Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (PD) can be extremely disruptive in the patient’s activities of daily living. It has been a long-term focus of researchers to discover therapies that can assist with management or even prevention of these frustrations. One promising therapy is simple physical exercise.
Emily Pozek, a Dancer in Residence at University of Florida Health, has been sharing her passion for dance with Parkinson's patients since 2009, when a program for local Parkinson's disease (PD) patients, called "Dance for Life," began in Gainesville, Florida.
"I always knew that I wanted to go to school and loved dance," Pozek says. "I really found this passion for this idea to share dance with multiple communities and explore what movement can bring to people."
Pozek is part of The Center for Arts in Medicine, a unique program at UF that incorporates the practice of fine arts into typically sterile health care environments, in order to promote healing and well-being. She leads a "Dance for Life" class three times per week, and has developed quite a rapport with her dancers over the years.
Now a worldwide initiative, the "Dance for PD" program first began in 2001 as a small collaboration between the Brooklyn Parkinson Group and the Mark Morris Dance Group. The movement has since spread across the United States and taken root in communities around the globe. Designed to make PD support groups more enjoyable and engaging, "Dance for PD" now includes extensive teacher training seminars, as well as educational and professional enrichment workshops.
Pozek's classes have certainly provided individuals diagnosed with PD (and their significant others) with a myriad of benefits. Whereas traditional support groups can be depressing at times, laughter is common in her sessions, which helps to foster a supportive and upbeat environment. A number of Pozek's members have been coming to these classes for years, and many of them make a point of attending all three classes offered each week.
"The interesting thing about PD is there isn't one person that has the same stereotypical disease," Pozek says. "The commonalities are usually tremors and freezing, but people with PD don't have these symptoms while dancing."
One of her dancers, J.C., has been a part of "Dance for Life" for about two years now. "It helps a lot and addresses lots of muscle groups," he says. The eclectic nature of the program is also a big hit with J.C. Although there are basic elements of the class that remain constant over the years, Pozek has introduced her participants to classical ballet barre work, social partner dances, tap, and many other styles and techniques.
It is worth mentioning that the majority of the men and women in Pozek's classes have no previous dance experience. This does not prevent her from conducting a professional-quality class, though.
"A really important quality of [Dance for Life] is that we're not dumbing it down," Pozek says. "There is no teaching down to the participants."
Each class begins with Pozek and her dancers seated and facing each other in a circle of chairs. Participants work through various chair exercises meant to aid in shoulder and limb mobility and strengthen core muscles. This unique warm up borrows moves from the dance world (mostly the modern approach) and connects them to movements in everyday life. Learning and practicing these combinations of thought and movement greatly aids in the motions used in daily living, which is a focal point in exercise and therapy efforts for patients with PD.
One such movement that Pozek uses frequently in class is a routine designed to help her class develop the strength and confidence to easily get out of a chair and progress into a standing position. These routines help to improve their gait speed, balance, and range of motion in a fun and interactive way. Dance is unique in that it enables each participant to really become aware of his or her body and allow their creativity to flow freely in a social setting. Not only does it assist in our physical coordination, but it also improves participants' confidence and self esteem.
Student volunteers who come from an array of different backgrounds also frequent these classes, adding an intergenerational aspect to the experience. The musical accompaniment for the class is always changing, too. Pozek is open to suggestions from her dancers and plays everything from Motown and WWII era hits to current pop singles. Combinations are constantly evolving along with the music as well, ensuring that they never grow bored of repeating the same exercises class after class.
As each 75-minute class comes its close, Pozek ends on a touching note by "passing the pulse." She and her dancers join hands in a circle once more, and a slight squeeze and meaningful eye contact are passed from person to person until the pulse has traveled through the whole group.
"It's a beautiful moment," Pozek says. "Not only have we shared this class together, but we are here as a community."
While neither every instructor nor every class is the same, this program is well worth the effort to research and locate a group nearby. Whether it is dance, yoga, tai chi, or walking, be proactive and encourage your loved one to participate regularly.
Dance for PD is becoming more popular and increasingly available in many areas. Take the time to explore if there is a program near you. The positive results have been invaluable to the families and patients of those involved.
(For more information or to find a "Dance for PD" class near you, visit www.danceforparkinsons.org.)