Science of Irish Dance 2: Parkinson’s

Many of you enjoyed a post I wrote last year, the physics of Irish Dance … how they can jump so high and land up on their toes, all without bending their knees (check it out here if you haven’t read it).

So when I read about some very, very interesting research correlating Irish Step Dance classes with a reduction in Parkinson’s symptoms, I thought it was time for a follow up on the science of dance!


Background on Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s Disease is a disease that affect the nervous system, reducing the patient’s ability to move. It acts by damaging nerve cells within the brain, inhibiting their ability to produce dopamine (dopamine is a neurotransmitter with many functions, including our goal-setting and reward pathways in the brain as well as movement.)

It is often first noticed by tremors in the hands (in about 70% of cases), followed by difficulty in all muscle control in later stages of the disease. Characteristic Parkinson’s patients may move rigidly, experience some tremors and may also notice other symptoms such as sensory changes, problems with thinking, memory and sleep, depression, or gut health issues.


However, movement restriction is the most iconic symptom, enough so that in 2010, a man named Dr Daniele Volpe watched a man shuffle into a pub in Ireland and immediately thought that his gait was characteristic of a Parkinson’s patient. Yet despite the shuffling walk, this same man got up on stage and performed an Irish set dance without a hint of his motor impairments.

Tattoo Schellenberg
Some Irish dancers performing in hard shoes. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons

This was so bizarre that our good Dr Volpe immediately set about conducting a larger experiment. As scientists should, he had a control group given standard physiotherapy exercises that are normally given to Parkinson’s patients. The second group instead got to attend Irish step dance classes. Both groups undertook 90 minutes of their allocated activity each week.

In the areas they could assess, participants undertaking Irish dance classes saw equal or greater improvements in key symptoms compared to those in standard physiotherapy. The trial also concluded that Irish dance classes were a safe form of activity for people with Parkinson’s (important to note, as falls are a fairly major hazard for people suffering Parkinson’s).



Why is Irish Dance effective?

This is still a correlation, and certainly does not mean that Irish dance will definitely cure Parkinson’s, or anything of that sort. However, while it remains a correlation (because we don’t know exactly why Irish dancing would help), there are a few suggestions.

The authors suggest that it is the rhythmic nature of Irish dance music that may particularly help, combined with the large, but fast steps in Irish dance.


Of course, this leaves the door wide open to investigate more specific details: whether other styles of dance shoes similar benefits to Parkinson’s patients, the effect of the music (whether slow or less rhythmical pieces would demonstrate the same benefits), the type of movements.


It’s certainly very interesting, and a great reason to turn up to a weekly Irish dance class!




***Read the full paper here

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