Music and Movement: How Dancing Helps to Ease Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease
After training with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and having a professional dance career, Sarah Robichaud became a personal trainer. Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic
When dancer and personal trainer Sarah Robichaud had her first consultation with former CBC Radio host Andy Barrie in 2008, he was quick to get to the point: “What do you know about Parkinson’s?” It was just one year before that Barrie had revealed to his listeners that he had been diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s disease.
Robichaud was taken aback. The only thing she knew at the time was that both Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali suffered from it.
“I felt foolish,” she said recently, prior to teaching one of the free, in-studio classes she offers through her charitable organization, Dancing with Parkinson’s (DWP). “I told him I knew nothing … but I also said I would do all the necessary research in order to improve his functional fitness… and hopefully his everyday life.”
After training with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and having a professional dance career, Robichaud became a personal trainer. Dancing was — and still is — very close to her heart, and she was looking for a way to give back to the community that had given her “everything … it’s made me who I am.”
As a single mom, she didn’t know how her service would materialize, but she did know her busy life wouldn’t allow her to commit to anything she was less than passionate about. Barrie’s question was the spark that changed Robichaud’s entire life.
She began researching and learned of a once-a-week Parkinson’s dance class at the Mark Morris Dance Company in New York City. “I was working frequently there at the time and… stars aligned… Within weeks of being asked what I knew, I was participating in the first training program for instructors of the company’s Dance with PD (Parkinson’s) method.”
Training involved working with the community where Robichaud witnessed firsthand how participants arrived “hunched over with shuffling gaits, wearing the non-expressive mask of Parkinson’s” transform into dancers.“The entire room elevated,” she said. “Honestly, I thought, ‘Is a miracle happening right before me?’ It was absolutely magical and I knew I was in the right place.”
Robichaud decided she would offer classes based on this method for free as soon as possible when she returned to Toronto. And DWP was born.
Despite this first class taking place on a day of a blizzard, at an off-the beaten-track gym under construction with no accessible washrooms, more than sixty people braved the conditions to find something that might make them feel better. This spoke volumes to Robichaud.
Once-a-week classes soon mushroomed into fifteen at studios throughout the Greater Toronto Area. As interest grew, Robichaud applied for, and received, charitable status, brought on a mini-board and created a charitable organization.
“I was dancing with people, and for that hour I was helping them find some joy. That was enough for me, but it kept growing.”
Then COVID hit and changed DWP’s landscape in terms of reach. On the first day of lockdown, Robichaud put a call out: “Anybody want to meet on Zoom to dance a little bit?” The response was resounding.
“That was over a thousand days ago and we haven’t taken one off since — not Christmas, not Passover — we are there every day, one hundred-plus seniors. Everybody across the country can take part, and it’s all free.”
How It Works
How is it that a person with Parkinson’s reduced capacity to initiate and control movement can suddenly move in ways unavailable to them in their daily lives?
“It’s a phenomenon called Kinesia Paradoxa,” Dr. Lorraine Kalia tells me over Zoom from her office at Toronto Western Hospital.
This allows people with Parkinson’s to access locomotor abilities that are usually unavailable to them. Kalia cites the ability to run when triggered by a life-threatening event — like fire — as an example.
A neurologist specializing in Parkinson’s, Kalia also enjoyed a brief professional dance career before pursuing her academic training. Now an associate professor at the University of Toronto, a senior scientist at the University Health Network’s Krembil Research Institute and a movement disorders neurologist at Toronto Western Hospital, her research focuses on understanding the key molecular pathways responsible for neurodegeneration in Parkinson’s.
A key factor of Parkinson’s is the dying off of dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. Dopaminergic pathways in the human brain are intrinsic to both physiological and behavioural processes including movement, cognition, executive functions, reward, motivation and neuroendocrine control. Kalia focuses on developing novel therapies since, as she points out, “there is no magic pill that will stop Parkinson’s progress: it’s a lifelong diagnosis … current therapies only alleviate symptoms.”
As a neurology resident in 2008, Kalia came across a DWP pamphlet and Robichaud invited her to take a class. Kalia immediately offered to volunteer for DWP. In 2016, she joined its board. She hopes one day to train with Sarah to become a DWP instructor.
“It all started by seeing and engaging in a class,” she said. “DWP is all about helping people with Parkinson’s move through the world in a joyful way. The other magical piece is that it’s a true passion of Sarah’s.”
Dancing’s impact on Parkinson’s patients has been studied for 20 years, and many peer reviewed studies and research papers are accessible on the DWP website. But, if you really want to tap into its magic, check out a class online — they’re free and happen daily — and nothing shouts success as powerfully as the joy on the participants’ faces.
Robichaud’s energy and enthusiasm beams out from the screen. Using imagery such as “catch a butterfly” or “reach for your star,” she motivates participants — “of which 99.9 percent are not dancers” — through the portal of their imaginations.
Another Technique to Try at Home
If online classes are not an option, mirroring is a technique that can be tried at home on your own in front of a mirror, or facing a partner, friend or caregiver. It is beneficial because we use our brains differently when we mirror actions. Start by putting on some favourite music. Music is another key factor in helping movement and dance find different pathways to activate movement centres by engaging auditory pathways to the brain. If with a partner, choose who will lead and then follow their movements. You can take turns on who leads or you can try it on your own. Either way, the combination of the music and movement brings on feelings of physical and mental connection that are better experienced than described. Because it releases dopamine, serotonin, oxycontin, endorphins — all the happy hormones.
Live classes are now back up and running, and Robichaud also offers annually the teacher-training program she took in New York. Part of DWP’s strategic plan is cross-country expansion through identifying high-needs areas and training teachers where they are. One benefit that live classes offer over those online, Robichaud offers, is touch: “The second someone walks into the studio we take their hands … so right off the bat we set participants up for success.”
“The people who absolutely need it the most will eventually end up as part of our community.”
Which is why they are having a fundraiser in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Ontario on March 5 that coincides with their Leonard Cohen exhibit. It’s a one-hour public performance dance experience you can participate in or watch, with regular DWP dancers zoomed in from across the country.
“It’s an opportunity for people to witness what we do and experience the magic.”
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