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Dance as Complementary Therapy for Parkinson Disease

Dance as Complementary Therapy for Parkinson Disease

PD is most commonly treated with pharmacological approaches, sometimes in combination with surgical procedures such as deep brain stimulation. Unfortunately, these approaches do not fully address many of the problems associated with PD, such as difficulty with balance and walking. As such, additional complementary approaches to the management of PD are needed. Exercise is one such approach, and accumulating evidence from animal models of parkinsonism suggests that exercise can enhance physical function and may also slow neuronal degeneration. Based on this animal work, there has been a veritable explosion of studies examining exercise in people with PD. The work in our lab has focused in particular on the effects of dance as a form of exercise for people with PD.

Why choose dance to treat people with Parkinson Disease?

Moving at different speeds, turning and moving in thight spaces

How is dance beneficial to people with Parkinson disease?

In the past 5 years we have published several studies regarding the specific benefits of tango. Our most recent study (1) examined the long-term effects of participating in tango dancing. Participants with PD danced twice a week for a full year and were compared to another group with PD who did not dance. We assessed participants’ disease severity at the beginning of the study and again at 3, 6, and 12 months using the Unified Parkinson Disease Rating Scale and all participants were assessed off their normal anti-PD medications. After just three months, the people who were dancing tango had lower disease severity than people who were not dancing, despite the fact that the two groups started out with equal levels of disease severity. Differences between the two groups got larger as time went on, with the tango group continuing to improve and show reduced disease severity over the full year. By the end of the study the tango group showed a 25% reduction in disease severity. This suggests that dancing may be able to modify the progression of disability over time and that the benefits of dancing tango are cumulative, as larger gains were noted with longer participation in a tango program. In addition to these exciting improvements in overall disease severity, we also noted significant improvements in balance and walking. These were in keeping with our prior work showing that short-term participation in tango can convey significant improvements in balance, walking, and quality of life for individuals with PD (2).

Contact improvisation is accessible to dancers of varied size, age, ability and skill level

How does a class work?

Our dance classes for people with PD pair the individual with PD with a dance partner who does not have PD. This partner may be a spouse or caregiver or a volunteer. Both members of the dance partnership should have the opportunity to dance the leader and follower roles, ignoring the tradition that men typically lead so that all dancers get practice moving in different directions. Throughout the class, dancers rotate so that each person works with a new partner every 10-15 minutes. Classes typically last for one hour and involve a brief warm-up followed by introduction of a new step or technique, practice of this new concept, and integration of the new material with previous knowledge. For more specifics on how classes are implemented please refer to Hackney & Earhart (4).

Could dance be beneficial to people with other conditions?

Dance has the potential to benefit groups other than those with PD, as it is a socially engaging and motivating form of physical activity. Dance has the potential to convey benefits not only in the realms of balance and walking, but also with respect to aerobic fitness and cardiovascular health if the dance exercise is of sufficient intensity. Dance may also convey benefits with respect to mood and cognitive function. The therapeutic potential of dance is promising and more research is clearly warranted to better understand the benefits of dance for different groups, the relative merits of different forms of dance, and the mechanisms by which dance conveys benefits.

Author :Gammon M. Earhart, Ph.D., P.T. Associate Professor , Physical Therapy, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Neurology Washington University School of Medecine in St Louis


Earhart, G.M. (2009) Dance as therapy for individuals with Parkinson disease. Eur J Phys Med Rehabil, 45(2): 231-238. PMC2780534

Marchant, D., Sylvester, J.L., Earhart, G.M. (2010) Effects of a short duration, high dose contact improvisation dance workshop on Parkinson disease: A pilot study. Comp Ther Med, 18(5): 184-190.

Hackney, M.E., Earhart, G.M. (2010) Recommendations for implementing partnered tango classes for persons with Parkinson disease. Amer J Dance Ther, 32(1): 41.


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