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Dance Class Lifts Parkinson's Patients' Spirits

Rush University Medical Center, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago team up to Test Whether Participation Alters Degenerative Disease

Note from PDF: Please note that PDF supports the following study as part of our annual Center Grant to Rush University Medical Center. Learn more about this grant and others by reading about PDF Research Initiatives.


By John Biemer

The dancers followed their instructor's lead: "Heels together, toes apart," she said, and together they gently bent their knees and stretched their arms in graceful strokes.

But some of the students' hands trembled as they gripped the free-standing ballet barre in the center of the studio. A couple of walkers beside the wall indicated this was no typical dance class.

The weekly gathering for people with Parkinson's disease—a neurological disorder that causes tremors, rigidity and difficulty moving—began last summer as a collaboration between Rush University Medical Center and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, located on the city's Near West Side. Since then, participants say, it has helped them build confidence and dexterity, while forming a tight-knit community among patients who often struggle with feelings of isolation and helplessness.

Sarah Cullen Fuller, who danced with the Hubbard Street company for nine seasons and teaches the class as a volunteer, said she has watched the participants progress from barely standing and making only small, tentative movements to bolder, more expressive dancing. On a recent Saturday, the dancers sat in a circle of folding chairs as the class began and introduced themselves to new participants.

"I find this class to be magic," said Michael Lieb, 68, of Oak Park, a retired University of Illinois-Chicago English professor found to have Parkinson's nine years ago. "This circle we're in is magic, and the person that's responsible is Sarah. She's an angel."

Rush University doctors, meanwhile, are studying the participants to determine if the dancing is not just lifting their spirits, but in fact altering some of the degenerative nature of the disease.

Parkinson's affects up to 1 percent of the population, according to Dr. James Young, Rush's chairman of physical medicine and rehabilitation, with onset typically in people older than 50, but sometimes younger.

The motor problems common to the disease—perhaps best known because of afflicted celebrities Muhammad Ali and Michael J. Fox—are caused by a loss of the brain cells that produce dopamine, an important chemical messenger in the brain.

There is no known cure for Parkinson's, though medications relieve some of the symptoms. Rush researchers are trying to figure out if moving to the music—and stimulating the right hemisphere of the brain associated with creativity—also may help patients rediscover or even reinvent ways to gain their balance and move fluidly.

"This is going to the next step of scientific research, rehabilitative information and probably an insight into the disease that we've never really had," Young said. "That's why we're all sort of excited, because it's sort of like we've just discovered something wonderful and you say, 'Wait a minute, I don't know what it is, but let's find out.' "

Young, Fuller and her husband, who's a chiropractor, got the idea from a similar dance class for Parkinson's patients started by the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York City—although Young said no research was conducted on that group. The Hubbard Street class is paid for by private donations and is free for attendees.

About 20 people showed up on a recent Saturday afternoon. A pianist who plays anything from Beethoven to tangos to rock infuses the class with additional energy and spontaneity. Parkinson's patients—and their caregivers—said the gathering is both fun and supportive.

"The patients end up surprising themselves by being able to do more physically than they thought they were able to do," said Mariel Stitziel, 67, of Oak Park, who attended with her husband, Will, 72, who has Parkinson's.

When Mary Lou Tromanhauser, 72, of Westchester attended her first class, it stirred memories of the dance studio she ran in northwest Chicago for more than 30 years. Tromanhauser had noticed her handwriting slipping about a year and a half ago. The symptoms worsened, and she received a diagnosis of Parkinson's this month.

"I can't believe [this class] exists," she told the circle of dancers at the start of class. Her eyes welled with tears. "I can't believe I found it. I'm so happy to be here."

Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune


Source Date: Feb 25 2009
Source Publication: Chicago Tribune
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