As an undergraduate student at Wake Forest University studying Health and Exercise Science and aspiring to be a future physical therapist, I was excited when I learned about a pioneering Parkinson’s Disease dance class developed by Associate Professor of Dance Christina Soriano. I am an avid, self-defined dancer who grew up with a grandmother who suffered from this debilitating disease, and the opportunity to serve as student assistant on this project seemed perfect. Little did I know it would become one of the hardest, and most rewarding, experiences I have embarked upon. This class has led to a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that will fund a three-year clinical trial seeking to determine the mechanism for why and how this methodology is seeing improvements in gait, balance, and quality of life in people with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).
Soriano has crafted a pedagogy of improvisational dance movement that aims to improve the mobility, balance, and overall health of older adults, which is now trademarked as her own IMPROVment™ method. The core of IMPROVment™ is the improvisational and spontaneous nature of the movement. At any given moment during the class, one will see each individual doing his/her own version of an auditory prompt or cue given by the instructor. Exercises are prompted in an open-ended fashion so that an infinite number of possible reactions exist. Each exercise fades effortlessly into the next without a pause, and participants are expected to react naturally in the moment by moving their body in a way that feels good to them. The class is not about reaching certain positions or mimicking another human being, but rather about finding your own body and surprising yourself with what you are capable of in a safe, nurturing environment.
The IMPROVment™ classes are very permeable with everyday life in an intentional and purposeful manner so as to allow for a seamless transition between the two; we not only practice how to move, but how to live a better, more full life. This class is unquestionably intertwined with life, giving participants a beautiful and joyous way to practice how to handle the challenges that a life with Parkinson’s—or any neurodegenerative disease—brings. When disease takes away movement or control that a person once had, improvisational practices put a focus upon what movement is possible, instead of what is impossible. Participants practice walking in weaving patterns around chairs and obstacles in the room, much like they could encounter in their life as they walk throughout the world. After being a part of this project for more than a year, I have seen firsthand that this practice, when done on a consistent basis, gives back to these older adults the confidence and reassurance that neurodegenerative diseases so easily strip away from them. The energy in the room is very different at the end of class: we all feel more present, more alive, and more grateful once we become more tuned in to our bodies.
The next stage to this project combined dance with neuroscience, an unlikely yet incredibly important pair. Soriano began collaborating with Christina Hugenschmidt, PhD, assistant professor in gerontology & geriatric medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine, on pilot studies to test this IMPROVment™ method for quantifiable neurological and wellness results. This collaboration led to the aforementioned NIH grant to fund the clinical trial, which is scheduled to begin in early 2018. The various arms of the study will allow investigators to see whether it is the improvisational nature, the social interaction, or the sheer physical movement itself from the IMPROVment™ method that contributes the most to neurological and emotional improvements in the participants.
Having a role in this project has been truly remarkable for me. From learning the IMPROVment™ methodology to teaching classes myself to assisting in the planning of the clinical trial, I have had the opportunity to see every angle of this program unfold. I dived headfirst into this work, and I only find myself becoming more and more hopeful for successful long-range outcomes. One may not often think of dance—or the arts in general—in the same space as scientific inquiry and clinical trials, yet such projects are developing across many disciplines all over the country—particularly in the field of neuroscience. My grandmother may not have had the opportunity to be a part of Parkinson’s dance classes or clinical trials such as this, but it is an indescribable feeling knowing that I am a part of something that has so clearly improved the lives of many older adults like her. She was the reason I began dancing in the first place, and a part of me feels as though this work, which combines my interest in physical therapy and the sciences with my lifelong dance career, is my way of honoring her story and finding my own purpose.
To learn more about the IMPROVment™ Method and the Wake Forest University Clinical Study, visit http://www.improvment.us.