Syracuse University Magazine

People with Parkinson's Find Relief on Dance Floor

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On a frosty January day a seemingly unlikely group of dancers warms up in a studio near campus. Led by Tumay Tunur, a postdoctoral researcher in the biology department who is also a trained dancer, the lively gathering includes community members with Parkinson’s disease—for whom the class is intended—joined by their friends, family, and caregivers. Once the music begins, however, no one’s focus is on illness. Everyone is too busy concentrating on Tunur’s colorful instructions—“Imagine you are moving inside a pool filled with peanut butter”—and mirroring her graceful, playful movements. And before they know it, a laughter-filled hour has passed.

The idea for the classes originated with neuroscientist Donna Korol, a biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, who was inspired by the Dance for PD program created by the Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) with the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group. In April 2014, Korol and Tunur collaborated with SU Arts Engage and the New York City-based MMDG to present a two-day dance workshop for Central New Yorkers with Parkinson’s disease, a chronic and progressive movement disorder affecting more than half-a-million Americans. Korol and Tunur now partner with the Syracuse University Aging Studies Institute, the Dance Theater of Syracuse, and the Onondaga County Department of Adult and Long Term Care Services to offer the free weekly classes. The dance classes are also part of a bigger initiative, Movement for Healthy Aging, being developed by Korol, Tunur, and colleagues. “Dancers need to work on similar things as people with Parkinson’s,” says Tunur, who attended a Dance for PD training workshop to prepare to offer the classes. “Balance and flexibility, physical conditioning and strength, and expression and storytelling—all those are common goals.”

The objective of the classes is twofold, Korol says: to provide an immersive creative experience for participants, and to learn more about the ways dance can complement traditional medical interventions and help people with Parkinson’s manage their symptoms, improve their quality of life, and maintain a sense of grace and dignity while living with a challenging chronic condition. “Though dancing is neither a cure for Parkinson’s nor a substitute for medical regimens, it can provide temporary relief from the everyday challenges of movement difficulties that people with Parkinson’s confront,” says Korol, whose research focuses on the underlying cell and molecular changes that occur in the brain with aging. “We’re trying to understand why individuals who could otherwise not move—who can be frozen by the disease—can actually dance. And we hear all the time from people who take these classes that they’ll become stuck in the aisle of the grocery store, for example, and simply can’t initiate movement—at least not until they imagine their choreographed moves. Only then are they able to start pushing their cart.”

According to Rosanne Suskin, a Syracuse resident who is active with local Parkinson’s support groups, the classes are fun and beneficial not only for Parkinson’s patients, but also for their family members. “There’s something amazing about what happens here—all the concentration that’s involved, combined with the beat of the music and just being with other people,” she says. “Even if you can’t do all the movements all the time, you’re thinking and you’re moving and you’re trying. And you feel better.” —Amy Speach

Photo courtesy of Tumay Tunur