In Class: Dance Doctor
I lead studies to understand the ways in which dance can improve mobility in people with movement disorders. I design targeted classes that address movement dysfunction and test how effective the interventions are. We are currently focusing on applications for Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.
Our classes are usually scheduled during the evenings when people are more available to come to the University. Our movement laboratory is equipped like a dance studio. We have barres, mirrors and a suite of instruments, including motion capture and equipment to measure muscle activity and forces.
The classes I design are based on classical ballet because it develops whole-body motor dexterity. Ballet is very structured, and its teaching methodology organizes levels of difficulty progressively. This results in better voluntary control of body movement.
In the case of Parkinson’s disease, the intervention focuses on helping with “freezing” episodes and with improving the speed of movement. Not all patients experience freezing. But a lot of them do. Freezing happens most commonly when patients want to start walking, and they have difficulty initiating their first step. People with Parkinson’s also tend to move slower; they tend to walk slower; they tend to talk slower. In pilot experiments, we’ve been able to restore their walking speed back to values typical for 18-year-olds.
Stretch reflexes—which prevent you from falling when you step in an odd way—are believed to be hyperactive in kids with cerebral palsy, leading to spasticity. Professional dancers have depressed stretch reflexes. It’s thought that the dancer’s brain takes control of the reflexes, so they gain enhanced voluntary control of their movement. I teach a dance class for kids with cerebral palsy to see if ballet exercises can down-regulate their stretch reflexes.
Patients with MS lose myelin as the disease progresses. Myelin is the sheath of tissue that surrounds the axons of neurons in the brain and the peripheral nervous system. With the loss of myelin, neuronal communication slows and movement problems appear. The dance classes target discoordination and balance, and our patients show improvements beyond those expected from regular physical therapy.
I had conservatory classical ballet training in my youth. I also had teacher training in ballet. In college, I majored in physics. I went on to a master’s degree in dance and a Ph.D. in kinesiology. Years later, when my postdoctoral advisor suggested that I study kids with cerebral palsy, I brought kinesiology and dance together for movement rehabilitation.
We really want to have as many people as possible participating. We would love, down the road, to have satellite sites where we could offer these classes to communities throughout Illinois.
Edited and condensed from an interview conducted on Sept. 14, 2018.