Parkinson’s Disease is a brain and movement disorder. So, you wouldn’t be wrong if you assumed learning to dance was out of the question.
But a Tasmanian physiotherapist is leading the state teaching people with Parkinson’s how to dance.
Dancing with Parkinson’s is a dance class which runs for one hour every Wednesday at the Bellerive Health Quay in the state’s South. It has been running in Tasmania for more than a year.
Carmen Woodmansee, a physiotherapist and a life-long dancer, first heard of the idea when she was at university.
“One of the lecturers there was one of the world-leading researchers in the area. My friend worked on her project with her and from there I learnt about the idea,” Miss Woodmansee said.
She said the idea made complete sense to her.
“When I started here it was our main director, who has a dancing background, that found out I was a dancer and said ‘hey, have you heard about Dancing with Parkinson’s?’. I said I had and she ‘right let’s do it then’.”
She said the class works because dancing and Parkinson’s are two different wiring systems of the brain.
“With Parkinson’s, what is affected is automatic movements, so movements you don’t have to think about, like getting out of a chair. It’s that movement of up and go that is affected,” Miss Woodmansee said.
“What we do with the dancing is to make the moves a lot more conscious. We say ‘right, when this beat goes you’re going to step forward and step back’, so they’re thinking about their movement more and bringing that into their conscious thought.
“Their movements are all there but their (brain is) just having trouble accessing them. We’re just finding a different path to access the movements.”
Miss Woodmansee said the class had a slow start, but this year had built up to running two lessons. More than 14 people now participate in the class.
It gives them a chance to be on equal ground. It’s not a carer patient type role in the class, they’re partners learning to dance together.Tasmanian physiotherapist Carmen Woodmansee
“They don’t all necessarily come every week because Parkinson’s people have good days and bad days,” she said.
Parkinson’s Australia estimate more than 70,000 Australians are living with the disease. The disease is hard to diagnose, because there is no simple test.
While the average age of diagnosis is 65, the cause of Parkinson’s is still unknown.
“People come with their partners and spouse. It’s very much a social thing where they learn to dance together, which takes the emphasis off it being exercise. We just look at it as a dance class,” Miss Woodmansee said.
“It gives them a chance to be on equal ground. It’s not a carer-patient type role in the class, they’re partners learning to dance together.”
Those with Parkinson’s experience the baseline symptoms in different ways. Non-motor symptoms such as pain, depression and problems with memory and sleep can also occur and can have an impact on the day-to-day life of the person.
“A lot of people come in (to the class) and start off quite stiff, they’re having a bad day and things aren’t moving well. But with all the stretching and movement they’re doing in the class they walk out feeling a bit more ready to take on the day,” Miss Woodmansee said.
“We try and take something from all the different areas it can affect so the class can benefit everyone.”
But dancing away the pain isn’t the only benefit of the class.
“They love the social aspect and being able to have a chat to being in a similar situation to them. That’s really a highlight for them,” she said.
“There are benefits to their mood. A lot of Parkinson’s people are prone to low mood, so we use music that is really upbeat.”
The class is a “real laugh” for the patients because they are all able to laugh together when they get the steps wrong.
“Even listening to the old music helps them. It’s music they’ve grown up with and brings back happy memories for them,” Miss Woodmansee said.
“The light atmosphere is good for their mood, which carries onto the rest of their day.”
While the Dancing with Parkinson’s idea is currently the biggest in Australia, it is happening elsewhere like in Europe. America is leading the way teaching dance teachers how to take the class. While this isn’t a disadvantage and may suit the patient more, Miss Woodmansee could see some benefits in taking the class with a physio.
“Physios have that anatomical background which means we’re coming at the class in a different way,” she said.
“We can also give them follow up support. Say they overworked a particular muscle, we could work with them one-on-one.”
Miss Woodmansee said the class was a balance between having general exercise and mood lifting fun in a social experience.
“It’s so nice to be able to pull all those things into a disease specific workout for them.”
The Health Hub also runs other dance classes like Dancing with Dementia and Sit and Be Fit, which is also designed to address mobility issues.
Parkinson’s Tasmania president Helen Connor-Kendray said while program is beneficial, she would like to see it more in Tasmania.
“One of the difficulties we have is at the support groups when they say they will organise it, it’s maintaining the commitment that is the issue.”