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Parkinson’s patients find a new rhythm

I arrived a bit late, breathless, to the dance class, held in a corner studio in the Stanford neuroscience clinic. It had been a stressful morning, but as the music began, I felt my heart rate slow and my shoulders relax. The space filled with ethereal sounds as people around me began to sway and raise their arms, as if praying to the sky.

As I was to learn in the course of writing a Stanford Medicine magazine story about the class, it wasn't your usual genre of dance, but one uniquely designed to help people with Parkinson’s disease stretch their taut limbs, regain their sense of movement and find an artistic outlet amid an embracing community.

“There is joy in the dancing class,” one of the participants, 74-year-old Juan Bulnes, told me. He’d been stunned to learn some eight years ago that he had Parkinson’s disease, and the class had become a refuge – a place where he no longer felt bound by the limitations of the neurodegenerative disorder. Though his balance is poor and he has to do much of the class sitting down or holding onto a dance bar, he found it to be “a liberating experience.”

The international program, known as Dance for PD, began in 2001 in Brooklyn and was brought to Stanford last year by Helen Bronte-Stewart, MD, a neurologist and Parkinson’s expert who is also a former professional dancer.

“As physicians, we stress the importance of physical activity, social interaction and mental stimulation to our patients with Parkinson’s disease,” Bronte-Stewart told me. “Dance for PD gives them all three. But it is much more than a possible therapy or treatment; the PD dances have told us this type of dance restores their self-image and brings them joy.”

In researching the class, I found at least a dozen published research studies testifying to the benefits of the program: better balance and motor skills, greater freedom of movement and endurance, as well as psychological benefits for patients, who may suffer from depression and cognitive decline. Some participants I spoke to said it had improved the quality of their lives, giving them a social outlet and a sense of acceptance.

“It’s totally creative and totally accepting of whatever your abilities are,” Sherry Brown, one participant, told me. Since she began attending class, she said she has seen some physical improvements; her movements are more fluid and she can do things she wasn’t able to do before, like stand on her toes and snap her fingers. “I think the rhythm helps keep things more even. I feel my gait is more even. In general, my body feels more in tune – more rhythmic. It’s subtle,” Brown said.

The class meets twice a week at the new Stanford Neuroscience Health Center. Thanks to a grant from the National Parkinson Foundation, the class is free and is open to anyone in the community.

Previously: What art and the humanities bring to medicine: a look from Stanford Medicine magazine
Photo in featured entry box by Timothy Archibald

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