Dance with me: the power of dance as a treatment for Parkinson’s

Dance with me: the power of dance as a treatment for Parkinson’s

Even if you’re not a dancer, dance is important, and Professor Meg Morris has shown us yet more ways dance can impact lives.

Meg has been working in conjunction with colleagues in Ireland, Italy and Australia on a series of research trials dating back to 2010 that sees Parkinson’s patients incorporating dance into their exercise program and treatment.

Think about the ways we use dance in our lives: we dance with joy when someone shares good news. We express our love for music through dance. Dancing can be a hobby, competitive, or a way to have fun with friends.

Now imagine how harnessing the importance of dance to improve the movement and well-being of people with Parkinson’s.

I met with Meg last week to discuss this pioneering international research.


Reading about your research I was struck by the idea that the body of someone with Parkinson’s can be unlocked by dance.

Not just dance, but also physical activity – movement generally. Sometimes that’s hydrotherapy, going in the pool. It could be cycling – preferably on a stationary bike inside.

Tai chi works for some people, it could be Pilates for others. You’ve got to mix and match the right sorts of movement to the needs of the person.

For some people in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease it can be really good to do a vigorous gymnasium program – literally to go to the gym. When it’s a newly diagnosed person you can do high level physical activities like running or dancing like, Irish dancing, Tango, Zumba, Salsa and things like that.

The disease inevitably tends to progress over time and despite the best possible medication management, eventually some movement fluctuations do occur, and people do slow down and their balance can become poor, so falls are a big risk.

But everybody with Parkinson’s is different. Each person needs their own individual program.

What we find is that exercise and physical activity not only make the person feel better but they get the benefits of strengthening and stretching, being able to balance more easily – being able to move more easily.

You use partnered dancing in the research trial. I was particularly moved by the idea that people with Parkinson’s can come in to a dance class with their partners and they can dance together – I think that’s really beautiful.

Yes, it is. We’ve been running some dance classes all over Melbourne. In the morning we have Argentinian Tango dancing, and that’s where people can come with their husbands or wives, or sons or daughters, or the significant others in their life – some bring friends.

We got lovely feedback from one of the women who comes to dance with her husband who has Parkinson’s. She said that she has enjoyed it as much as he has.

People with Parkinson’s often tell me that they worry that they get characterised by their disease. The person has always got to come first. When you’re dancing, the disease goes to the background. The person comes to the fore.

We have also conducted a mixed dancing classes, with different dance genres and different music genres. Music is a really powerful determinant of their movement, so we select music very carefully – music that is rhythmical, to cue their movements.

You have said that music encourages the use of a different part of the brain, can you tell me a bit about that?

Both music and dancing do that. In Parkinson’s, an area of the brain called the basal ganglia is affected, and what happens is that they don’t have enough of the neurotransmitter dopamine to make movements large and fast.

They don’t have damage to the brain like a stroke patient, or a head injury patient or someone with a brain tumour has damage, the architecture of the brain is completely intact. But the neurotransmitters are out of balance.

So the aim is to try to bypass the defective basal ganglia and use other intact parts of the brain like the frontal cortex to control the movement.

And that’s something that just happens when you listen to music, and you dance?

When you listen to music it uses a different part of the brain. It uses the auditory cortex rather than the defective basal ganglia.

When you’re dancing, it uses a whole stack of different parts of the body. The spinal cord, the brain stem – other parts of the brain that are intact, and where the neurotransmitters are working better.

What kinds of dancing works best?

We’ve done Argentinian Tango, Irish set dancing, tap dancing and the mixed dance classes and we’re looking at which is most effective and why.

What we know is that all dance genres and different music genres are useful. But because people with Parkinson’s are all individuals and every individual with Parkinson’s is different, some things suit some people better than others.

If they’ve got a lot of balance impairments, if their disease has progressed quite a long way, then you don’t want to be doing a lot of backwards walking and spinning around, like in Argentinian Tango. In that case we’d try something different.

With someone with more severe symptoms, they can sit in a chair and do dance movements. They can dance standing up, or leaning on the back of the chair standing up, or holding on to a partner.

We’ve made a DVD and a home program. It’s good to have a mixture of a home program and classes. It’s great to socialise, to get that social connectedness.

The dance classes are fun! There is a lot of laughter and comradery.

Dance with us

Did you know that you can dance with one of the participants in this trial, Anne?

On Flinders St Station, Southern Cross Station and Melbourne Central, you will find a digital billboard.

Stand in front of the billboard and move your body – then the picture will come alive with movement and music. You can dance with Anne and experience the real world impacts of this ground breaking research.

Want to know more? Watch the 7.30 Report on the research.

Interested in the ways physiotherapy can improve lives? Read about our physiotherapy research specialisations.