Set-dancing's 'reel' benefit for Parkinson's sufferers

MUSIC and dance have long been believed to possess transformative powers, from Turkish spinning dervishes dancing to elevate their souls, to African tribal healers stomping in frenzied trances to cure illness.

Set-dancing's 'reel' benefit for Parkinson's sufferers

Therapeutic benefits of Irish set dancing were recently noticed much closer to home, in a pub in Feakle, Co Clare when an Italian neurologist playing music at a traditional music festival, noticed a man shaking and unsteady on his feet with Parkinson’s disease enter the pub, drop his walking stick and dance fluidly to a reel played on the doctor’s guitar.

Dr Daniele Volpe, medical director at St John of God Hospital’s Parkinson’s Centre in Venice found this improvement in the man so remarkable that he set up a study to test the benefits of set dancing for his patients, which has grown into an international, multidisciplinary study. The findings will be presented at a conference in Feakle, Co Clare tomorrow, in the place where Volpe originally made the discovery.

“I recruited 24 PD patients in collaboration with Professor Timothy Lynch of Mater Misericordiae University Hospital in Dublin and Professor Meg Morris of Melbourne University. Patients took a six-month Irish set-dancing course with a weekly lesson for two hours. The results were very consistent. We documented significant improvements in mobility, balance, gait and quality of life,” says Volpe.

“Big improvements in the quality of life measure surprised us, it is really encouraging for an eight-week study to show such strong results for improved quality of life,” says Dr Amanda Clifford, who leads the Irish study in the University of Limerick.

“Carers came too, so it was a fun outlet for both. No adverse effects were reported in our research,” says Joanne Shanahan, MSc student at UL, a physiotherapist and set-dancing teacher.

“The steps and beat of the music appear to be important,” says Clifford, “and its potential benefits are universal.” Volpe agrees. “There is evidence that micro vibrations stimulate the spinal-ponto-thalamus network and that really helps with balance in PD. Irish music has a strong rhythm which helps bypass the mismatch between the supplementary motor area (SMA) and basal ganglia (BG) network in Parkinson’s, so patients can move normally,” Volpe says.

“I have observed that Irish dance has some interesting features compared to other dances — a strong rhythm, it’s easy to learn, the safety of a partner, and it’s enjoyable, with a high social value. Another specific aspect of Irish dance we observed was the reel step seems to help lower limb advancement during the swing phase of the gait cycle, and it is scientifically documented that PD patients have particular problems with this aspect of gait,” says Volpe.

Nora Cunningham from Athea in Co Limerick, started dancing after hearing Volpe speak about his research. “Dancing helps me to get out of my head and into my feet. It also improves your mood and spirits. I go once a week, I really enjoy it. I’m looking forward to the conference in Feakle to find out more,” she says.

Eileen Nolan dances with Comhaltas Ceoltoirí in Ballincollig, Co Cork. “When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2001 I thought it was the end of the world and the end of my dancing, which I loved,” she says. “But exercise is very important for PD, and luckily my Parkinson’s progressed slowly, I don’t know how much dancing helped that,” she says.

Helen Kelly teaches set dancing and dances with Nolan in Cork. “I’m looking forward to learning more at the conference in Feakle. My brother has PD so it will be interesting to hear about how dancing may help with the disease,” she says.

The conference is in Feakle, thanks to a fortuitous encounter in Italy, when Councillor Pat Hayes bumped into Volpe over breakfast in a small hotel, and after hearing that Volpe’s research was inspired by the man with Parkinson’s who danced so well in Pepper’s Pub in Feakle, near Hayes’ home, they agreed to hold the conference in the town where the discovery was made. Hayes, whose late father, musician P Joe Hayes had PD, believes his father’s love of Irish music kept his disease from progressing. A memorial of his father hangs in the very pub where Volpe made his discovery. “This conference is personal for me. It will hopefully bring positive change to patients around the country,” he says.

Volpe means fox in Italian. The doctor demonstrated the cunning and quick observation characteristic of his canine namesake when he noticed the dance’s rehabilitative potential. “You can’t image how I feel when I see them dance so happily together. That’s rehabilitation for me.”

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