Physical, social, mental: Dance and Parkinson's comes 'oop North to Preston

Every hour, two people in the UK are told they have Parkinson's.

By Jack Marshall, Reporter
Monday, 9th September 2019, 9:37 am
Updated Monday, 9th September 2019, 10:37 am
Dance for Parkinson's Mel Brierley with Bob Hey
Dance for Parkinson's Mel Brierley with Bob Hey

A degenerative disease which causes parts of the brain to become damaged, often resulting in shaking, slow movement, and inflexible muscles, there is currently no known cure.

But one thing which has been clinically proven to help with the coordination and mobility problems commonly associated with Parkinson's is dance. Not only crucial for expanding the range of movement, dance also helps combat isolation and depression, which impacts 40% of those living with Parkinson's. And to that end, an innovative new class with a twist (literally) is coming to Preston.

"Dance supports the whole person in living with Parkinson's," says Mel Brierley, 58, a somatic movement educator who is heading up Preston's new Dance and Parkinson's group. "Research shows that dance is beneficial on the physical side, but also in terms of cognition and communication, and in class we move, we problem-solve, we express ourselves, and learn from other people."

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Dance and Parkinson's participants in a seated class.

With a master's in dance and 30 years of teaching experience, Chester-born Mel has been fronting Lancaster's Dance and Parkinson's group since 2013 and also recently submitted a PhD on dance's impact on the mind at Roehampton University. Her expertise will be augmented by Helen Gould, 36, the co-director of the Lancaster-based LPM Dance Theatre, who has herself completed a master's in the relationship between dance and Parkinson's.

"We're delighted to begin more specialist classes in the North West; this project is all about finding new places where people don't currently have access to provision, allowing people to lead a normal life and engage in a dance class specially equipped to understand the symptoms of Parkinson's," said Helen, with the programme forming part of a North West initiative funded by National Lottery Community Grants.

"You absolutely see the tangible benefits; there's a passion and confidence-building to it," she added, with other classes also taking place in Blackburn, Blackpool, and Morecambe. "We don't mention Parkinson's in the class, it's all about positive artistic activity. Because we focus on making the classes accessible, the inspiration for the class comes from things people are familiar with - imagery, local arts, and the community - rather than it being about the physical; that can sometimes draw attention to limitations.

"It's about what you can do, not what you can't, and I’ve witnessed the extraordinary benefits first-hand," Helen said. "We're hoping people are up for giving it a whirl because it's a lot of fun."

A class in full swing.

Mel continued: "Often people can feel very isolated or like they've lost control of their 'normal' lives, so dance gives them agency and a place to express themselves. It's a participatory and social process; a lot of people with Parkinson's get depressed, so we support people's mental health as well.

"Like dancers, people with Parkinson's are constantly learning how to control their movement and we've looked at the developmental movement patterns of children and re-traced those patterns to help people walk better - it's called re-patterning," she said of the classes. "[In classes], people become more confident in their movement, which can get bigger - Parkinson's usually shrinks movement amplitude.

"People learn to balance better and control their walking, and while the effects can be momentary, research shows it can last a few days. You can have very dramatic results: I've had people come into class in a wheelchair then leave pushing their own wheelchair out."

Preston sessions will be taking place at the Media Factory at UCLan from September 20th at 2pm for nine weeks and are suitable for all abilities. Classes cost £3.50; for bookings and further info, contact Mel on [email protected]