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Join the U in combating one of motion's biggest enemies: Parkinson's disease

By Tyler Dean Kunz, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, College of Fine Arts

In a collaboration between the Department of Physical Therapy and the Department of Modern Dance, assistant professor Juan Carlos Claudio and University of Utah student Lennie Swenson are using their training in dance, creative movement and physical therapy to battle one of movement’s greatest enemies: Parkinson’s disease.

How can dance help with Parkinson’s, you ask? “When we are dancing, we are not only engaging our bodies alone but also our brains. We stimulate our conceptual processing abilities while at the same time working on strength and flexibility,” said Claudio, modern dance faculty member.

DanceforParkinson_2Swenson, a graduate from the Department of Modern Dance and current student in the Department of Physical Therapy, is coming at the issue of Parkinson’s from multiple angles.

“I am approaching the class from a dancer’s perspective but also as a student of physical therapy. Many Parkinson’s patients suffer from depression, which is understandable considering the gravity of being diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease that has no cure.  During dance class, participants have smiles on their faces and expressions of relief; this is invaluable. The participants are able to connect to their bodies in a way that hasn’t been accessible to them in quite some time. I have been able to observe improvements in posture and balance, as well as increased range of motion and amplification of movement,” Swenson said.

When asked about how this process was inspired, Claudio said, “We embarked on a pilot project that addresses ideas of wellness and empowerment by instilling greater confidence, self-worth and creativity among individuals living with Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, the project provides opportunities for a group of students from both departments to integrate relevant academic knowledge with service learning opportunities as well as to better understand the realities of our older adult population. It is called Grey Matters: Stretching the Mind, the Body and the Spirit Through Dance and is the first dance class in Utah for Parkinson’s disease, Claudio said.

The mission of Grey Matters is as follows:

  • To provide participants living with Parkinson’s in Utah with an opportunity to enjoy the many pleasures and possibilities dance and music offers as a form symptomatic therapy.
  • To develop a sense of collaboration and cross cultural community among students from the Department of Modern Dance, Department of Physical Therapy and the adult dancers participants.
  • To contribute to research opportunities in dance and physical therapy furthering the evidence suggesting that vigorous and creative physical activity have neuroprotective benefits in Parkinson’s disease.

During their research, Claudio and Swenson discovered that Parkinson’s disease affects as many as 1 million Americans; on average about 60,000 Americans are diagnosed every year. Utah alone has more than twice the national norm according to Rep. Steward Barlow in an interview with Deseret News in March 2013. Recent research published in IMG_0025the medical journal Neurorehabilitation & Neural Repair, as well as anecdotal reports from the community organization Dance for PD have reported that dance helps alleviate, improve and transform the ever growing motor symptoms in individuals living with Parkinson’s disease.

The Dance for Parkinson’s disease class takes place once a week for an hour and is free of charge and open to the public. Classes are composed of an introduction, imagery, breath connection, warm up, seated dances, assisted standing dances, center floor and across the floor movement combinations. Each class ends with an improvisational and imaginative exercise.

“I have had the pleasure of integrating two of my passions, dance and rehabilitation.  It is an ongoing process that has taught me a lot about myself and the world around me.  I look forward to learning more and being able to implement my current training as a student of physical therapy with dance, a field that has already taught me so much,” said Swenson.

“When our adult dancers first come to class, they have difficulties walking, talking. They experience slowness moving. Some have a very rigid spinal posture and limbs, tremors and lack of emotions through facial expressions. Towards the end of class, they can walk better, have better balance and smiles on their faces,” said Claudio.

“Dance has no age limits; its potential is endless.”