Frustrated with Parkinson’s? Take a Tango Lesson!

If you’ve never studied dance, you probably aren’t skilled at the demi-plié or the soft shoe, but you can manage the basic movements of walking or cutting a rug at a wedding. You probably also take for granted the fact that you can walk out of your house, forget to check your mailbox, and walk backwards five steps to the mailbox and lean sideways on one foot to look inside it- and then spin around to head back to your car. There’s no dance terminology for the steps of our daily tasks, but for anyone with an aging body or a disease like Parkinson’s, these become a frustrating hindrance- more of a ‘step-ball and chain’ than a ‘step-ball-change’.

Believe it or not, recent research shows that learning to dance- and specifically, the Argentine Tango Dance- can help people with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) move more freely in their daily lives! So if you’ve been stumbling walking across the living room, try putting on some Angel Villoldo & dancing the 8-step sequence instead. (definitely take a lesson first!!)

The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital created a 12-week Argentine tango course for patients with PD and found that the dance significantly improved balance and functional mobility, while also reducing fatigue. Another study from the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation found that balance improved and patients were able to walk further and faster. The symptoms of the groups who did not receive Tango lessons worsened or stayed the same. A year after the PDF study, Tango learners with PD had increased their participation in all activities- gardening, socializing, games, etc.

Patients with PD can experience “freezing”, a sudden inability to move, when they are walking or turning around. This can cause falls. Tango dancing involves turning, stepping backwards, starting and stopping- total control and attention. Practicing this is both physical and mental exercise, using visual cues, obstacles, and auditory cues for stopping & starting. This rhythmic, metered movement activates the basal ganglia, structures in the base of the brain that are involved in coordination.

In Buenos Aires, lessons are available for people with Alzheimer’s, depression, and Parkinson’s. Why not give it a try in the United States? Lessons for special populations should include longer warmup times and slower rhythms- this is why live musicians are best, because they can choose tempos that suit the dancers. Music causes dopamine to be released into the striatum, part of the brain’s reward system- and with dance being such a social activity, participants experience elevated mood states and greater motivation to comply with treatment.

Kate Beever

About Kate Beever

I am a board-certified neurologic music therapist and owner of Maine Music & Health, which provides services and consulting to healthcare and arts agencies throughout the state.