Parkinson’s disease: researching healing effects of dance therapy

Posted on November 6, 2013

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Improving mobility and reducing the number of falls: Professor Morris, during a dance therapy session.

Improving mobility and reducing the number of falls: Professor Morris, during a dance therapy session.

Imagine having only scattergun control over your body’s movements and living with the constant uncertainty that at any moment your leg might freeze or your hand begin to shake uncontrollably?

This is the reality for many afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. Across the globe, more than seven million people live with the condition – 100,000 Australians have it. There is no known cause. There is no cure.

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative neurological disorder affecting a person’s ability to control their body’s movements. It is triggered from a deficiency in dopamine – a neurotransmitter necessary for regulating smooth motor skills.

Symptoms may develop slowly, but inevitably intensify over time. They vary between individuals and are helped by drug treatment.

Now, in exciting developments, La Trobe in conjunction with dance researchers at the University of Melbourne,  is at the centre of breakthrough trials using DANCE to assist alleviating some Parkinson’s symptoms. World-renowned expert on the condition, La Trobe’s Professor Meg Morris is helping lead a global study into its healing effects.

Professor Morris: moving success stories

Professor Morris: moving success stories

Helping ‘unlock’ symptoms

From Venice to Victoria – from contemporary dance to tango, classes are helping “unlock” Parkinson’s symptoms and allow participants to move more freely. They relax and the mental health benefits of being part of the group are huge for them and their partners.

‘I have many moving stories of participants who shuffle into the studio, put on a costume, hear the music then transform into dancers,’ says Professor Morris.

‘We think dancing can improve mobility and reduce the number of falls in people with Parkinson’s.’

‘When we put on the music and ask them to dance, they’re less rigid. Likewise if we ask them to sing in time with the music, they are able do that. A lot can be done through physical activity and exercise.’

The Dancing for Parkinson’s Project is run with a growing consortium of people worldwide. Professor Morris collaborates with colleague Dr Daniele Volpe in Venice, Italy, Dr Samrya Keus in Amsterdam and Dr Amanda Clifford in Limerick, Ireland. The Michael J Fox Foundation has also helped support her research.

World-wide momentum

This is a truly global phenomenon. ‘A group of our Venetian Parkinson’s dancers performed at the Edinburgh fringe festival and caught the attention of an Irish physiotherapist and members of the Irish Dance Academy. They were taken with the show and plan to run classes offering people with the condition six variations of Irish set, (or square ) dancing.’

Worldwide momentum calling for Professor Morris’ expertise in treating Parkinson’s and running the dance program shows no sign of abating. She will return to Europe next year to work with colleagues in Italy and Ireland.

She is awaiting news of a European grant and closer to home, working with her physiotherapy students and the computer science department at La Trobe, to produce a so called “freeze” app. It will give people with the disease ten simple tips to try to ease sudden onset symptoms – especially useful if a person is out in public and faced with muscle rigidity or tremors that make it hard for them to move.

Bringing hope

‘They say Parkinson’s is the gift that keeps taking, it just keeps taking; but in some of the dance classes for a moment, the symptoms ease and it’s like magic,’ Professor Morris says.

‘Ordinary people transform and the dancing can bring hope. Imagine a couple who’ve been together 40 years and living with this for a decade? To be able to dance together is really special. I remember at a class at a hall in East Brunswick, the woman had been coming learning tango and at the last lesson, her husband joined in and they danced together.

‘It was the most moving thing.’ – Catherine Garrett

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