Parkinson’s disease takes a heavy toll on those who suffer from it. The disease includes symptoms like tremors, a body that doesn’t want to keep going and tenuous balance. Little by little, the horizon shrinks, and social life loses its appeal. There are, however, some solutions to break out of this maddening spiral. One of them is dancing the Argentine tango.
At first glance, Argentine tango appears to demand total control from its participants, with its complex steps and taut-muscled movements. But in the past few years, the art’s therapeutic virtues have been brought to light. That’s why, in several hospitals in Buenos Aires, tango lessons are available to people suffering from mental illnesses such as depression, as well as from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Buenos Aires’ Hospital de Clinicas is thought to be the pioneer in the field. “Tango isn’t a cure for the disease, which is degenerative, but rather it helps to slow down its symptoms,” Leticia Lopez, a doctor at the hospital, explained in an interview with Top Sante in 2013.
Gammon Earhart, a physical therapy professor at Washington University’s School of Medicine, later conducted a study on the topic. In an article published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in September 2014, Earhart explained, “Two-year participation in a tango class was associated with improvements in the gravity of both motor and non-motor symptoms.” In a previous study conducted by Earhart and her team in 2007, it was discovered that after 20 tango lessons, Parkinson’s patients reported improvements in their balance and mobility compared to other patients who took gymnastics lessons.
Professor Daniel Tarsy, director of the Parkinson’s Center in Boston, further explained the benefits of these kinds of activities for the brain in an interview with The Associated Press: "When you hear music, it sort of drives the emotional parts of the brain.” This may help bypass damaged brain cells, making movement easier.
Charlotte Millour, 31, has been a tango instructor in Paris for the past four years. Giving lessons to Parkinson’s sufferers wasn’t an idea that had previously crossed her mind.
“It all began in 2013 when a man suffering from Parkinson’s contacted me via my website,” she said in an interview with HuffPost France. Millour, who was already interested in the virtues of art therapy, decided to give it a try. She educated herself online about this type of initiative and about Parkinson’s disease.
Charlotte Millour doesn’t claim to cure her students, but instead hopes to bring them a little bit of joy. “The aim of the class is for them to have fun,” she told HuffPost France.
If she didn’t know anything about this disease before this experience, she has learned to adapt along the way through her lessons. “What is most challenging for them is the rhythm. It’s difficult for them to speed up,” Millour explained. However, that isn’t the core of this discipline. “Tango is about the steps. The aim isn’t to raise your leg as high as you see them do it in the performances.”
Last year, Millour had four men and two women suffering from Parkinson’s in her weekly class. “Two retirees also joined us. It’s an open class; everyone is welcome. The rhythm is a little slower and the warm-ups are longer--but I don’t want to treat them like they’re handicapped. Incidentally, all my students react in the same way when learning tango. Sick or not, they put themselves down. I’m always reassuring them.”
As good as it is for the body, tango is also good for the spirit. A study conducted in 2005 by the University of Montreal showed that after just two weeks of tango classes, the dancers (who had no particular health problems) had better coordination, memory and higher self-esteem.
In any case, this confirms Charlotte’s anecdotal findings: “The students know that in my class, they are very free. Some of them handle their treatment better than others. Sometimes, class doesn’t go well and their bodies become frozen. It isn’t important whether they ‘get there’ or not.”
Instead of performance, Charlotte Millour puts encounter and exchange front and center in her class: “In Buenos Aires, tango is above all else a meeting. You have to go toward the other person, look at each other. It isn’t about doing acrobatics.”
Dancing tango is also about keeping your social life alive. “I feel more energetic, more mentally alert, more spiritually healthy,” one of her students attested. “Tango class also gives us the opportunity to socialize, to interact, to focus our attention on others.”
Learning the tango is a challenge. It’s an even bigger one when, little by little, you’re losing control over your own body.
“Tango has a reputation for being a difficult dance; it’s true,” another of Charlotte’s students said. “It’s precisely for this reason that it appeals to me. Leaning such a skillful dance demands a lot of effort and practice, all things that go into a sense of awakening the spirit and body that might slow down, or reduce, the effects of Parkinson’s.”
This piece was originally published on HuffPost France and was translated into English. It was edited for an American audience.