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Dance class a step toward better health for Parkinson’s patients

Pamela Mitchell and Fran Ellis
Krembil Neuroscience Centre patients Pamela Mitchell, (L), and Fran Ellis say the National Ballet School’s Sharing Dance program helped them realize there was life after their diagnoses for Parkinson’s disease. (Photo: UHN)​

Each day in Canada, 25 people are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Last October, Pamela Mitchell was one of them.

"The news was devastating," says Mitchell, 71, who was battling a slew of other medical problems at the time. "It was totally unexpected. It left me feeling quite depressed."

Mitchell didn't know what to expect from the neurodegenerative disease, which affects more than 100,000 Canadians and is often associated with slowness of movement, muscular rigidity and stiffness, tremors, and impaired balance and gait.

However, a serendipitous encounter in her Toronto condominium shortly after she was diagnosed at Toronto Western Hospital's Morton and Gloria Shulman Movement Disorders Centre helped ease Mitchell's fears and gave her the motivation to take a step in an entirely new direction.

"A neighbour told me about this," Pamela says moments after stepping out of a dance class at Canada's National Ballet School in downtown Toronto that's designed specifically for people with Parkinson's disease.

PARKINSON'S DAY EVENTS:  Canada's National Ballet School is taking the Sharing Dance program on the road for World Parkinson's Day. Catch people with Parkinson's in action in the atrium at TWH today, April 11, at 10:30 a.m. and again at 2:30 p.m. This will be followed by a panel discussion on dance and Parkinson's in the 2nd floor auditorium at TWH at 3:15 p.m. For detail on similar classes in Toronto click here.​

"My first reaction was I wasn't keen on being around a bunch of people with Parkinson's. The first time I came, I remember thinking 'Is this my future?'

"But I stuck with it and got beyond that and I'm glad I did."

Lone woman with both arms up
Pamela Mitchell says the social aspect of the Sharing Dance classes has been "really valuable." (Photo: UHN)​

​Pamela is sharing her experiences with UHN News to help highlight World Parkinson's Day, which is today. The annual event draws attention to the most common neurodegenerative movement disorder.

The weekly classes at Canada's National Ballet School are part of an outreach initiative called Sharing Dance, which aims to improve overall health and encourage people to embrace the power of dance.

"This is not dance therapy. This is dance that happens to be really good for this population," says Rachel Bar, the school's manager of health and research initiatives. "It's a class that is designed to be accessible."

At the outset of a class, participants, or "dancers," gather in a circle around a professional instructor who uses a series of dance steps, moves and gestures designed to engage participants and promote overall health. A professional piano player provides the soundtrack to the class.

Bar, who is also researching the effects of art-based knowledge translation of health research at Ryerson University, says data collected through the classes have helped inform research into the effects of dance in Parkinson's disease.

"It's uplifting to see people getting coordination, feeling more comfortable, people getting more stable, struggling a bit and then figuring out a step."

Lone woman with clenched fist
Fran Ellis has been attending dance classes for people with Parkinson's for two years. She says the classes are fun and provide good exercise. (Photo: UHN)​

If Pamela is the dance program's fresh-faced rookie, then Fran Ellis, 75, is its seasoned veteran. She's been attending classes for more than two years.

"The dance class is very rewarding," Fran says. "It's fun, it's good exercise and I've met a lot of people who've become my friends.

"In fact, I have a wide variety of new friends in my life because of this program. All of these things together have added to my well-being."

Fran stresses that the social element of the program is one of the most important cornerstones of the class. So much so, that she feels duty bound to reach out to newcomers and has become something of an "unofficial greeter" for the program.

"It's vital for people to know about this program," Fran says. "It can help people both physically and emotionally.

"Some people with Parkinson's are depressed, and they don't want to see anybody or talk to anybody. But I can tell you firsthand, this class can make a difference."

While the social elements are apparent, researchers stress that the program needs to be studied more systematically to define its benefits for Parkinson's patients.

Two women beside window
If Pamela Mitchell, (L), is the dance program's fresh-faced rookie, then Fran Ellis, is its seasoned veteran. The UHN patients have quickly become friends.(Photo: UHN)

Dr. Lorraine Kalia, a movement disorders neurologist at UHN and scientist at the Krembil Research Institute, who is also a former student of Canada's National Ballet School, says there may be motor and cognitive benefits to dancing, but more definitive research is required.

"Rigorous randomized controlled trials have not yet been done to study dance for Parkinson's disease," Dr. Kalia says. "But anecdotally, there is no doubt it has benefit from a quality of life perspective and that is definitely a positive development for our patients."

What's most important to Fran, Pamela and other Parkinson's patients is the physical, social and emotional rewards of feeling like they are part of something bigger than themselves.

"It's hard to say how much the class helps, physically," Pamela says, "but socially, meeting all these people and learning about what is going on in the (Parkinson's) community is really valuable."

"This National Ballet class beneficial in many ways," says Fran, who also squares off against Parkinson's at a special boxing class twice a week. "When you dance and you meet new people, it helps to alleviate depression.

"I was very depressed when I was first diagnosed. When I came to the National Ballet, I felt happy and more like myself again." ​

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