Dancing with Parkinson’s

At a Tufts workshop, students learned how to lead people with Parkinson’s disease in movement therapy
people dancing at Parkinson's dance therapy workshop
“We know that part of the major problem of moving with Parkinson’s disease is the lack of the internal timer and rhythm that coordinates movement, and dance can help those with Parkinson’s,” said Linda Tickle-Degnen. Photo: Jill Rocca
April 2, 2018

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From getting out of bed to walking and even sitting down, we take basic movement for granted. But many people with Parkinson’s disease can’t count on their bodies to cooperate—the progressive disease affects their mobility in many ways, and often at unexpected times. A person with Parkinson’s can be walking steadily, for example, and all of a sudden freeze, the connection between mind and legs seemingly broken.

There are drugs that help alleviate Parkinson’s symptoms, but they don’t always work. Other forms of therapy, such as exercise, have been shown to help people with Parkinson’s recover mobility, and one of the more creative and promising ones turns out to be something more associated with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers than people with movement disorders: dance.

If you had been in the CLIC building at 574 Boston Avenue one Friday evening a few weeks back, or at the Jackson Dance Studios the next day, you would have seen it in action: a workshop to teach Tufts occupational therapy students and others how to lead people with Parkinson’s in dance—seated and standing.

The workshop was led by Pamela Quinn, a dancer who has Parkinson’s herself, and David Leventhal, who directs the program Dance for PD. This was the third year running they have come to Tufts to lead the workshop at the invitation of Linda Tickle-Degnen, a professor of occupational therapy whose research focuses on Parkinson’s disease.

“We know that part of the major problem of moving with Parkinson’s disease is the lack of the internal timer and rhythm that coordinates movement, and dance can help those with Parkinson’s,” Tickle-Degnen said. “I am a positive psychology person and an occupational therapist, and we focus on strength as much as we do on disability. So this to me is wonderful—it’s extremely joyful, and it’s done very functionally.”

At the workshop, people with Parkinson’s created dances together with students and faculty, which allowed them to experience movement more freely and to practice creative movement strategies that they can use to promote their functioning in daily living, Tickle-Degnen said.  

Dan Jay, dean of the Sackler School and professional artist, was on hand for the dance workshop for people with Parkinson’s, and sketched the vibrant action. “I was inspired by the event: it’s wonderful for patients, dancers and students,” he said. Photo: Alonso NicholsQuinn is a former professional dancer and internationally recognized blogger for healthy living with Parkinson’s disease who, when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, felt extremely depressed—her whole life was about movement. “But she had an ‘aha’ experience when she realized she could capitalize on her movement disorder as a modern dancer, using her knowledge of the body to embrace her Parkinson’s, and take it forward to teach others with Parkinson’s how to move better through the power of dance,” Tickle-Degnen said.

Together and separately, Quinn and Leventhal train dancers and others, such as Tufts occupational therapy students. Leventhal is a former dancer in the Mark Morris Dance Group who now travels the world for Dance for PD to give workshops on how to create beautiful and joyful dance for all levels of ability. “David views it as a major way of helping people with Parkinson’s to experience the social and creative benefits of including dancing as a valued activity in community life,” said Tickle-Degnen.

“Dance is an imaginative, creative approach to therapy,” said Renata Celichowska, and works differently than rote forms of exercise. “It’s that creative ask of a person; you are challenging the brain to do something different.” Photo: Jill RoccaHosting the first workshop in 2015, Tickle-Degnen teamed up with Renata Celichowska, director of the dance program at Tufts, who brought some of her students to learn how to work with people with Parkinson’s. “Dance is an imaginative, creative approach to therapy,” said Celichowska, and works differently than rote forms of exercise. “It’s that creative ask of a person; you are challenging the brain to do something different.”

This year’s workshop was the third that Celichowska had helped to coordinate and also attend. “Each year I do it, I learn something new,” she said. “I see how the work can make a difference in the quality of life of people with movement disorders. I can see the qualitative change.”

The workshop, which was supported by the American Parkinson Disease Association Massachusetts chapter, “is great for teaching students how to think about health and to see this as wellness,” said Tickle-Degnen. “We are focusing more and more on teaching young people studying occupational therapy, dance, and music how to work with people with Parkinson’s, and in the process, how to collaborate with them as clients rather than as patients.”

“Dance is social, physical, cognitive, and creative,” Celichowska said. She noted that dance students who have taken the workshop have said they have gotten a lot out of it, “transferrable skills that they can use in other kinds of dance therapy,” she said.

While last year’s workshop focused on dancers and music, this year the focus was on occupational therapy graduate students, Tickle-Degnen said. “OT is focused on daily living—how you live each day, and have purpose and meaning in your life, and living in the community as best you can independently,” and dance is a very practical way to do that, she said.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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