Parkinson's patients test Irish set dancing benefits

traditional Irish set dance
Image caption Set dancing may be able to help Parkinson's patients fight symptoms. Image: Belfast Trad

People with Parkinson's disease have taken to the dance floor to see if Irish set dancing can improve their symptoms.

It is part of an international study being led by the University of Limerick.

Results are yet to be analysed but in a previous study, patients fell less often and were more mobile after regular set dancing lessons.

Benefits may be down to exercise, the strong rhythm of Irish music and the sociability of group dances.

The research could potentially lead to people worldwide being offered traditional Irish set dancing as part of their Parkinson's treatment.

Music lift

Masters student Joanne Shanahan, a qualified set dance instructor, led an exercise programme twice a week for eight weeks in a pilot study.

Eight patients with mild to moderate Parkinson's took part and were compared against a control group.

One of them, Mary, spoke to the BBC but did not want her surname to be made public.

She was diagnosed with Parkinson's eight years ago and it causes her to drag her right leg behind her when she walks, as well as making her joints stiff.

"With the music it kind of lifted you somehow," she said.

"I would walk out better than I walked in."

Her husband Pat noted that set dancing helped Mary get better at "little things" like putting her own shoes on.

Mary has now pledged to join regular set dancing classes.

"I feel this is definitely helping me," Mary said. "I'm going to join up and keep it going."

Lecturer Amanda Clifford said the "enjoyment factor" of set dancing is "key".

"There's theory to support that this is beneficial and we have seen this in some (other) studies," she said. But she warned that she and her team are still analysing results from a pilot study.

'Fluent' dance

Parkinson's research first turned to set dancing after an Italian doctor had a chance encounter in a County Clare village.

Daniele Volpe is an Irish folk music enthusiast and plays the guitar.

While playing at an annual traditional music festival in Feakle, he saw a man walk in using a cane.

Dr Volpe recognised the symptoms of Parkinson's, but was amazed when the man set aside his cane to start dancing in a "fluent" way.

He teamed up with Dublin-based researcher Timothy Lynch and on Dr Volpe's return to Venice, they sent 24 patients with Parkinson's to weekly set dancing classes for six months.

When measured against a control group, all of them saw improvement in balance, mobility and quality of life. They found it easier to change direction and to start moving again after they had stopped.

In 20 years of sending patients to the gym, to swimming and to treadmill-based rehabilitation, he said "this was the first time that all the patients gave very high compliance to the treatment".

Other dance forms including tango, ballet and foxtrot have been investigated as possible aids for Parkinson's patients.

But the steady rhythm of Irish folk music acts as an "acoustic cue", Dr Volpe said, bypassing the Parkinson's trouble spots in the brain and helping patients to overcome their symptoms for the duration of the dance.

And he is optimistic about people getting the therapy worldwide, because "everywhere you can listen to traditional Irish music".

The sociable nature of set dancing and the uniformity of the steps used also prompted improvements in patients' symptoms, Dr Volpe believes.

He said: "I'm very happy that this dance can help people improve their quality of life. This is our job."

A larger research study led by the University of Limerick, with input from Meg Morris at the University of Melbourne, is due to be rolled out in Ireland in the coming months.

And Parkinson's sufferers from Italy and Ireland will join to perform set dancing at the Feakle festival later this year.

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