If dance is more and more viable in its fruition through theatre and the internet (as mentioned in Dance and the Moving Image), it has also become easier to access as a participant. There are a vast number of opportunities on offer, with some that go beyond dance’s perfect lines and captivating atmospheres. Perhaps it is common knowledge that the nonchalant movements of ballet dancers are the result of hard work, with their gracile bodies a bundle of muscles to sustain the illusion of levity (and the new tendency of the fitness industry is to cash in on the dream of the lean body promoting every new hybrid as ballet or barre related). Less known, but growing in academic interest, are the other effects of dance training on the human body and mind. Many are the examples and applications that go from improving management to learning how to trust, and that work on the different levels of our body-mind (intellectual, artistic, social and physical). In particular, I want to introduce an application of dance that helps alleviate a chronic degenerative neurological disease such as Parkinson’s, a condition that besides being physically debilitating can also be socially isolating.

English National Ballet, Dance for Parkinson's © Belinda Lawley
English National Ballet, Dance for Parkinson's
© Belinda Lawley

The most well known example in the UK is English National Ballet’s programme, that offers regular ballet classes to people affected with Parkinson’s. In these classes the participants are led by ENB artists through exercises that stimulate the bodies in particular ways while researchers from University of Roehampton are measuring the effects of the classes. By moving rhythmically and using different qualities, in short, by breaking the habitual pattern movement, as for example miming a scene from a particular dance, the participants report a clear difference in how they feel, a sign of deep physiological changes.

The improvements registered are in general condition but in particularly balance, stability and increased coordination. There is also an intellectual side to the exercises, as they are always linked to the current production of the company (and no production is too difficult as I have witnessed a class based on such difficult rhythms as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). But my words do not render the participants enthusiasm as well as this BBC reportage does:

ENB's national programme Dance for Parkinson’s offers regular classes in London, Oxford, Liverpool and occasionally in Cardiff.

Beside ENB, there are also various classes offered around the UK by the Dance for Parkinson’s Network UK and in the US, a similar programme is delivered in Brooklyn by the Mark Morris Group. Considering that the academic study by University of Roehampton reported that “people were highly motivated, with 100% adherence, and valued the classes as an important part of their lives” and even able to forget the disease for some hours, the hope is that these activities will continue. The research on the benefit of ballet training for Parkinson’s is only one possible application of dancers’ body-knowledge and hopefully, in the future, science will look to dance for more. Movement and feelings are connected, changing the way you move you can change how you feel.

There is significant research that is being done on the subject, with a conference coming up in Bristol in June.