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Parkinson's Patients Dance Their Way To Improvement

Doug Nadvornick

People with Parkinson's Disease are known for their shaking, especially in their hands. But for many with this disorder, the shuffling of their feet is just as troubling. Their brains tell their legs to move, but their muscles don't obey. Now, many patients are turning to a form of exercise that they thought they'd have to leave behind.


At the Gonzaga University dance studio in Spokane, instructor Terry Grizzell is leading 10 Parkinson's patients through a series of warm–up exercises. They're sitting in a circle. Many of them are smiling.

They're punching the air with their fists. It makes me think of Muhammad Ali, America's most well–known Parkinson's patient. But because their illness makes movement difficult, Ali and the people here no longer float like butterflies.

With their muscles all primed, Grizzell and his charges push their chairs to the wall and start their dance lesson.

For a half–hour, they follow Grizzell up and down the floor, practicing different steps.

This group is part of the Dance for Parkinson's movement developed by Seattle–native Mark Morris. He's a well–known choreographer. Several years ago, a Parkinson's group in Brooklyn, New York, approached Morris with the idea that dance would provide good therapy for people with the disorder. So together, they developed a program that they're now exporting to cities around the world, including Spokane, Seattle and Ketchum, Idaho.

Grizzell's group has been meeting every two weeks.

Grizzell: "I was amazed. I was really, really excited with my own group when we started in September. After about, maybe the third month, into the third month, I was actually seeing them improve."

After this session, a grinning Bill Warren raves about how dance has helped him find rhythm he's never had.

Warren: "I always come out of here feeling better. I don't get the steps easy. The last one I did and it feels like the whole thing's worthwhile because I got into the rhythm of it."

Also enthusiastic about dance and its benefits for Parkinson's patients is Dr. Monique Giroux. She's the medical director for the Parkinson's program at Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirkland, Washington.

Giroux: "There's no doubt about it. We definitely know dance helps how people with Parkinson's do, how they feel, how they move."

Giroux says dance helps Parkinson's patients improve their flexibility and balance. But she says it also improves their mood.

Giroux: "It enhances and bonds relationships. So I think dance is not all about movement, as you would expect. It's really about increasing somebody's quality of life and total life experience."

Giroux's findings are reinforced by researchers from Eastern Washington University. Occupational therapy students interviewed the people in Terry Grizzell's class and found dancing helps them feel better, physically and emotionally.

Exercise has long been thought to help Parkinson's patients. But so far all of the evidence about dance is anecdotal. There have been no definitive studies that prove dance helps Parkinson's patients. Laura Baker is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Washington Medical School. She says the research doesn't yet explain what's going on here.

Baker: "At this point, a scientist would say, 'Is it the social engagement? Or is it the aerobic component? Is it the music? Is it the combination or is it the intricate dance steps?' And so, right now as a scientist, you wouldn't know which of any of these it might be."

Still, Baker says Parkinson's diminishes a person's ability to make a sequence of movements. That means the fluidity of dance could turn out to be better therapy than, say, riding an exercise bike.

Whether it can be scientifically proven or not, Shirley Jakubowski is convinced dancing helps her build her self confidence.

Jakubowski: "We tend to freeze because we're afraid to move for fear of falling. And this gives us incentive to move, plus having the music makes it so much nicer too."

Jakubowski says she can't wait to continue the lessons. They'll resume in September after a summer break.

I'm Doug Nadvornick in Spokane.

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