In the late 1990s I discovered contra dancing. Contra dancing is a social dance with some roots in American Barn dancing and involving traditional folk music. In Contra, the dancers form sets of two couples in long lines starting from the stage and going down the length of the dance hall. Similar to square dancing, it is a called dance, with lively music. For a number of years I was obsessed with dancing, and while traveling around the country doing some medical consulting, I had the opportunity to attend dances from Boston to San Francisco, and I found that losing oneself on a dance floor for several hours is good medicine for the body and the soul. With or without a partner, one could just show up and dance the evening away.

Why dance?

People who have danced habitually over their lives are known to have better balance and less variable gait than non-dancers. Several studies have examined the benefits of dance for elderly as a form of physical exercise and for fall risk reduction, and improvements have been reported in performance, balance and improved sense of well being. The effect of dancing on cognitive function has also been an area of interest for researchers and a large meta-analysis and systematic review published in 2019 reported that dance may be a safe and effective approach to improve cognitive function in older adults.

Dance and Parkinson’s disease

Not surprisingly, studies indicate that dance may be an effective alternative to traditional exercise for addressing areas of concern to individuals with Parkinson’s disease (PD). Most people with PD know by now that there is sufficient evidence in the literature to support the positive effects of exercise on gait speed, strength, balance, quality of life and that individuals with higher levels of habitual physical activity are at lower risk for developing PD.

Dance may address many of the key areas that have been identified as being important for an exercise program designed for individuals with PD. For example, dance is an activity performed to music, and the music may serve as an external cue to facilitate movement, thus addressing the first recommended component which is the use of external cues. Dance also involves the teaching of specific movement strategies, which is the second recommended component of a PD-specific exercise program. Dance also addresses a third recommended component, balance. Throughout dancing, particularly with a partner, one must control balance dynamically and respond to perturbations within the environment (e.g. being bumped by another couple).

A final aspect of dance that can’t be overlooked is its social nature. Contra dancing and English country, in particular developed as social dances and a way for members of a community to come together. You change partners frequently, and eye gaze not only helps you to balance but adds a little innocent flirtation to the dance.

English Folk & Country Dancing is coming to Charlotte County starting Feb. 3. These weekly dances are open to anyone in the community, including people with Parkinson’s who feel stable on their feet. No partner is necessary.

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