Tango and Parkinson’s: Can Dance Improve Movement and Confidence?

Date: Apr 8, 2021

Jere and Lee Reaves met on a dance floor in Cincinnati, Ohio. It seems only fitting that one of Jere’s treatments for her Parkinson’s disease is taking place in familiar territory.

Jere and Lee participate in tango classes at least twice a week, led by Madeleine Hackney, PhD, Emory researcher, and research scientist at the Center for Visual and Neurocognitive Rehabilitation at the Atlanta VA. Dr. Hackney, a former professional tango dancer, believes that tango can — and does — help improve the quality of life for individuals with Parkinson’s.

“It’s not about people being patients in a room,” Dr. Hackney says. “It’s just about people being together and enjoying something together.”

The benefits of tango for individuals with Parkinson’s go far beyond a feel-good connection. In order to understand how dance can help with a neurodegenerative disorder, it’s important to understand the disease itself.

Understanding Parkinson's Disease

Anyone affected by Parkinson’s — whether directly or through a loved one — knows all too well the symptoms and challenges it can present. Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder, which means it worsens over time. It primarily affects areas of the brain that produce dopamine. One of dopamine’s many jobs is helping to regulate the brain processes that control movement. Abnormal dopamine levels can lead to shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with walking, balance, and coordination.

It was the shaking that Jere first noticed. It started with a small tremor in her pinky finger — a symptom that would eventually lead to her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

Because individuals with Parkinson’s have lower levels of dopamine, which in turn impact movement and coordination, treatments focus on replacing dopamine in the brain.

“Nearly all the treatments we have are for the replacement of dopamine in the brain,” explains Stewart Factor, DO, director of the Movement Disorders Program at Emory Brain Health Center. “It’s defined by motor symptoms — tremor, stiffness, slowness, and walking and balance problems.”

For Jere, that means it’s getting harder to do things like hold her paintbrush, but she still manages to enjoy her favorite activity. While she may be moving more slowly and deliberately, she can also still get out on the dance floor to tango.

Tango and Parkinson’s Disease

Research is new, but several studies point to the possibility that dance is an effective form of rehabilitation for individuals with neurological conditions. As a former dancer, Dr. Hackney was drawn to the idea that a dance she loved — tango — could offer a positive impact on people.

“Dance itself is a form of cognitive rehabilitation,” Dr. Hackney explains. “People dance and, especially in the tango, they have to use their brains in a very, very particular way. They have to remember things. They have to understand timing. They have to put a movement to music.”

So far, the results are promising. In Dr. Hackney’s research, she has found that after tango classes, individuals with Parkinson’s were able to:

  • Walk farther, faster, and longer
  • Motor exams showed improved balance

Dr. Hackney found similar results in her first study, completed more than 12 years ago.

“We looked at 20 hours of tango over 12 weeks compared to 20 hours of chair exercise class, which is the traditional exercise class offered at the time,” she says. “It proved that it improved balance and gait parameters better than traditional exercise.”

Those findings mean a lot more to Jere.

“I’ve noticed a difference,” states Jere. “It helps me organize my movement better. The steps for tango you make, you have to switch your thinking.”

As for Lee, he’s just happy to keep dancing with his wife in his arms.

To schedule an appointment with the Movement Disorders Program at Emory Brain Health Center, please call 404-778-3444.

Schedule your appointment today.

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