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Dance Lifts Bodies and Souls for Parkinson's Patients

Many of us know the telltale signs of Parkinson's disease — the tremors, the stiff limbs, the unsteady walk. The disease has no cure, and medications for it tend to stop working over time.

But recent studies show that dancing can help reduce Parkinson's symptoms. So a local nonprofit has started a dance class for people with the disease.

Audio for this story will be available later Monday.

Vicki Weiss was 64 years old when she noticed something odd about her body. Her hand seemed to have changed position slightly, keeping her from doing simple tasks.

"I couldn't unlock the doors or flip pancakes, and then I stopped being able to swing this hand when I walk — little subtle things."

Those little subtleties led to a grim diagnosis: Parkinson's disease. Weiss immediately got treatment. She takes a drug that controls her symptoms. She walks three miles a day. And a few months ago, she tried something else.

Weiss and about 15 other people with Parkinson's are sitting in a circle as instructor Naomi Goodman tells them to lift their shoulders up and down. It's easy for some of them. But others move stiffly. One woman is locked in a stooped position. Another slumps in a wheelchair.

Hyperkyphosis is basically a humped spine. It's one of the symptoms of Parkinson's. So are rigid limbs, slow movement, and poor balance. Goodman, the instructor, tells the group to reach for the ceiling, lean toward the floor, and twist from side to side. She explains that these moves will loosen their bodies. Weiss says that's exactly what they've done for her.

"I did find that my body was, my movements were looser. I had better range of motion, and I had a great feeling of well-being."

That sense of well-being can lift the depression that sometimes comes with Parkinson's. But dancing does more than that. Studies show that it can help people with Parkinson's improve their balance and mobility. And the music can help them remember how to move their bodies.

Physical therapist Terry Ellis helped incorporate physical therapy exercises into dance moves for the class. She's a professor at Boston University who specializes in treating Parkinson's and other neurological problems.

"When they hear that beat, all of a sudden they sort of lock into that beat and they can move more quickly, and they can move more gracefully, and they can move quicker, and they can move with less effort."

Parkinson's is caused by the loss of brain cells that produce a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means it delivers signals between cells. One of those signals controls body motion. So when dopamine-producing cells die, a person can lose the ability to move. Some people with Parkinson's can't walk, talk, chew, or even swallow.

But Ellis, the BU professor, says research suggests that exercise, and dance in particular, may protect the cells that produce dopamine. And that may prevent or slow development of the disease.

"This needs further study, obviously, to see what happens with this, but the early studies are promising."

Those promising studies are behind this dance class and others around the country. The one at Jewish Family & Children's Services in Waltham is open to anyone with Parkinson's, Jewish or not. The dancing is gentle, and the class is a lot like a yoga session. In fact, instructor Naomi Goodman describes it as a blend of yoga, theatre games, ballet, and physical and occupational therapy. It's set to music that ranges from the Beatles to the Bangles, and from the Pussycat Dolls to Pachelbel.

Nancy Mazonson, who coordinates the Parkinson's support program at Jewish Family & Children's Services, helped design this class. She says the dancing has made a big difference to some people who've been handicapped by the disease for years.

"We had someone who said he danced at a wedding for the first time in six years. That, to us, is a huge change in somebody's life."

Mazonson also says dancing is liberating for many Parkinson's patients.

"There's something about seeing people with this very devastating disease doggedly trying to move and wanting so much for the joy of dance to sort of imbue them with an ability to break out of this shell that the disease encases them in."

"I used to dance in the corner and I had a buttoned-down personality, and now I let it all hang out."

That's Ed Rudman, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's 11 years ago. He decided he would do everything possible to slow the progression of the disease. This is the second time he's taken this class, which he helps support financially.

"When I hear music I kind of just want to move my arms and legs. It makes me feel just alive. And when you add the music to the dancing, put them together, and I could go all day."

This program aired on October 20, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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