Parkinson's disease and dance: 'It keeps me alive'

There is growing appetite for dance among the 145,000 people in the UK with the degenerative neurological disease.

For a magical few seconds, 10 of the 19 dancers in Melanie Brierley’s class rise up on their toes, raise their arms above their heads and balance, before slowly returning to standing. What makes this so impressive is that all these men and women have Parkinson’s disease. The members of Lancaster PD Flow and Connect class catch each other’s eyes and grin. It’s taken about 30 minutes, but they have a control over their bodies they did not have when they arrived at this room at St John’s Hospice on the edge of Lancaster. At this moment they are simply dancers.

“I think we have got that off to a tee,” says Brierley, radiating satisfaction. “I am quite proud of that. Think of a body that can shift and change. If you are finding things difficult today, don’t beat yourself up.”

Her enthusiasm is infectious. “I am trying to help people to remind the link with their own bodies,” she beams. She has been working with Parkinson’s patients for 10 years and was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 2014 to study dance and the disease in the US for her PhD at Roehampton University.

There is growing appetite for dance among the 145,000 people in the UK with Parkinson’s, the degenerative neurological disease that freezes, weakens and removes control over muscles. Three years ago, the Dance for Parkinson’s Partnership listed 20 UK classes but now there are about 70.

English National Ballet has been running a Parkinson’s programme for 10 years and has hubs in Ipswich, Oxford, Cardiff, Liverpool and London. Initial research with Dr Sara Houston from the University of Roehampton showed a series of 12 weekly dance classes improved balance and stability.

And a new study led by Dr Judith Bek at Manchester University’s Body, Eyes and Movement Laboratories suggests dance classes can help people with Parkinson’s to tackle everyday domestic tasks more effectively.

Her project – collaborating with ENB, Manchester Metropolitan University and dance social enterprise Equilibrium – used ballet and classical Indian dance. Some participants reported that Indian hand gestures had allowed them to do previously impossible practical tasks, such as opening jars and reaching for objects.

Bek is excited. “Imagine what a big selling point it would be with NHS and social care services if we could could prove that dance helps daily activity,” she says.

Brierley’s regulars are clear that it works. As the class ends, former primary school teacher and guitarist Mike Bell, 69, admits he is feeling exhilarated after romping his way through Brierley’s version of a Scottish reel.

“I really feel the benefit of dance the day after,” says Bell, who was diagnosed two years ago. “On those days I feel completely normal and can walk around, do jobs around the house and play my guitar. Otherwise I just sit around and it’s easy to feel miserable.”

It is more than just exercise, according to former merchant navy man Bob Hay, 75, who initially resisted going to Brierley’s class. Now he’s working with her to make a film to raise the profile of dance for people like himself.

“I was in a very black place mentally when I came here, but dance keeps me alive,” he says. “The thing with dance is that it makes you think too. The more I can keep active and fit, the longer I will live with the disease.”

Whether it is ballet, contemporary or traditional Indian dance, classes appear to have similar effects. Participants at Brierley’s class arrive hesitantly – several supported by sticks and walking frames – but they leave after an hour’s s journey through movement feeling better. All are moving more fluently, one woman who arrived in a wheelchair leaves the room pushing it and all are laughing and joking.

Houston’s research with ENB found that dance combats depression, which affects 40% of people with Parkinson’s, and social isolation. “Dance keeps people physically and socially active which prevents them from feeling disabled,” she says. “A lot of these people feel socially isolated.”

The issue of proof is a crucial one, says Kiki Gale, the director of Dance for Parkinson’s Partnership, who is organising an international symposium at Sadler’s Wells next March to share research findings and pinpoint dance’s value over physiotherapy or other forms of exercise. It is hoped that health and social care professionals will be among the delegates.

“When you walk into a PD dance class you see the magic”, says Gale, “but how can we get the health professionals into the room to see that?”

In Bristol, Rachael James has been running a Parkinson’s dance class at Southmead hospital funded by Fresh Arts, an arts programme managed by North Bristol NHS trust, and Bristol city council is funding her to do a new weekly class.

For Donna Baber, arts programme manager for North Bristol NHS trust, it makes economic sense. She says: “If people are better able to manage their conditions, they are less likely to require our services.”