Shall we Dance- Vonita Singh

Vonita Singh

Founder of Movement Mantra

Doctorate in Anthropology

Tapping into the therapeutic potential of dance for people with Parkinson’s Disease

I was three and a half years old when Mum enrolled me to learn Indian classical dance at a nearby hobby centre. Hated it in the beginning but thanks to my parents’ sweet pressure, this continued as a routine which I then started enjoying and pursued right through my school and college years. Dance had become an integral part of my growing up years, and I would have withdrawal symptoms if I were to miss a class.

Eventually, I went on to perform with dance troupes across temples and other venues in India and as part of cultural missions overseas. Whilst securing a Doctoral degree in Anthropology, getting married and having two children, I continued to maintain my contact with dance, and shared my art and passion with people around, within India and other places.

Through all the ups and downs in this wonderful journey we call life, little did I know that dance would be that bright red ribbon that would tie events together and, in some ways, bring me back full circle. The fact that I would treat dance as a therapeutic tool for people with Parkinson’s Disease was never the plan!

Parkinson’s Disease, popularly known as PD, is a chronic disorder of the brain and is caused by the loss of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for movement and balance. It is a neurodegenerative and progressive condition.

Sloth-like demeanour. Pill-rolling tremors. Sluggish gait. Loss of balance. Masked face. Mumbling and soft speech. These are some of the manifestations of the disease that the family watched Dad experience during his years of dealing with PD. Like a phantom, PD creeps up behind you and gradually, before you know it, you are robbed of your mobility. You are caught in your own body.

Is there a way around this?

Counterintuitive as it sounds, movement is the only way forward. Along with medication, movement is just the other side of the coin for any individual with this condition. Not just movement but deliberate movement using the mind to break down a movement into simple steps that can be easily executed by the body. Re-training the body to move and speak, mindfully and intentionally. People with Parkinson’s disease need to practice the ‘art of movement’ with grace and completion.

So, what could be a modality that can embrace all these 3 aspects of movement: graceful, mindful and complete? Or GMC as my mentor John Argue puts it.

Dance. What could be a better modality than Dance?

People with Parkinson’s are recommended physical activity, mental stimulation and social engagement and without a doubt, dance as an expressive art form, provides all three. As a performance art, dance proves to be a beautiful workout! Intrinsic to dance is the concept and practice of body alignment, posture and balance which works as a perfect aid in countering the debilitating effects on a body dealing with this medical condition.

Thinking and moving like a dancer logically applies to most aspects of living with PD. Using the brain consciously, to guide the body is the basic tool of dance and this is exactly what a person with Parkinson’s needs to do too! Further, conscious actions are enabled by cues – both internal and external. However, owing to dopamine deficit in people with PD, their internal cuing is disturbed. This creates the need for external, alternative cueing mechanisms such as Aural (rhythm), verbal, tactile and imagery to name a few. Studies show that external cues and prompts help bypass the basal ganglia (specific area in the brain where the dopamine producing or the ‘dopaminergic’ neurons are found and is now affected) and utilise alternate pathways in the brain.

A dancer or an actor, to be able to perform, must be in control of his or her body at all times. And for that to happen, the brain must receive information in a very specific language, in order to control the body and perform the movement. That language is imagery. Imagery is not just visual. It gives meaning to action and as a result, it enhances movement. From moving mechanically to a command, imagery creates aesthetics in movement. According to Eric Franklin, “Imagery is not just pictures in your mind – it is how the movement feels, the rhythm and the mood of it”.

Using imagery as a tool, attention is focused on moving with the image rather than any absence of movement. Imagery suspends the feeling that we are limited. Further, creativity is encouraged as we engage with our imagination, emotion and senses, breaking out of physical barriers and feel the movement.

Rhythm, in simple terms, the beat that underlies music is another popular external cue. Rhythmic stimulation through music and sound has been shown to improve motor deficits in a variety of movement disorders including PD. This is because the areas involving rhythm perception are closely related to those that regulate movement for example, Putamen in basal ganglia. Regular rhythmic pulse is known to stimulate the Putamen activity that facilitates movement.

I remember reading somewhere, the expression that rhythm shows us which road we are on, but melody, harmony and emotional tone show us the scenery along the way!! Music is a strong stimulus from an emotional point of view as well and becomes a source of transformational imagery that motivates participants at all levels to move. This explains why when a sequence of movements is choreographed to music there is emotional involvement and grace which is an efficient medium to fight one of the challenges brought about by PD – that of initiation and continuation of movement.

Summing up, I would not hesitate admitting that it has been an ‘Aha’ moment for me many a times, to see how effective the basic elements of Kathak dance, be it Tatkar (the foot work), Padhant (recitation of the dance syllables), Mudras (hand gestures) and Abhinaya (expression to convey the meaning) are, as if tailored fit to intervene and alleviate the challenges brought about by PD. It’s like witnessing a beautiful marriage between Arts and Neurosciences. I am not a therapist but no denying the fact that the end result of such interventions is nothing but therapeutic!

Having embarked upon my journey, with a deliberate plan of using dance as a therapy tool, I am confident and excited about furthering on this path. With years of training in Kathak dance, studies in Anthropology, faith in yoga and my own experiences, together, I feel confident and responsible today to canvas for mindful movement to become a mantra in everybody’s life…

Our physical and mental response to dance is not something we should resist or fight; rather embrace it as a healthy part of who we are. So yes, we may dance!

Vonita is the founder of Movement Mantra – a social enterprise that aims at promoting the well-being of people with mobility challenges, like those with Parkinson’s Disease (PD), through practice of mindful movements. A doctorate in Anthropology and with a lifetime devoted to Kathak, along with deep interest and faith in Yoga, she has successfully reached out to many people and their families suffering from Parkinson’s in Dubai, the rest of the UAE and elsewhere over the past five years and brought about a positive impact. The approach in these interventions has been shaped by her experience as a care giver, validated by training with the New York based ‘Dance for PD’, under the aegis of Mark Morris Dance Group and driven by a deep-seated desire to ‘give back’. The long-term objective of her work is to improve awareness and encourage collaboration in expressive art therapies for betterment and wellness of society.

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