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Using Dance as Parkinson's Therapy

Neuroscientist teams up with University of Calgary Dance and Decidedly Jazz Danceworks in innovative program

© Photo by Wojciech Mochniej

Dance is generally viewed as a beautiful, aesthetic practice – not a therapeutic, rehabilitative exercise. Dancing/Parkinson's: The Calgary Project is an exciting program that combines the expertise of the University of Calgary Division of Dance with community partners Decidedly Jazz Danceworks and Parkinson Alberta. Neuroscientist and Adjunct Assistant Professor in Dance Dr. Afra Foroud is leading an unique research program that could provide a valuable new therapeutic approach to helping those with Parkinson's disease.

The Dancing/Parkinson's research study uses weekly dance classes as a therapeutic tool for Parkinson's patients to improve practical motor skills while providing an avenue for social communication and emotional expression. "With Parkinson's disease, the ability to move or express emotions and ideas is diminished or even lost. In this way, the many aspects of what makes each of us unique and independent can become extremely challenging," says Dr. Foroud. "In dance, we are not only moving, we are sensing, feeling, expressing, thinking and creating all at once. Dance is the expressive integration of the many aspects of what makes us who we are."

The multi-disciplinary dance study will examine both the quantitative and qualitative effects of dancing, integrating a series of tasks usually applied in clinical and research settings. The University of Calgary Dance Division, led by Professor Anne Flynn who teaches with the faculties of Arts and Kinesiology, and community partners Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, led by Founder in Residence Vicki Adams Willis designed a dance program that would engage participants by stimulating the motor and cognitive areas of the brain, while allowing for expression and building social relationships. The 40 Dance/Parkinson's participants began dancing on October 29, 2013, and will continue with weekly classes until April 2014, after which they will undergo further testing to evaluate motor skills against a control group of dancers who do not have Parkinson's disease. The research program, which is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Rozsa Foundation and Parkinson Alberta, builds on a successful pilot project held last winter.

Flynn is a co-investigator on a $2.5-million national partnership grant funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada on Arts for Social Change, which is studying the design and evaluation of arts-based programs that focus on capacity building in communities. Dancing/Parkinson's is one of the case studies in this national five-year project. The Dancing/Parkinson's program uses an "Arts for Social Change" model, meaning that participants and researchers all contribute in an atmosphere of co-learning that captures a diversity of experience. Besides contributing to the growing body of knowledge about the benefits of dance for people with Parkinson's, the project also hopes to offer insights into how the arts can be used effectively as tools for creating individual and community well-being.

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