Researching Dance for Parkinson’s

The University of Roehampton study investigates the experience of dancing with Parkinson’s: how people engage socially and artistically, how dance may affect functional mobility, how experiences of dancing may affect everyday lives, what motivates people to dance and keep dancing.

Commissioned by English National Ballet in 2010, the study (2010-2011 and 2011-2014) has tracked the company’s Dance for Parkinson’s programme in London, and its regional classes in Oxford and Liverpool. The research is unique in using a broad array of research methods to examine dance for people with this degenerative neurological condition.

Through the use of participant observation, one-on-one multiple interviews, focus groups, participant diaries and film footage, we have been investigating over a four-year period how the dance programme affects people socially, within their everyday lives, what motivates them to dance and keep dancing and how participants engage artistically and technically with movement.

Through the use of biomechanical measurements, clinical rating scales, movement observations, interviews, and questionnaires, we are investigating how dance may affect participants’ overall functional mobility and everyday lives. To compare results, we are using a control group of people with Parkinson’s who do not dance.

Photographs from English National Ballet’s Dance for Parkinson’s programme

In addition to studying the English National Ballet programme, we have also followed the development of the Dance for Parkinson’s Network UK, a network of dance teaching artists and organisations (including English National Ballet) delivering dance classes for people with Parkinson’s. Being interested in the international context in which the programme takes place and the development of specialist pedagogy, we also have regular discussions with Dance for PD, USA, and other programmes, such as at Queensland Ballet, AustraliaTheater Freiburg, Germany, Hamilton City Ballet, Canada, Dance for Health and Parkinson, The Netherlands and OperaEstate, Italy. In addition, we welcome one exceptional student from Brown University, USA as a summer research assistant each year.

Parkinson’s alters people’s ability to move voluntarily: muscles may become rigid, tremors may develop and movement and thought may slow down. Falls, mental illness and social isolation are often accompanying problems. There is no cure for Parkinson’s and medication becomes unreliable over time.

Over the last 15 years, dancing has grown in popularity as an activity that men and women living with Parkinson’s feel is of benefit to them and is an enjoyable past time. Dance classes now take place in many countries around the world. This research project aims to explore and document the experience of dancing, the motivation and outcomes for participants and teachers in response to this global phenomenon.

We were delighted to be finalists in the 2014 Engage Competition, run by the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement, and winners of the BUPA Foundation’s prestigious Vitality for Life Prize, 2011.

Dr Sara Houston, Principal Investigator, University of Roehampton
Dr Ashley McGill, Co-investigator, University of Roehampton