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Those who suffer from Parkinson's disease struggle with stiff limbs, tremors and poor balance. With these kinds of symptoms, it might seem counterintuitive to get people with Parkinson's out on the dance floor, yet thousands battling the illness are finding that dancing helps them, both physically and emotionally. Dance classes for people with Parkinson's began in Brooklyn and have spread around the country and the world. The fox trot and boogie dancing have also attracted the interest of scientists. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging and has this story.
LINDA BERGHOFF: Now both arms.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Linda Berghoff is teaching a routine at a dance class for people with Parkinson's in Venice, Calif.
BERGHOFF: Very nice.
JAFFE: Everyone is seated, but bodies are pulled upright, arms are stretched and fists pump in time to the music. It's a challenging routine, keeping a one-two beat with one arm and a three-part rhythm with the other.
BERGHOFF: Up and down.
JAFFE: Linda Berghoff is lean and fit and looks much younger than her 65 years. She was never a professional dancer, but she's danced all her life. That's continued, despite the fact that she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 10 years ago.
BERGHOFF: And when I was diagnosed, the thought that I would no longer dance again terrified me. It seemed like I'd be stripped of the thing I love the most.
JAFFE: The diagnosis was also a blow to Laura Karlin, who's known Berghoff so long she calls her her second mother.
LAURA KARLIN: And we were talking and I said, well, you know, what can we do? Do you want to do yoga together? Do you want to dance together? Do you want to start a dance class together? We should start a dance class together. And so we did.
JAFFE: Which wasn't that much of a stretch because Karlin is the artistic director of the Invertigo Dance Theatre, which has a performing company and also offers classes. Invertigo's Parkinson's class began in 2011. They now have five of them around the L.A. area. And it's a real dance class, says Karlin.
KARLIN: We don't dumb it down. And I believe very much in making this a really joyful and challenging experience. But it has to be both challenging and kind of satisfying.
JAFFE: Karlin's class began 10 years after the program Dance for Parkinson's was founded at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn. David Leventhal is the director of the program. He says in the beginning it was trial and error.
DAVID LEVENTHAL: There's no one type of Parkinson's. There's no one set of symptoms.
JAFFE: There are some small studies that show that some of those symptoms improve after taking dance, especially ease of walking. But Leventhal says the class was never intended just as physical therapy.
LEVENTHAL: There's also an artistic quality that we're hoping that people are able to say something with those gestures. And it's particularly relevant, I think, to people with Parkinson's who often lose those means of expression and start to feel themselves pull away from who they thought they were.
JAFFE: The program at the Mark Morris Dance Center began as a partnership with the Brooklyn Parkinson's Support Group. But for the past eight years, Mark Morris instructors have been training other dance companies, like L.A.'s Invertigo Dance Theatre, to conduct classes of their own. There are now programs in 40 states and 13 other countries.
PIETRO MAZZONI: It's such a natural, intuitive idea that dance should be a good thing for Parkinson's, that people have just gone ahead and done it.
JAFFE: That's Dr. Pietro Mazzoni, who teaches neurology at Columbia University Medical Center and heads the Motor Performance Laboratory there. He says a few small studies that have been done don't explain why dancing can help people with Parkinson's or what routine might be better than another or how long the effects last. So he's beginning a larger study that may answer those questions. One of the theories he'll be testing is that people with Parkinson's move less because the disease doesn't just cause the tremors and other physical symptoms. It also robs them of their ability to enjoy moving.
MAZZONI: I've heard patients spontaneously describe the beginning of their symptoms using language like I didn't enjoy walking with my husband anymore. I could do it, it just wasn't fun.
JAFFE: So Mazzoni's work will look at psychological factors as well as physical ones and compare the dancers to people getting traditional physical therapy.
MAZZONI: It may be that dance is not just a nice form of physical therapy. It may be that it has the key to producing long-lasting changes.
KARLIN: Pivot, good, Willie, now we go forward.
JAFFE: Seventy-six-year-old Willie Marquez has been coming to the Venice class for three years, ever since the day he was diagnosed and his doctor told him about it.
WILLIE MARQUEZ: We got in the car and ran over here. And I says, is this the Parkinson's class?
JAFFE: He comes to the class with his wife, Lenore. They've been dancing together since they met 52 years ago when Willie taught salsa. So they move confidently across the floor with their fellow students, side by side. It's a new routine and pretty rough, but as Laura Karlin always tells them, there are no mistakes in dance, just solos.
KARLIN: There you go. Step, step, step, step.
JAFFE: Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
KARLIN: We're going to go forward, we're going to go inward and back around. Here we go, and step.
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