They had been wrong so many times. But, this was not one of them. So we have to live with this. So what? Life goes on. Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive neurological disorder. Resting tremor, slowness of movement, stiffness, and difficulties with balance. But we also know that it has a lot of what we call non-motor features. These can be anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, pain, autonomic nervous system disorders. Unfortunately, some people can also have cognitive problems that lead to dementia. So, it is a motor and non-motor disease, that affects really the whole brain. There’s a lot of research, in both animals and in human subjects with Parkinson’s disease that exercise is very beneficial. It actually promotes what we call neuroplasticity, the brain almost regenerates. Dance itself also has quite a lot of research as far as improving the mobility and balance in Parkinson’s disease, and gait, quite dramatically, people’s ability to walk. Dance for Parkinson’s disease is a program that was developed at the Mark Morris Dance Group. In about 2001 Olie Westheimer, who led the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Support Group, marched into the Mark Morris studios and she said, “I would like you to teach people with Parkinson’s disease how to dance.” And David Leventhal, who’s now the Program Director of Dance for PD, began to teach dance to people with Parkinson’s disease. They have now trained over 600 teachers, who are now certified Dance for PD instructors, in over 16 countries and 100 communities. So, it is being practiced all over the world. Dr. Bronte-Stewart, who is a dancer, had encountered Dance for PD, and thought, “I want to bring this program here, and made great strides in achieving this kind of radical thing where we have a dance studio in a clinic. I was a tap-dancer growing up, and a friend told me that they were going to start Parkinson’s dance at Stanford and I was, I was ready. I have known all my life that I am no good at dancing. Now at least I have a good excuse. Some of these folks that come to class would never have imagined taking a dance class before but for some reason, this spoke to them at this time in their lives and when they come they’re excited about this new adventure that they’re on. What we’ve been told by people who do Dance for PD, is that suddenly they feel beautiful again Their bodies feel like they can move They have a sense of themselves as they used to be, and I think that is incredibly powerful as far as brain health. I think it’s a combination of feeling the connection with my body that is a positive connection and that reminds me of maybe my old self, and feeling good about moving. The full impact of Dance for PD is not just like an exercise program, it is something that engages cognition, and it engages the cognitive domains that are specifically affected in Parkinson’s disease. Little by little I am expanding my boundaries. I feel intuitively that it’s opening for me memories, possibilities, ways of being. It gives me the sense that I can handle what is ahead for me. There’s a joyfulness that I feel from the class that carries through and powerful kind of feeling that I can do something to make myself feel good.

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