Dance brings new life to Parkinson's patients
Published: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 10:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 10:52 p.m.
When John Schmidt was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease five years ago, he could barely raise his arms higher than his chest. Now he can lift them towards the sky in the Sun Salutation yoga exercises as part of his dance class at the University of Florida.
An Open House for both the Dance for Life and Sing for Life programs will be held on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Nadine McGuire Theater and Dance Pavilion. It is free and open to the public and features a barn dance. Refreshments will be provided. For more information about the program or about participating in the study, www.arts.ufl.edu/cam/danceForLife.aspx
Schmidt said the program has helped him regain the balance and flexibility that the disease has robbed him of.
“When I'm through here, I don't walk like I'm drunk,” he said at his weekly class at the Nadine McGuire Theater and Dance Pavilion on Monday afternoon.
The program, which started four years ago, is a joint initiative between Shands' Arts in Medicine program and the UF College of Fine Arts. Called “Dance for Life,” it is one of three programs (the others focus on singing and art) designed to increase the movement capabilities of Parkinson's disease patients. This Wednesday at 7 p.m., an open house for the program will be held in the same location as the class.
“Everything about (people with Parkinson's disease) becomes smaller and more rigid,” said Jill Sonke, one of the class instructors and the director of the Center for the Arts in Medicine at UF. “We are just trying to get them bigger and bigger.”
The program is designed by dance faculty, physical and occupational therapists and doctors from the UF Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration.
Thirty minutes of warm-up exercises emphasize lengthening the torso and stretching every muscle — even the toes. In one exercise, participants kept their heels planted on the ground, then raised their feet off the floor and were challenged to lower their feet, toe by toe.
After the warm-ups, the class — which also includes UF dance majors — moves to the ballet barre for more traditional ballet exercises.
“We don't dumb it down. We teach a solid dance class,” said Sonke, also a professional dancer. Sonke added that students have learned swing, tango and folk dance in addition to plies at the barre.
She also said the whole goal of the program is to have fun.
“We try to get them laughing so they break out of the mask,” she continued, explaining that the “mask” refers to the stiff facial aspect that Parkinson's disease patients often take on when their facial muscles stiffen.
Kathy Castle, a Parkinson's disease patient in Gainesville, does all three programs and says they've helped her balance, confidence and stability.
“I think it's that extra shove to push us to do a little more,” said the 71-year-old. “You don't have time to feel sorry for yourself.”
The doctors behind the program insisted on making it goal-orientated, Sonke explained, so there is dance recital at the end of every semester.
While it's been known for some time that exercise is good for Parkinson's disease patients, experts are honing in on dance specifically as a potentially beneficial activity. Parkinson's disease is characterized by the loss of brain cells producing the chemical messenger dopamine, which impairs both muscle control as well as mental capacities such as memory and decision-making ability in patients.
Last spring, the Parkinson's Research Foundation awarded the UF Center for the Arts in Medicine a grant to conduct research on the effect of dance on patients. It is part of an ongoing larger study on the effects of aerobic activity in patients that is sponsored by the National Institute of Aging being carried out by the Center for Movement Disorders.
“The goal of the project is to really get some sort of measures to help demonstrate the benefit, or tease out what it's improving: is it motor function, mood, cognition?” said Dr. Irene Malaty, the Medical Director of the National Parkinson Foundation's Center for Excellence at UF and an assistant professor of neurology.
Malaty said people with Parkinson's disease often have trouble initiating movement, but the music helps them do so. “When they have to move independently, they have a harder time than when there is an outside rhythm or force to help them keep moving.”
The class dances to various soundtracks, with an emphasis on music from the participants' era, Sonke said. On Monday, that meant the 1960s hit, “Under the Boardwalk.”
“We don't think this is just a physical thing. It's not necessarily a rigorous exercise experience,” added Malaty. “There's a great camaraderie, and it's really therapeutic on a different level.”
Sonke agreed. “We see that the socialization is really the key,” she said, adding that patients love to be around the energy at the university, which is why the classes are held in the afternoon instead of at night. They will now expand to three times a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1 p.m.
“It's hard to park here, so they'll come an hour early and walk slowly because they love it here so much.”
For Schmidt, 78, and his wife, Verna, 79, the weekly drive from Starke is worth it. They make a day out of it, scheduling John's doctor's appointments around the class and eating at the student union.
“What's exciting is being around so many young people. There's no way we can keep up with them, but we have fun trying,” John Schmidt said.
Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or email@example.com
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