Living with Chronic Disease

Parkinson’s Patients Rediscover Freedom of Movement with Dance

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

People with Parkinson’s disease (PD) are discovering how dance improves their symptoms, boosts their mood and creates a unique community where they can connect.

“Dance changes our emotions, and muscles and mechanics often ‘fire’ better. It’s an outlet for expression, communication and freedom of movement, which people with Parkinson’s disease often need,” explains Henry Ford physical therapist Sara Arena.

Dance for PD® was founded in New York City 2001. Today, it reaches more than 100 communities in 20 nations, creatively addressing symptoms like balance, cognition, motor skills, depression and physical confidence. Multiple research studies show both long- and short-term benefits.

What is Parkinson’s disease?
A disorder of the nervous system, Parkinson’s disease develops gradually. It causes tremors, or “shaking,” especially in the hands and arms.

“Movements become stiff and slow. Balance, posture, and the ability to move or walk are impaired, and over time, symptoms become worse,” explains Arena. Celebrities diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease include Michael J. Fox, Neil Diamond, the late Muhammad Ali and Alan Alda, who publicly announced his diagnosis recently.

What happens in a Dance for PD class?
Classes begin with seated warm-ups and progress to standing while holding onto a chair. Later, those who are able can move around the room without assistance. Each class is different and everyone participates at their own level. Participants can use their walkers, wheelchairs or canes.

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Music is important, and instructors put plenty of thought into play lists. Instrumental music, upbeat songs and “oldies” are prominent. Motown is a favorite. Varying the music and the movements keep classes exciting, but instructors also use repetition to improve confidence and enable people to build on their abilities. Salsa, tango, and inventive rhythms and patterns make it interesting.

Caregivers are also invited to participate. Many say it is a fun activity they can do together and it improves their relationship.

“It’s a good idea to check with your physician to be sure it’s safe for you to participate,” says Arena.

Interested in Dance for PD? Classes are offered weekly at no cost at the William Clay Ford Center for Athletic Medicine in Detroit and at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. The Detroit instructor is trained and certified by Dance for PD® and is also a Wayne State University professor of dance; the West Bloomfield instructor has a bachelor of arts in dance and a master’s degree in counseling, and has completed a Dance for PD® training workshop.

Register a class at the Detroit or West Bloomfield location now.

Sara Arena, PT, MS, DScPT, specializes in community health promotion and wellness with a variety of patient populations, including people with Parkinson’s disease. She sees patients in their homes as a licensed physical therapist with Henry Ford Home Health Care.