Dance for the Cure: Tango improves Parkinson’s, study says

| Contributing Reporter

For 10 weeks, Washington University students were able to conduct medical research by dancing.

They were participating in a Washington University School of Medicine project testing if 10 weeks of tango lessons can improve Parkinson’s disease symptoms involving balance and mobility better than regular exercise could.

In the study, conducted by Gammon Earhart, assistant professor of physical therapy, and Madeleine Hackney, doctoral candidate in movement science, undergraduate volunteers danced with Parkinson’s patients in 20 Argentine tango lessons, while the control group did conventional exercise.

“Specifically with respect to balance, the group that did tango improved more than the group that did exercise” as measured by standard tests for balance and Parkinson’s disease progression, Earhart said.

In addition to these results, before-and-after surveys indicated that the dance lessons improved people’s mobility and quality of life.

Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder caused by damage to dopamine-producing neurons in the part of the brain that controls muscle movement, resulting in trembling, stiffness, poor balance and difficulty with coordination and movement.

Three publications describing their most recent results have been submitted and are currently under review, and four have already been published.

Results of the first study appeared in the Dec. 2007 issue of the Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy, and further results are currently awaiting publication.

Why tango? According to Hackney, who was a professional dancer for 10 years prior to joining the Earhart lab, the dance may have benefits that other dances do not.

“We chose [tango] primarily in the beginning because there was evidence that it helped the frail elderly and affected the basal ganglia, which are involved in Parkinson’s disease,” Hackney said. “I also happened to know how to teach tango.”

Tango also incorporates many skills that are negatively affected by Parkinson’s disease. For example, Parkinson’s patients tend to fall backwards, as opposed to the side or front. In tango, the follow walks backward much of the time, so tango might help Parkinson’s patients maintain that skill.

Tango has simpler, less restricted rhythms than dances like the waltz and foxtrot. Because of its flexibility, tango dancers must plan their movements on the spot, another skill Parkinson’s patients need to practice.

“The thing about tango is it’s great for communication with a partner, showing a partner clearly what you want to do,” Hackney said.

Swing dance and salsa might be good choices for similar reasons, she added.

Undergraduates played a central role in the study, serving as partners for the test subjects and helping with data collection and analysis, according to Earhart.

“The [undergraduate] volunteers are a critical component. Most of the participants are older, so interaction with the undergrads is something they enjoy,” Earhart said.

Stephanie Higgins, a sophomore majoring in math and Spanish, said that as a volunteer, she helped the Parkinson’s patients work around their movement disorders.

“Parkinson’s patients shake, tremble, can’t control their motions well and can’t balance very easily, so we would support them and help them balance,” Higgins said. “I know I had a lot of fun, and I think they did too. It was a really fun atmosphere. I got to meet people I wouldn’t normally have met.”

Upcoming studies will test whether there’s something special about tango, compare tango to tai-chi lessons, measure how important it is to do partner dance as opposed to line dances and compare a two-week “tango boot camp” to the 10-week course.

The next step, Earhart says, is to implement tango therapy programs for Parkinson’s patients. The researchers have already helped groups in California, Massachusetts and London to start their own programs.

They will also meet with the American Parkinson’s Disease Society to discuss the possibility of ongoing classes here.

“Neither pharmacological nor surgical methods at this point are adequate for the needs [of Parkinson’s patients]. We’re working for another method of treatment,” Earhart said. “More and more the evidence is showing it’s important to remain active. Tango is one thing you can do,” Earhart added.