Tango: more than just a dance for Parkinson’s patients

Modified instruction in the tango, says Marnie Coutts, D.P.T.’12, can help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their gait, balance, cognition and social lives.  She says it combines the “art of connection” with the “science of movement.”
Modified instruction in the tango, says Marnie Coutts, D.P.T.’12, can help people with Parkinson’s disease improve their gait, balance, cognition and social lives. She says it combines the “art of connection” with the “science of movement.”

Hollywood legend Rudolph Valentino and Beatrice Dominguez wowed audiences when they danced the tango in the 1921 film, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” At the time, no one realized that the dance could ease the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Flash-forward to recent years and medical studies, including the capstone project Marnie Coutts, D.P.T.’12, took on as a student in DMU’s post-professional doctor of physical therapy (PPDPT) program: She sought to meld “the scientific expertise of the therapist and the artistic expertise of the dancer” to benefit Parkinson’s disease sufferers in community-based exercise groups. The benefit goes beyond physical movement, she notes.

“Dancing is such a social and engaging activity,” says Coutts, the PPDPT program’s 2012 Graduate of Distinction. “You’re doing a connected activity with another person.”

The capstone melded two of Coutts’ passions: She provides manual outpatient physical therapy services in two locations in Coos County, OR, and teaches ballroom dancing two evenings a week. In addition to the area’s “active ballroom dancing community,” she discovered that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a larger proportion of adults over age 65, 21.4 percent, compared to the state overall, 13.9 percent; with the increased incidence of Parkinson’s after age 60, “it is reasonable to assume we have a larger proportion of persons” with the disease, she stated in her capstone.

Coutts conducted a literature review of Parkinson’s, a debilitating, progressive neurologic disorder that typically leaves its victims with impaired strength, motor performance, hand-eye coordination, balance, gait stability, speech and cognition. While pharmacological and physical therapies exist to manage the disease, it isn’t curable.

Elements of tango – specifically, Coutts says, Argentinian-style – match those of effective physical therapy intervention for Parkinson’s patients. The walking dance includes “metered rhythms, external cues, cognitive movement strategies, large amplitude movements and close social contact – all of the recommended parameters for effective exercise” for these individuals, she concluded in her capstone.

Coutts reviewed other studies that showed the benefits of tango instruction for Parkinson’s patients. She then tested tango with a friend, a registered nurse with moderate Parkinson’s disease. Coutts and her partner and fellow dance instructor, Lynn Haller – both in the photo above – put her friend through experimental tango paces. “She was very patient with us,” Coutts says. “With her medical background, she was able to provide invaluable feedback on the exercises.”

The session also convinced Coutts they were on the right track. “When she and I were just walking around the room, the minute Lynn turned on the music, her posture improved,” she recalls.

Coutts’ capstone included an outline for a one-day pilot educational clinic for dance instructors, therapists and volunteers. Participants would take pre- and post-tests, gain knowledge on Parkinson’s disease and the tango, receive dance instruction and then practice basic tango techniques. She and Haller remodeled their dance studio to ensure its accessibility and plan to offer the clinic in the coming months.

This isn’t the first time Coutts has brought personal interests into her practice. For many years, she offered hippotherapy, an approach that uses horses to help patients experience movement and improve function. She has helped coach Special Olympics equestrian teams, now offers aquatic exercise therapy at a community pool and wants to explore using tai chi with arthritis sufferers.

“It seems like whatever recreational activity I’m involved with finds its way into my practice,” she says.

That’s one reason she loves physical therapy and the benefits it offers individuals of all abilities. “There is something sort of magical about it,” she notes.

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