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Just What the Therapist Ordered

By accident, I discovered how Bollywood and bhangra dance can help manage Parkinson's disease By Gina Fernandez
  • Fernandez / Photo courtesy of Fernandez

Three years ago, I was leading a Parkinson’s disease boxing class when one of my old Bollywood/ bhangra teaching playlists accidentally started playing. Before I could turn it off, some of my students told me they loved the music and asked me to teach them a few moves. Their spouses, who were watching from the sidelines, joined in too. After years of teaching exercise and providing group therapy as an occupational therapist, this had never happened before. But I didn’t consider the power of Bollywood and bhangra dance for Parkinson’s until I completed my PWR! training in San Diego a few months later. 

PWR! stands for Parkinson’s Wellness Recovery – an exercise program designed to target the effects of the disease. The main focus is on big movements. When I was learning the lower and upper body movements that are most effective in targeting Parkinson’s disease, I noticed the similarities to bhangra and Bollywood, such as the Y-shaped arm movements and large, almost exaggerated, stepping movements. So, armed with this information, I implemented these dance moves into my boxing classes. The clinical results amazed me.

Research shows that moderate to high-intensity exercise is the best treatment for Parkinson’s. It slows the disease’s progression by improving cognition, decreasing falls, increasing muscle mass and improving gait. Boxing is a well-known, clinically effective technique; it’s intense and involves the entire body. But most clinical research on dance focuses on western styles like ballroom or contemporary. I, however, believe these forms of treatment can be quite serious and don’t evoke the same kind of fun or energy as Bollywood and bhangra. That fun aspect provides direct treatment for the cognitive and emotional aspects of Parkinson’s disease.

When I started teaching bhangra to my students, they showed the same physical benefits as when they boxed or did the PWR! exercises. Patients who appeared apathetic became engaged and motivated because of the upbeat music and the fun vibe of the class (as per their self-reports). They were happy to have their loved ones dancing alongside them and functioning at the same level. Neither partner had advanced abilities in these styles, so the patient with Parkinson’s disease was no longer the “lower functioning” partner, cognitively or physically. The satisfaction that the patients felt from memorizing a dance sequence was also gratifying, especially after failing a memory test at their neurologist’s office or forgetting where they put their keys (either due to the disease or the side-effects of their medication). 

I realized, at that moment, that Bollywood and bhangra were perhaps more effective than boxing, due to the cognitive and emotional benefits. It was truly amazing to watch these individuals dance and move in and out of formations, working on their visual-spatial skills and their bilateral co-ordination skills. This form of treatment grew in popularity, and last year I taught Bollywood and bhangra classes at various Parkinson’s support groups throughout British Columbia. For the participants, it was a new form of exercise that they could enjoy with their friends and partners, and for me, I got to teach dance again.

 

Gina Fernandez is a registered occupational therapist and owner of Enable Occupational Therapy. She spends her spare time choreographing, performing and teaching Bollywood and bhangra dance in Vancouver.

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