Every week, they meet in the vintage-style restaurant turned ballroom, listening to the instructor as they sway and groove to one of Argentina’s most popular musical genres: the tango.
But the students aren’t there to learn to dance. Every Tuesday, at the Fundación Tango Argentino in Buenos Aires, they are dancing for therapy.
With its complex footwork patterns and precision timing, the tango has become a popular therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease, especially in this country where tango was born.
The idea is that dancing tango may relieve symptoms of the disease, and may even slow its progression.
“People who suffer from Parkinson’s (disease) need to be in movement all the time because this illness tends to stiffen their bodies,” said dance teacher Verónica Alegre, who works at the Argentine organization. “…Being physically conscious of their movements are great advantages that allow them to feel more secure.”
Parkinson's disease is a chronic, degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. Cells in the part of the brain that control muscle movement are destroyed, leaving patients with a host of symptoms that include tremors, loss of balance, stiff limbs and frequent falls.
Walking is part of the traditional therapy to maintain their mind and physical balance. But, following a study by researchers Dr. Gammon Earhart (Washington University) and Dr. Patricia McKinley (McGill), showing how tango benefits people with Parkinson’s disease, this alternative therapy began to find a serious place in medical history.
Tango movements are not easy for people who have the disease. When dancing tango, people must take long steps, and it’s easy to lose your balance while moving backward. Turning is another big problem, because it triggers something in the brain that makes people with Parkinson's freeze in the middle of a movement.
Their effort to dance tango the right way (many of them remember the steps from their younger days) help them improve their movements a little bit each day.
At the foundation, the students anxiously wait for this special moment every week.
“The most important thing is not how much we improve our movements, but that we enjoy it and laugh together,” said Liliana Scioscia, 61, who has Parkinson's and is a member of the therapy group.
Tango therapy, as it is called, involves some special characteristics that make it better than other dances for therapy. It is a dance with numerous sequences, is multidirectional in its steps and turns (which helps for body balance) and involves changing the body weight from one leg to the other.
Slowing down and pausing is part of the dance and its rhythm. Tango also involves an embrace, which means touching and connecting with a partner.
There is a popular saying, “It takes two to Tango,” which means many things. But in therapeutical terms, it helps the Parkinson’s patient feel alive when they are dancing in step with a partner.
We have fun dancing tango, we don’t mind if we do it well or not,” Scioscia said. “We are happy here and that makes us feel better.”
Teresa Sofía Buscaglia is a freelancer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.