Guest Blog: Dancing through life: Participation in a dance training program for community-based older adults with multiple medical comorbidities issues

By Kate Dupuis

Dance is one of the oldest art forms, with depictions of dancers dating back over 30,000 years. Even if we think that we have “two left feet”, when a favourite song comes on the radio, it is hard not to tap our toes or dance along in our seats. Throughout our lifespan, dance can help us to connect with others, express our emotions, and strengthen our bodies. Indeed, dance has many potential benefits as we age. Research has shown that, as we age, dance can benefit cognitive health (for example, improvements in memory and processing speed when remembering fancy footwork during ballroom dancing, or trying to keep up with the caller’s instructions when square dancing), physical health (increased strength, mobility, flexibility, and balance), mental well-being (reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression), and social well-being (developing connections with others through dance, making new friends, getting to know the instructor). The physical benefits of dance may be particularly crucial for those older adults with mobility issues who may be at a heightened risk of falls. While many communities offer dance programs, these may not account for or provide accommodations for individuals who are experiencing multiple medical comorbidities, including mobility challenges.

At the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research, we are currently conducting a research study in which community-dwelling older adults with mobility issues and at least two other medical comorbidities (e.g., high blood pressure, vision loss) are participating in 12 weeks of twice-weekly dance instruction. The sessions are led by a professionally-trained dance instructor, who has taken the time to understand each participant’s strengths and challenges, and makes specific accommodations for each of the dancers depending on their needs. We spoke with Pat Spadafora, the Director of the Sheridan Centre for Elder Research, who said that “the decision was made to hire a professionally-trained dancer in order to capitalize on the extensive repertoire of material from her own training and performances which she can draw upon for inspiration and instruction during the sessions. In addition, professionally-trained dancers understand the biomechanics and anatomy involved in dance, which results in these teachers being able to make a wide variety of accommodations for their participants.” These accommodations are necessary and welcome for our participants.

The dance instructor, Paula Skimin, reports that she has seen remarkable improvements in the participants over the course of the program, including improvements in balance, stability, and “developing a knowledge of their skeleton and skeletal structure, which allows for more stability.” She stated that, from a social perspective, the participants have become comfortable sharing with one another, and that many have cried during class when specific songs have touched them. She has worked to “create a safe space where people feel comfortable to express themselves and to share about their past, present, and future.”

At the end of the 12 weeks, the researcher will meet with each of the participants individually to discuss their perspective on the program. Many of them have already expressed a desire to continue with their dancing. We hope that, with new evidence to support the provision of dance training for individuals with multiple medical comorbidities, we will be able to offer similar programs in the future!

Kate Dupuis is the new Schlegel Innovation Leader in Arts and Aging at Sheridan College. She studies how participation in the creative and performing arts can serve to enhance the wellbeing of older adults. In particular, Kate is interested in discovering the personal characteristics of individuals who are drawn to participate in the arts, and identifying the physical, psychological, social, and systemic barriers to participation.


Pilot Dance Project Explores The Benefits of Dance Participation

The Centre for Elder Research is conducting a pilot project that explores the benefits of dance participation for individuals experiencing multiple chronic health conditions. Older adults are invited to participate in 12 weeks (two days a week) of complimentary dance classes. The classes will be led by a dance professional who will be providing modified instruction such as seated dancing.

In order to be eligible to participate in the dance program, the older adults must be 65 years of age and older. Both men and women are welcome! Participants must also be experiencing mobility issues and at least two other chronic health conditions.

Classes will run on Tuesday and Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., starting Tuesday, April 4 and running until Thursday, June 22.

If you would like to know more about this program or to register for the classes, contact Kate Dupuis at 905-845-9430 extension 4229 or email Kate at

See flyer for further details.

Dance & Enhanced Brain Plasticity

While music alone can unlock people with parkinsonism, and movement or exercise of any kind is also beneficial, an ideal combination of music and movement is provided by dance (and dancing with a partner, or in a social setting, brings to bear other therapeutic dimensions).
~ Oliver Sacks author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Physical Activity
A Frontiers in Psychology article entitled New framework for rehabilitation – fusion of cognitive and physical rehabilitation: the hope for dancing reports that “intervention based human studies, with a focus on healthy older adults, have been able to show that exercise training can enhance brain plasticity and cognition. Specifically, greater executive, controlled, spatial and speed processes were linked to fitness training, with executive control showing the largest effect size.”

The same article explains that music invokes “the widespread activity of various brain regions related to sensorimotor, higher order cognitive and emotional processes. Such processes can include auditory processing, attention, memory and sensory-motor integration, leading to the involvement of networks that consist of frontal, temporal, parietal and subcortical regions. Music processing can also be quite a complex task, recruiting various brain regions that are associated with the different components found in music, including pitch, timbre, rhythm, melody, recognition, and emotion”.

The article concludes that dance has the same benefits as physical and music therapies. “Dance may be able to aid with both physical and cognitive impairments, particularly due to the combined nature of including both physical and cognitive stimulation. Not only does it incorporate physical and motor skill related activities, but it can also engage various cognitive functions such as perception, emotion, and memory. This may allow dance to have a positive impact on not only physical, but cognitive functioning as well.”

An added benefit to dance is its ability to “promote adherence” because it is such an enjoyable endeavor. According to the article “it has been estimated that over 50% of participants who begin an exercise program will drop out within the first 6 months. This is particularly prominent in older adults, who may initially be willing to participate in an exercise program, but only do so for the short term, eventually stopping. Unfortunately, the benefits of exercise require continued participation, making the issue of adherence that much more important.”

There are many initiatives that recognize the power of dance. A wonderful and inspiring example is the Dancing with Parkinson’s classes.

Canadian Study on the Benefit’s of Dancing with Parkinson’s

Banner-IMG_4076Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease. Movement is normally controlled
by dopamine, a chemical that carries signals between the nerves in the brain.
When cells that normally produce dopamine die, the symptoms of Parkinson’s appear.
Parkinson Society of Canada

Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS) is collaborating with researchers from Ryerson and York Universities to conduct a 12-week dance program that will study the physical and neuropsychological effects of dance on individuals with Parkinson’s Disease (PD). For the pilot project, the first series of classes runs from September to December of 2013 and is know as DwP@NBS.

Previous research has indicated that dance may have the capacity to help alleviate some of the symptoms of PD. In order to better understand the benefits of dancing for individuals with PD the project proposes to “study how dance is able to seemingly bypass the neurodegeneration occurring in the PD brain and potentially facilitate improvement in movement in those with PD”.

According to CTV News “Rachel Bar, who attended the National Ballet School and now is a graduate student in clinical psychology at Ryerson University, pitched the idea of a dance class for people with Parkinson’s. Her former school, she said, jumped at the chance to offer dance to people with Parkinson’s, bringing on board the Mark Morris Group’s Dance for PD® and Dancing with Parkinson’s to help design and implement the course”.

Dance for PD® is a New York based non-profit collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group that offers dance classes for individuals with PD. Individuals who participate in the dance classes “are empowered to explore movement and music in ways that are refreshing, enjoyable, stimulating and creative”.

Dancing with Parkinson’s is a Toronto based dance class designed by Sarah Robichaud “where those with Parkinson’s Disease can explore the potential of their own movement through choreography and improvisation.”

Dr. Joseph DeSouza, a neuroscientist at York University, will be working with volunteer dance participants at the Sherman Health Science Research Centre. DeSouza will be performing MRI brain imaging scans to study changes in brain activity following 12 weeks of learning and practicing dance moves.

“Researchers hope the brain scans will provide hard scientific evidence of neurological and physical benefits of dance to people with Parkinson’s, a disease that affects more than 100,000 Canadians and seven million people worldwide”.

Check out this video to see Dancing with Parkinson’s @ The National Ballet School in action.