Ballet and Parkinson’s

Ballet and Parkinson’s

ballet dancers

Photograph : George MacCallum /BBC Pictures

English National Ballet and scientists from Roehampton University, headed by Dr Sara Houston, a dance scholar and sociologist, are collaborating on Dance for Parkinson’s, a term of ballet classes for 40 people diagnosed with the disease to see whether there are beneficial effects relating to ballet in people with Parkinson’s.

Dr Houston’s research in this field has been critically acclaimed and she has recently won a prestigious award, as this press release explains :

Dr Sara Houston awarded prestigious Vitality for Life Prize

The University of Roehampton’s Dr Sara Houston has been awarded the Bupa Foundation’s prestigious Vitality for Life Prize for her groundbreaking research demonstrating how dance helps alleviate the devastating effects of Parkinson’s.  The research examined the benefits to quality of life for people with Parkinson’s taking part in dance classes run by English National Ballet.  The award-winning research demonstrated how dancing can positively affect well-being, physical movement and social integration for those living with the debilitating condition.

Dr Houston was honoured at the annual Bupa Foundation Prize Dinner, for her research into the incurable degenerative condition, which affects 120,000 people in the UK and two out of 100 people over 65.  Physical symptoms can include tremor, slow movement and stiff limbs.  Since there is currently no cure, people can live with the disease for up to 30 years, making it even more important that ways are found to improve their quality of life.

Importantly, the research demonstrated the added value that dance as an art form can bring to exercise routines.  Dr. Houston and her research team from the Dance Department at University of Roehampton examined English National Ballet’s Dance for Parkinson’s classes over 12 weeks using ethnographic and scientific research methods.  They demonstrated how dancing boosts physical and social confidence, as well as encouraging more fluid and comfortable movement.

Each year the Bupa Foundation gives out a number of awards to recognise excellence in medical research and health care.  The Vitality for Life Prize was given to Dr Houston for outstanding research that enabled the promotion and encouragement of healthy ageing through physical activity and other social solutions for the older age group.

On winning the award, Dr Sara Houston, said: “It is tremendously exciting to win such a prestigious award.  It signals the importance of dance research, of the seriousness behind having fun.  For people with Parkinson’s, dancing offers a physical, creative and social outlet that addresses healthy living in a holistic way.  The Prize is a real boost to dance’s acceptance as a credible alternative to straightforward exercising.”

Bupa’s group medical director and deputy chairman of the Bupa Foundation, Dr Andrew Vallance-Owen, said: “There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease, so sufferers can live with the condition for up to 30 years. Dance is always a joyous and sociable activity, but Dr Houston and the English National Ballet have proven that it can also tangibly improve lives. The Bupa Foundation is delighted to recognise this groundbreaking research which we hope will improve the quality of life for people in the UK and beyond.”

The research was so successful English National Ballet extended the dance programme.  The University of Roehampton is now embarking on a second phase of research in partnership with English National Ballet to look at the experience of dancing with Parkinson’s long term over three years.

Dr Sara Houston received the Bupa Foundation Prize at a ceremony at Lincoln’s Inn in London.  She received a cheque of £15,000 to help further her research.

ballet dancers

Photograph : George MacCallum /BBC Pictures

Dance for Parkinson’s on Inside Out London

On January 16th on BBC One at 7.30pm, Inside Out London goes behind the scenes at English National Ballet to see what happens in the Dance for Parkinson’s classes and what the benefits to participants might be.

Presented by Toby Anstis, who attended the Royal Ballet School for three years and has a life-long love of dance, we meet three of the class-goers – Jane, John and Robert. Jane met her husband ballroom dancing and says that ballet and these classes are an important part of her life that she doesn’t want to give up because of her diagnosis.

Parkinson’s – a degenerative neurological condition causing nerve cells in the brain to die – affects around 120,000 people in the UK and while it isn’t fatal, it is incurable and symptoms gradually worsen. Balance and stability are big issues for those with the disease and this documentary shows Jane, John and Robert seeing significant improvement in these areas.  For John in particular, doorways/lifts/escalators and revolving doors were all “quite frightening” before he started the ballet classes.

ballet dancers

John, mirroring movements in the ballet class Photograph : George MacCallum /BBC Pictures

The study aims to look at several areas during observation of the classes :

Why people are motivated to dance.

What the value of dancing to music is.

Whether there are any physiological changes during or after dancing.

Dr Houston says that those with Parkinson’s move in a very particular way and the research suggests that if the style of movement is changed, so is the way that that person feels.  This is very visible in the class, where the participants continue to feel the beat after it’s finished and the benefits of the class manifest themselves when the participants find themselves in difficult circumstances : they use the rhythm they’ve learnt to get themselves out of it, giving them greater confidence.

ballet dancers

John and Jane mirror each others movements in the ballet class Photograph : George MacCallum /BBC Pictures

The ballet class takes place at English National Ballet’s West London headquarters and is headed up by their Learning and Participation Officer Danielle Jones who uses a storybook technique to explain the story of The Nutcracker ballet (which the company have been performing and on which this term is focused), which she says is important to help them understand the movements they’ll do later. Jane finds that she has a greater range of movement as a result of the classes and finds them relaxing. John reports better circulation and Robert feels quite emotional and that he’s taken control of his life again.

The class mirror each others movements, which they all find is a favourite because it allows them to project themselves. The study shows that there are in fact measurable changes in balance and stability. All three feel exhausted but really happy at the end of class, which ends with each participant gently squeezing their neighbour’s hand, taking a bow and giving themselves a big clap.

It’s a lovely, lovely heart-warming and very well made documentary film and I recommend that you watch it and see for yourself the benefits of ballet.

ballet dancers

Robert Photograph : George MacCallum /BBC Pictures

English National Ballet has plans to roll out the Dance for Parkinson’s classes to its touring regions.

Update :

Ballet & Parkinson’s aired last night and is now available on BBC iPlayer for a short time

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4 Responses to Ballet and Parkinson’s

  1. Couture Carrie January 5, 2012 at 2:24 pm #

    That is so cool!
    Fabulous post, darling!


  2. Imogen Dent January 5, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    Years ago in Granada I used to know a salsa teacher who ran special classes for the local Parkinsons’ centre. he believed that dance generally was an untapped source of therapy for the condition. Very pleased to see this idea is going places!

  3. May January 5, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Need more dance out in the community again. Used to be lots more…..till the funding got cut. Well done, ENB!

  4. Ballet News January 8, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    Thanks everyone! Enjoy the documentary