The Brain in Motion:

Dancing begins with a cognitive act for professionals and Parkinson’s patients

by Ben Mauk

November 18, 2008

Dance engages the brain’s sensory and learning processes in a way unique among the arts, neuroscientists and professional dancers agree. The challenges of movement seem to reward the minds of dancers both professional and amateur, and even have found an enthusiastic audience among people with Parkinson’s disease.

The Mark Morris Dance Group presented their ongoing dance program for Parkinson’s patients Nov. 15 before a workshop audience of scientists and guests at the 2008 Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C. The group, headed by renowned dancer and choreographer Mark Morris, has been teaching “Dance for PD” classes for six years at its location in Brooklyn, N.Y., in conjunction with the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Society.

“I am no kind of scientist no-how,” Morris began. “But I do have an interest in this Parkinson’s program. ... It turned into a dance craze that is sweeping the nation,” with at least eight programs associated with Morris’s group in other U.S. cities, as well as independent programs in the U.S. and Europe. As for the Brooklyn program, “It started as once a month, now it’s a couple times a week,” Morris said, and it fills to capacity with both regulars and newcomers.

The classes consist of seated and standing solo movements as well as activities in pairs and groups, all of which can be modified depending on a student’s mobility.

Longtime student Carroll Neesemann said of his experience in Morris’s program, “There was a time before I began to have more severe [periods without medication] in which the dance class would make things perfect. In the class you would be symptom-free.”

Morris and the class instructors stressed that the class is not a clinical treatment and that they make no medical claims. “This is not a medical experience, it is an artistic experience,” David Leventhal, a Dance for PD teacher and a dancer with Morris’s group, said in an interview.

Joining several patients in a sample class, which reached the workshop audience via live closed-circuit video feed, were SfN past president and Brandeis University neuroscientist Eve Marder and Wellesley College neuroscientist Bevil Conway. “It was an extraordinary, extraordinary event,” Marder said later. Conway said that learning the timed moves challenged him cognitively, suggesting that dance affects the healthy brain as well.

Movement begins in the brain

Morris shared his insights on dance, movement and the brain at the “Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society” event following the workshop. Marder and Conway interviewed Morris, asking about his methods and about possible biological explanations for the art form. “There’s a necessity to ‘corporalize’ music,” Morris said. “[Dancing exists] in every culture I know of.”

Conway asked Morris about proprioception, the sense of where one’s body parts are situated in space. Proprioception makes coordinated movement in space possible.

“In the dance realm,” Morris said, “the term proprioception includes feeling what you’re doing, kinesthetic awareness, how much space your taking up, how far you can reach, if your backpack is hitting someone on the subway, your sense of if someone is near you.”

As with many complex activities, honing proprioception and “muscle memory” starts as a conscious process but becomes natural and automatic in experts. “I always thought [dance] was just about getting your body to do the right thing,” Leventhal said. But teaching Parkinson’s patients has taught him that “really, it’s about learning how to learn. ... The beginning of the process is 99 percent mental, one percent physical.”

However, when pressed at the dialogue event, Morris admitted that “by the time you’ve done a particular sequence thousands of times, it’s nothing. It’s like driving. You just got there; you don’t have to consciously look at your feet.”

“Professional dancers and people with Parkinson’s have the same challenge: to take unfamiliar movement ... and to make it graceful, getting it to a point where it could be automatic,” Leventhal said.