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The freedom that dancing can offer
Date posted: 27 November 2019
Dr. Sara Houston has led prize winning research, speaks internationally on the subject and has just published a book, 'Dancing with Parkinson's' where she illustrates the freedom that dancing can offer to people

Dr. Sara Houston is Chair of People Dancing and Deputy Head of the Dance Department at University of Roehampton, London. She has led a prize winning research in the field of dance for people with Parkinson's. She speaks internationally on the subject and has just published a book, 'Dancing with Parkinson's' where she illustrates the freedom that dancing can offer people that can lead to a better sense of order over one's body.

In 2010 I was invited to evaluate a 12-week pilot of a dance class for people with Parkinson’s by English National Ballet. Little did I know at the time that that initial evaluation would turn into a five-year research study with global impact and that I would still be immersed in the field nine years later. 

The specialist dance practices offered to people living with Parkinson’s have developed greatly over the last decade. When I first got interested in this area there were only a handful of dance artists working in the field in the UK. Now there are over 100 programmes all over the country. 

Equally it has inspired people all over the world. There are classes on six continents. It has been an area of practice that has motivated people to dance, to teach, to support. It’s been a real privilege to have been part of this global dance movement. To witness it develop has been really exciting. 

With in-depth data from the English National Ballet programme, and rich information from other international initiatives, it provoked me to think deeply about this area of dance practice and why it might be important. So much so that I realised that I needed to write a book on it. That book, Dancing with Parkinson’s (Intellect Books, 2019), has just been published.

As a Dance Studies academic I am interested in the dancing bit of the experience. The bit where people engage with movement and others moving, rather than merely the after-effects of dancing, such as better stability and functionality. What is it about dancing that makes people come back, week after week, month after month, year after year?

My book suggests some ideas based on years of interviews, discussions and dancing with people living with Parkinson’s, as well as my understanding and knowledge of dance, aesthetics and Parkinson’s. These ideas centre around some very old aesthetic concepts – beauty, grace and freedom – that are re-thought for the community dancer with a neurodegenerative condition. 

What is clear is that this is about how people feel. This is important given the increasing toll the condition often takes on people. I first noticed this in conversation with one woman who was insistent that feeling lovely was the most life changing experience that the dancing gave her. Then I realised that people were telling me other connected things, such as how dancing was giving them respite from the clumsiness of everyday life – a certain grace. In the book I write about how grace is also about giving people a moment of dignity, a moment where they feel capable and their contribution is acknowledged without being judged. 

What was even more telling was the constant reference to freedom. In the book I describe freedom in different yet linked ways. It is what people feel when they forget their identity as someone with Parkinson’s: they are dancing. The dance space is also a safe space to practice risky, freeing movement and conversely to practice control of movement to lead to a better sense of order over one’s body. Freedom is contradictory yet a key element of dancing in all its senses. 

In writing the book I was convinced that these feelings were crucial to many people’s experiences dancing with Parkinson’s. I was also convinced that dance in all its forms had qualities to offer that were important to people’s quality of life. Dance doesn’t normally get to be centre stage in arguments on people’s quality of life. It’s rare to find it analysed in research studies. It’s there as a tool to achieve certain outcomes. Actually, how we experience dancing is different from this. We are present in the moment of dancing. We are also lifted up into an imaginative and emotionally stimulating world that is played out in our moving bodies. If your body has closed down, if your emotional response to your body is negative, then dancing can be even more powerful in pulling you up out of this state. That’s pretty magical.

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