How dancing the tango may help people with Parkinson's Disease

James Parham is doing something he never imagined a guy like him, with Parkinson's Disease, would be doing, dancing the Argentine tango.

"As a young child I took ballroom dancing and learned about that much tango," says the 74-year old retired business professor. "So, I was very interested in doing it."

Each dancer here in the Atlanta VA Medical Center is paired with a partner who doesn't have Parkinson's.

There are caregivers, and spouses, and medical and physical therapy students in the crowd.

Dr. Madeleine Hackney, Ph.D, is both their instructor and the lead researcher.

"I was a professional dancer for 11 years before I went to graduate school," says Hackney.

Eight years ago, the Atlanta VA research scientist and Assistant Professor at the Emory School of Medicine began adapting Argentine tango for people with movement disorders, like Parkinson's.

She thought dance might be helpful for their symptoms like difficulty walking, tremors and stiffness.

"We think that the music, the partner, the steps will allow them to improve things like gait, and their walking ability, their ability to do more than one thing at a time," she explains. "And, certainly, their ability to catch themselves if they should trip."

This is James Parham's third tango study since his diagnosis 4 years ago.

"Tango is, how can I say? It's regimented," Parham says. "You know where you're going and your partner knows where you're going. It's really going to the music. So you're brain and your body is forced to coordinate."

The dancers are medically-evaluated on their motor skills and cognitive function before and after the 12-week program, and then a few months down the road.

Hackney is using MRI to measure the effect this type of dance may have on the brain.

In previous studied, Hackney says, they've have been able to document measurable improvements in the dancers' mobility, balance, and gait.

She thinks dancing the tango may also help improve the participants' spatial recognition, and quality of life.

"I notice a total difference myself," says Parham. "It was subtle It wasn't that I stopped shaking or could leap tall buildings in a single bound. But due to the exercise and the choreography of tango, I could tell my balance was a little bit better.

And, James Parham says, he's hooked on the tango.

"The more fun it is, and the more they enjoy it and feel like they're getting something out of it," says Hackney. "And maybe it makes them forget about their problems for a minute or two, for an hour. That is what's really going to make a difference."