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Dancing with Parkinson's

Dancing with Parkinson's

“As soon as they enter the dance class, they’re not patients,” says Diviya Kaul, MD, chief resident in Neurology, “they’re dancers.”

That is really the only rule of the Upper Valley Dancing with Parkinson’s, the dance class designed and led by Kaul to help people with Parkinson’s and any other movement disorder to improve mobility and functionality. “And we don’t view people as having a problem,” Kaul adds. “Parkinson’s might be a mark of their identity, but you know what, here they’re doing something about it. Here they’re empowered.”

It was during her second year of residency that Kaul narrowed her focus to Neurology, and she credits her mentors Stephen Lee, MD, PhD, and Mary Feldman, DO, in Neurology for encouraging her to pursue movement disorders. But Kaul is no stranger to movement by design, having trained since a young age in various forms of dance, including Indian classical dance and (her favorite) Bollywood dance.

“I have my medicine life [as a neurology resident],” she says, “and my other my passion is dance.”

In her research about using dance as a means of improving strength and mobility in Parkinson’s disease patients, Kaul stumbled upon a program offered by the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn, NY. Dance for PD® began as a collaboration between the dance group and the Brooklyn Parkinson’s Group by offering dance classes, free of charge, for people with Parkinson’s. The organization has since grown into a network of affiliate classes available in many parts of the country and around the world.

When Kaul learned that Dance for PD® also offered training to become a certified dance teacher, she wasted no time in applying, and last year attended the intensive workshop in Brooklyn. “It was so interesting to be there because most people were coming from an art perspective,” she says, “and then there was me with my science background. I learned so much from them about dance students’ feelings and sensitivities, and about what kind of attention they need in a class.”

Even before she completed the workshop, Kaul wanted to launch a version of Dance for PD® in the Upper Valley. With the support of Dartmouth-Hitchcock and the Neurology department, the first class was offered on December 22, 2016, and now every Thursday from 5:45 to 6:45 PM, she and a growing group of dancers take up space in one of the auditoria, crank up the music and get moving. The class is free of charge and open to anyone with a movement disorder.

Kaul is amazed at the progress of the group. “When people come in, they’re not moving,” she says. “But by the end of class, the transformation is amazing. You suddenly see these people up and dancing with each other. It’s like magic happening right in front of you.”

Going from the “magic” of dance’s effects on movement disorder to quantitative measurements will be the focus of Kaul’s research as she begins her fellowship at Stanford later this summer.

In the meantime, all the fun that Kaul and her dancers are having every Thursday is gaining the attention of her fellow residents, who she says, “are coming out of the woodwork offering to play music at the class. One of them wants to come play the steel drums!”

And as the dancers continue to improve mobility, strength and cognitive function, they’re enjoying the added benefit of learning a range of techniques from a variety of dance styles. Given Kaul’s love of Indian and Bollywood dancing, she admits she’s leaned on that style in class. “And now they request it,” she says, adding, “I always tell them, if you’re ever invited to an Indian wedding, you’re going to be so prepared!”

Saturday, April 29, is World Dance for Parkinson’s Day, an occasion to celebrate the organizations around the world—and their dancers—and to highlight the rich benefits of dancing through the limitations of Parkinson’s.