Set dancing the reel deal in helping Parkinson’s patients

It’s great to see traditional Irish music finding its place in the world of science and medicine renowned fiddler, Martin Hayes said yesterday after a group of Italian and Irish people with Parkinson’s disease thrilled a crowd at a packed Feakle Community Centre by set dancing to a few reels.

The one-day health conference in the Co Clare village took place three years after Italian neurologist Daniele Volpe by chance discovered the therapeutic effects of Irish set dancing on those diagnosed with the progressive neurological disorder.

Consultant neurologist Timothy Lynch yesterday said: “You couldn’t make it up — an Italian dude comes to Feakle playing guitar in a session and goes back to Venice to set up Irish dancing therapy for Parkinson’s patients.”

The clinical director of the Dublin Neurological Institute at the Mater Hospital described yesterday’s one-day conference as “extraordinary”.

There are an estimated 9,000 Parkinson’s patientsin Ireland today.

Giampietro Manfreda, diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2005, joins the Black Sheep group for Irish set dancing for two hours every week. “I have found the set dancing very good for me,” he said yesterday.

The number of Black Sheep has increased from eight to 35 in three years. Teacher Romano Baratella said: “Over the past three years, we have seen big progress for our dancers. They are better with their movement and equilibrium and they are also a little bit happier. The dance is not just for movement but with meeting other people.”

Prof Volpe, director of neurological rehabilitation at St Raffaele Arcangelo Hospital, Venice, said the conclusions of his preliminary study into the therapeutic effects of set dancing has found that it is superior to traditional physiotherapy.

“The study was very interesting and documents the significant improvement in mobility and balance,” he said.

Prof Volpe made his discovery when playing guitar in Pepper’s pub in Feakle in 2010 and noticed that a man, who earlier struggled to walk, set danced without any difficulty. Prof Volpe then returned to Venice to help set up the dancing group and studied the effects on Parkinson’s patients.

A wider study is to start next month in collaboration with the University of Limerick.

East Clare-based fiddler Martin Hayes said yesterday: “As a musician, music doesn’t come out of the intellectual part of the brain. When you are playing, it is a full-body experience, as with dancing, and I’m delighted to see that it is helpful. I am not totally surprised — it feels good.”

Martin’s father, the late P Joe Hayes, had Parkinson’s and Martin said: “I would recommend dancing for anyone — it is a primal human thing and is something that we have been doing since the Stone Age.”

Prof Lynch yesterday described the data from the pilot study is “intriguing”.

He said: “Irish dancing provides rhythm, movement and music and a particular kind of step that seems to be very helpful, so it is an intriguing concept.”

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