Betty Wright dances with Iowa State students as part of a Music and Movement outreach program for people with Parkinson’s disease. Photo by Ryan Riley.

New program uses music, dance to help people with Parkinson’s

Betty Wright, an 83-year-old from Ames, dances every week to improve her movement, thanks to Iowa State University faculty and students.

“I like that cute boy very much,” she said of her student dancing partner. “The students are always very nice.”

Wright is among a group of people participating in a new Iowa State University music and movement outreach program for people with Parkinson’s disease. The program is based on research that shows musical cues help people with Parkinson’s disease overcome their tendency to freeze during movements.

“The goal of the program is mainly to provide an avenue for exercise that is specifically tailored to people with Parkinson’s disease,” said kinesiology assistant professor Elizabeth Stegemoller. “The whole design of the session is to target all of the things they have difficulty with — rigidity, range of motion, big forceful movements, balance, and posture.”

Music for movement

Stegemoller, kinesiology associate professor Ann Smiley-Oyen, and 14 undergraduate students use music to improve movement and quality of life in people with Parkinson’s disease. The class meets at 4 p.m. Tuesdays in the fellowship hall of First Baptist Church in Ames.

During the first half of the class, participants stretch and exercise with music therapy. The second half is a ballroom dance lesson. All the movements in the program are designed specifically with the challenges of Parkinson’s in

Stegemoller is a music therapist as well as a researcher and teacher. She plays music that matches the movement goals.

She uses music conducive to relaxing for the stretches to help with rigidity and range of motion. Participants also do seated exercises that work from head to toe and focus on big, large, and forceful movements, which Parkinson’s patients tend to have trouble initiating.

Smiley-Oyen, who grew up dancing and taught lessons as part of putting herself through graduate school, teaches the ballroom dance portion of the class. Her first lesson for the group was the box step as the basic step of the foxtrot.

“The good thing about dance is that it practices shifting weight and balance, and it requires memory of movement sequences when remembering the steps,” Smiley-Oyen said. “Those are all good challenges for them — remembering movement sequences, shifting weight, and balancing. And it puts it to music and the music provides cues.”

“My goal is for them to do a small number but a string of steps that can move them in different positions around the room.”

Learning together

Student volunteers play a big role in the program. They lead the participants in stretches, model movements, and provide goals for participants. In the end, they dance with the

“The undergraduates are learning the foxtrot, too, because most of them don’t know how to do it,” Smiley-Oyen said. “I’m teaching them how to dance at the same time.”

Each participant is paired with two to three students. One student is the dance partner and other students stand behind as a contact guard or in front to help model the dance step. With nearly twice as many women volunteers as men, women sometimes take the men’s dancing role when necessary.

Encouraging atmosphere

Students find satisfaction in the participants’ success.

“One guy told me he has a hard time doing jumping jacks and so I was thinking that’s a great, big movement,” said Alison Brinkman, a senior in kinesiology and lead student volunteer. “So for the end song I said, ‘Let’s do jumping jacks today.’ He seemed safe enough to do four or five of them so I was fine with it and we had students by him. And so he did jumping jacks and he was so proud of himself.”

The movement was part of an end routine when the group bids each other goodbye through singing “So Long, Farewell” from “The Sound of Music.” Each group of students and participants comes up with a movement for their group.

“It’s not only their movements, it’s their social group,” Brinkman said. “It’s so impacting on their quality of life. Just the way they think, ‘Yes, I can do this. I can make these big movements.’ It’s just really great to see that and see them smiling.”