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Parkinson's patients tango their way to treatment

Parkinson's patients learn the tango as part of a study on the effects of dance (Wash. University photo)

By Julie Bierach, KWMU


St. Louis, MO – About a million and a half people in the U.S. live with Parkinson's disease.

And until a cure is discovered, researchers are studying other ways to improve the balance, muscle rigidity, and uncontrolled movements associated with the illness.

Two local researchers at Washington University's School of Medicine are studying the benefits of dance.

For these patients the prescription could be the tango. In a basement room on the campus of Washington University on a Tuesday afternoon, 64 year-old Bob Ayers and his wife Linda are dancing. His left hand, clasped in her right, trembles as a result of his Parkinson's disease. He was diagnosed 8 years ago, but in this class, he's finding relief.

"I've noticed a difference," he said. "Coordination, ability to get up and out of a chair, roll over in bed. I can always do it better and more efficiently the day after or the day of a class."

Last summer, Bob and Linda were one of 20 people who participated in a pilot study at Washington University, where researchers were looking at the tango as a possible treatment therapy. The progress was so dramatic among those that participated, that funding was obtained by the American Parkinson's Association for further research.

Now, two days a week Bob and Linda participate in this larger study of 70 patients that includes not only the tango, but also, the waltz and fox trot.

Madeleine Hackney is one of two researchers conducting the study and is also the dance instructor. She was a professional dancer in New York City for 11 years.

"The tango in particular is a very improvisational dance form," Hackney notes. "So, the steps are varied, they can choose the steps that they want. They are seldom wrong by choosing a particular step."

Hackney says they're finding the fox trot and waltz are also promising therapies, because the steps are more codified. So after step A, B must follow. This helps with balance and mobility in the patients.

The people in the study span in age from 37-79. Some are assigned to tango, and others are assigned to Waltz and Fox Trot, or Tai Chai, which they're also looking at as a possible therapy.

Dr. Gammon Earhart, assistant professor of Physical Therapy and the project's main researcher, shows off the technology as he asks patients to stand on one leg or with one foot in front of the other for as long as they can.

"We also have this device here on the floor which is an instrumented walkway," Earhart said. "It's like a piece of carpet with sensors built into it. And as a person walks along that walkway their footprints are painted on the computer screen.

"And we can analyze all the different features of their walking from those data."

Earhart says she's quite confident that by the end of the study, they'll find a significant improvement in all participants, not just those in the tango class.

"Having to move in close proximity to a partner and to constantly be responding to the environment and to your partner and keeping your balance in the face of all the different things that are going on on the dance floor will probably prove to be the most important," she said.

But physical progress aside, these people are having fun. Just ask 79 year-old Al Greenblatt. He was diagnosed a year ago, and says before he signed up for the classes he was just sitting at home with nothing to do: "Psychologically I feel better.

What's interesting is that the people who have the disease, they don't seem to be bitter about it. They seem to be enjoying themselves when they're with company."

And Dr. Earhart and Hackney agree that the participants' mental health will be significantly improved. Those in the class have found that you can't underestimate the joy that comes with dancing and socializing with people who are enduring the same physical challenges as you.

So until scientists develop a cure for Parkinson's disease, these patients will just have to dance their way to feeling better.

See photos.


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