Taking time to tango can help fight Parkinson's disease

Lawrence residents Ada Emmett and Doug Nickel, foreground, practice tango at Signs of Life Bookstore and Gallery, 722 Massachusetts. Lawrence Tango Dancers meets at the bookstore every Monday for free tango classes and a "practica," or practice session.

Lawrence residents Ada Emmett and Doug Nickel, foreground, practice tango at Signs of Life Bookstore and Gallery, 722 Massachusetts. Lawrence Tango Dancers meets at the bookstore every Monday for free tango classes and a "practica," or practice session. by Jessica Schilling

We all know the stereotypical "dancer's body": lean, lithe, flexible and, to many of us, seemingly unattainable. But even if striving for a ballerina's physique isn't anywhere on most people's agenda, the health benefits of dancing are difficult to ignore - and not just for the young.

A 2008 study at Washington University in St. Louis concluded that learning Argentine tango can have a marked effect in slowing down the progression of Parkinson's disease, with subjects participating in a series of tango classes showing "significant improvements in balance and mobility when compared to patients who did conventional exercise."

So why did tango win out in helping Parkinson's patients boost qualities that can help them stave off the progress of the disease? Studies suggest several reasons, a primary one being that the "dance hold" taken in traditional tango looks more like a hug than a pose off "Dancing With the Stars" - a posture that can help fight the stereotypical stooped Parkinson's stance that, as time goes on, makes it easier for patients to fall.

A study presented in 2010 at the Movement Disorder Society 14th International Congress of Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders (which took place that year, appropriately, in Buenos Aires) points to tango as not only an aid for posture, but also self-esteem, mood and overall mental agility.

Austin Jones, member of local enthusiast group Lawrence Tango Dancers, offers one explanation for tango keeping the brain alert: "Tango isn't like, say, ballroom dancing, where you've got a series of steps that you can just follow. You have to adjust to the music and to your partner on the fly - it's pretty much all improvisatory."

Starting March 28, budding Lawrence tangueros can learn the basics of the dance for free 8 p.m. Mondays at Signs of Life Bookstore and Gallery, 722 Massachusetts. Lawrence Tango Dancers has been meeting for several years at Signs of Life, with informal instruction available to any newcomers, but the classes, led by Jones and other members of the group, are a new offering.

"We wanted to make it easier for people to get started dancing tango, and not feel like they're missing out on any instruction that might help them enjoy the dance more," Jones says.

If you're interested in learning more about the links between Argentine tango and Parkinson's disease, the Locomotor Control Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis is conducting community-based followup studies on the research. There are also some interesting research abstracts and full-text reports available at PubMed.gov.

Tagged: parkinson's, dance, tango, mobility, health, aging

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