Setting aside walkers and canes, the newcomers timidly inched their way into a circle. Parkinson’s disease was slowly robbing them of balance and muscle control. But now, remarkably, they were ready to tango.
The instructor, Madeleine Hackney, flashed a reassuring smile. At her direction, they grasped their partners’ arms, elbow to elbow. With the stable anchor of a young volunteer, they tapped, swayed, and stepped to the beat.
Argentine tango is traditionally danced in close embrace, with spontaneity and musicality. Hackney, a research health scientist at the Atlanta VA Medical Center and a former professional dancer who once performed with the Radio City Rockettes, began adapting the rhythmic style in 2006 as a therapy for movement disorders.
People with Parkinson’s are often stiff. The disease destroys brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical necessary for movement control, leaving patients prone to slowness, tremors, and even freezing in place. Some of the people in Hackney’s studies can walk only a few feet at a time. Yet somehow they manage to keep dancing—albeit with assistance—for an hour and a half.
Tango works well as a therapy because its pattern of slow and quick steps mirrors rehabilitative movements, says Hackney, who is also an assistant professor of geriatrics at Emory University. “There’s a general [therapeutic] effect of exercise, but tango can help you hone certain skills,” such as stepping backward or shifting weight from foot to foot, she says. disea
In controlled studies Hackney has conducted over the past decade, she showed that a series of 20 dance sessions led to improved gait, balance, and motor control in people with Parkinson’s and produced similar benefits for the very elderly and the visually impaired. Currently Hackney is using MRI to study the effects of tango on the brain. Her hypothesis: The music and dance steps spur “plasticity,” or long-lasting changes in neural connections.
So far Hackney has trained about 30 instructors in the Southeast to offer adapted tango as an exercise program for those with mobility issues. But her greater goal is to pave the way for patient-specific therapy treatments that would supplement medication.
Trudi Leggett of Stone Mountain signed up for a Hackney study last fall on the advice of her neurologist. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three and a half years ago and has problems with her legs. The muscles contract too much, which makes her walking erratic.
“She didn’t expect us to be what you see on Dancing with the Stars,” says Leggett. Little by little, she learned the steps. “We did all kinds of things I didn’t think I would ever be able to do,” she says, “but especially not with the limitations of the Parkinson’s.”
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.