Science & Research

Talk explores value of dance therapy for Parkinson’s patients

By
Senior Staff Writer

Forty people bobbed their heads and swung their feet to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as the second installment of the Creative Medicine Series kicked off last night. The lecture and interactive workshop, “Artists and Scientists as Partners: Dance, Music and Neuroscience,” focused on the power of dance as a therapeutic tool for individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and Autism Spectrum Disorders. The Creative Medicine Series is the result of a collaboration between the Cogut Center for the Humanities, the Creative Arts Council and the Department of Emergency Medicine at Alpert Medical School. 

“Are we ready to move our hips?” lecturer Rachel Balaban asked the diverse crowd of students, dancers, Parkinson’s patients and doctors as the audience loosened up. Balaban is the regional coordinator for Dance for Parkinson’s Disease, a program that teaches dance to individuals with Parkinson’s.

“Dance classes help Parkinson’s patients to regain some of the fluidity and ease of movement they once took for granted,” Balaban said, citing improved stability, reduction in tremor and a greater sense of social inclusion as some of the program’s main benefits to participants with neurodegenerative disorders.

 Balaban was joined by Julie Adams Strandberg, professor of theater arts and performance studies, who spoke to art’s intrinsic value and its use as a therapeutic tool.

“Dance as an art form should be part of everyone’s life, not just the elite few,” Strandberg said. “Too often when someone is diagnosed with a disease, art is removed from their lives.”

 

Start dancing ASaP

Balaban and Strandberg joined forces last summer and founded a research and advocacy group called Artists and Scientists as Partners, a program that seeks to implement the arts into treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. 

ASaP seeks to build mutual understanding and respect between artists and scientists, advocates arts therapy and provides support to physicians wanting to incorporate the arts into patients’ healing processes, Strandberg said.

Strandberg and Balaban created an independent study course to recruit undergraduates to help with their mission. Four students came on board this semester, analyzing studies about the impact of dance on Parkinson’s patients and exploring how these methods of healing can be incorporated into standard medical treatments. The students summarized their conclusions at Wednesday’s lecture. 

Past Parkinson’s research has focused primarily on the disease’s origins and development of biomedical treatments, Cameron Donald ’14 said.

Parkinson’s is caused by the degeneration of midbrain neurons and results in decreased production of the vital neurotransmitter dopamine. The lack of dopamine affects the patient’s motor skills as well as emotional health, Donald said. The effect of dance as a rehabilitative tool to combat the disease’s symptoms of tremors, rigidity and depression is a relatively new but promising research arena, he added. 

 

Gaining acceptance

At the lecture, Julia Sevy ’14 summarized the results of a 12-month study comparing the motor skills and emotional health of 52 Parkinson’s patients enrolled in a biweekly Argentinian tango class.

“At 12 months, they found the tango group was walking at a faster speed and a longer distance” and exhibited improvements in balance compared to the control group, Sevy said. 

But the majority of studies completed on this topic are plagued with small sample sizes and non-standardized study populations, Donald said. 

While small improvements in motor skill can be measured quantitatively, the true value of dance treatment for Parkinson’s patients is qualitative, Sevy said.

“The friendship and camaraderie has been my favorite part of the dance class,” said Pat, a Parkinson’s patient who has been taking a weekly dance class from Balaban at the Newport YMCA during the past year but declined to give her last name.

“The physical data doesn’t accurately convey how people actually feel about dance,” Sevy said. “The challenge is how to translate the dance treatment experience into a form that is acceptable to the biomedical community.” 

 Balaban said the effort to incorporate dance into the treatment process has met some resistance. “There’s still not an acceptance, and that’s really the foundation for what we’re doing,” she said.

 ASaP attempts to tackle some of the “big questions in art-based research and how to apply those results to the world of medicine and numbers,” said Jay Baruch, assistant professor of emergency medicine and founder of the Creative Medicine Series. “They are taking a scientifically rigorous approach to art … and working to show measurable outcomes.” 

The undergraduate collaborators plan to apply for a summer Undergraduate and Teaching Research Award in which they would develop the curriculum for a course they would assist in next fall, delving into the challenge of communicating arts-based research, said Alisa Currimjee ’14.

           

Coming out

“I’m hoping that today’s presentation is the beginning of something,” Baruch said. “It’s time to explore how innovative ways of thinking can be incorporated and adapted and breathe new life into the very complex active care of patients.”

“This was our coming out party,” Balaban said of the lecture, which offered the opportunity for ASaP n> to showcase and raise awareness of its work.

Baruch said he hopes the lecture provides a platform for individuals interested in the intersection of art and science, “increasing collaboration, stimulating conversation” and preventing “siloing” of efforts in the emerging field.

The Creative Medicine Series “brings people with different skill sets and different conceptions of the body to meet in this place,” Baruch said. “The goal is not just having a conversation, but getting people to think of projects and tangible products that can move the field forward.” 

While the intersection of neuroscience and dance may be just coming into focus, the field offers much promise, Balaban said. 

“When people with Parkinson’s engage in the artistic world, they are surrounded by possibility, not limitation,” she said.

 

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a statement to Jenny Seri ’14. In fact, the student’s name is Julia Sevy ’14. The Herald regrets the error.