Many of the participants who show up to Lucy Bowen McCauley’s “Dance for PD” classes struggle to walk through the door. Their movements are stiff; their gait unsteady. Some come with canes, while others are in wheelchairs.
But after a few minutes of stretching and warm-up exercises, which are often paired to Broadway tunes or oldies, a transformation takes place.
“I feel like we overwhelm the disease with the music,” says McCauley, who has been teaching dance in the Washington, D.C., area for more than 20 years. “They’re just able to move more.”
The disease McCauley is referring to is Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement — hence the name of the class, “Dance for PD.” McCauley has been offering the free classes to people living with Parkinson’s and their caregivers for more than 10 years. However, the program is one that was developed nearly two decades ago by the Brooklyn, New York-based Mark Morris Dance Group.
Founding teacher David Leventhal’s first class had six participants. Now, “Dance for PD” — which focuses on increasing coordination, balance, flexibility and strength through music and movement — is taught in more than 300 communities worldwide.
“It offers people with Parkinson’s a chance to think differently about their movements, to control their movements, and to do so in a social environment,” Leventhal says about the tailored curriculum. What’s more, it arms participants with “a sense of power and grace in their physicality, which is so often something that starts to go away” as Parkinson’s progresses.
Music’s influence on movement
Music and dance can be effective treatment tools for people who have a range of age-related diseases, according to a new report on music and brain health from the AARP-founded Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). In Parkinson’s disease, for example, the rhythmic nature of music “provides an external source for meter, like a pulse” that can help activate areas of the brain responsible for movement, explains Julene Johnson, a professor at the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California, San Francisco and a contributor to the GCBH report.
Studies have shown that rhythm can help improve gait speed and balance in people with Parkinson’s disease. It can also reduce falls in those with movement disorders.