Tango Therapy

Article excerpt

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

Cindy Kokis tucks herself into husband George's arms and gazes up at his face as the two begin a slow, perfectly in-step walk to the tunes of an Argentine tango.

Instructor E. Vivianna Marcel - better known as Ev - calls out instructions.

" `Leads,' you're walking your `follows' backward, and we're brushing our knees together," says Marcel, as she moves down the floor with a partnerless student in the class. "This is very good for our balance."

The 54-year-old tango devotee teaches a lot of dance classes - through Lane Community College, the city of Eugene and her own You Can Dance Studio. But this is one of the special ones, a class designed for people with Parkinson's disease and their spouses or companions.

"There's a scientific study that shows that dancing - and especially Argentine tango - really helps people with Parkinson's to improve their balance and generally get around better," Marcel says. "Argentine tango is basically a walking dance, and the way I teach it, they can use the movements in their everyday lives to help them turn corners and go through doorways and respond to the `freezing of gait' that's common with the disease."

She illustrates that in class by placing chairs on the dance floor so they create an obstacle course of sorts.

"Now, when you see an obstacle and need to turn to avoid it, you start the rocking step back and forth, turning your head to look where you want to go, and ever so slowly you rock around the corner and then start the forward step again," she tells her students. "You can do that in class or anywhere you are."

The study Marcel refers to appeared in the Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy in December 2007. It cites a study which divided 19 Parkinson's patients into two groups. One took 20 tango classes, and the other did 20 exercise classes for strength and flexibility, both over a three-month period.

Evaluated before and after the classes, all of the participants benefited from the physical activity. But compared with the exercise-only group, the tango dancers showed significant improvement in maintaining balance as well as the ability to rise from a seated position, begin walking and navigate more successfully.

Besides the stimulation of basal ganglia - a part of the brain integral to controlling dance movements - as well as neurological structures most negatively affected by Parkinson's disease, the study suggests that dance helps both the social and physical aspects of the condition.

Like Asian-based therapies such as tai chi and qigong, "Social dance in a group setting can enhance motivation in elderly individuals," the study says. "However, tango differs from other complementary movement approaches because it is performed with a partner in a setting that fosters community involvement, it is progressive in nature (because) the participant is always learning and it is performed to music which may engage the participant in addition to serving as an external cue."

Marcel puts it more simply. "I believe Argentine tango is a metaphor for life: You lead, you follow, you do it with mutual respect for your partner, and you do it because it's enjoyable, without the expectation of going anywhere. …