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Once a dancer, always a dancer
Date posted: 10 April 2018
She began with ballet, took up tango and, despite her Parkinson’s diagnosis, dance artist and writer Kate Swindlehurst has continued to be what she’s been since she was four-years-old… a dancer
Kate Swindlehurst
My mum wouldn’t let me learn tap as it was ‘common’ (those beautiful red shoes!) So, at the age of four, I had to settle for ballet. I didn’t last long. Fast forward to 2002: my first Argentine tango lesson, in a remote, north-east corner of Cumbria. Two years later, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. After the initial shock, I fought it, determined to prove I was coping. But the Parkinson’s eroded my confidence, undermined my balance and my emotional well-being. I gave in, and gave up – my job, running, playing the saxophone, even dancing.
What changed? A move to Cambridge put me in touch with local teachers who were keen to explore with me the impact of Argentine tango. We read up on the research and discovered a growing body of evidence to show that dance, especially tango, is good for those living with Parkinson’s. We began to record the effects of regular Argentine tango on my experience of Parkinson’s. The physical benefits were the easiest to measure: improved posture and balance, more confident stepping and turning and prompter responses to my partner’s movements. It seemed that tango worked by asking of the dancer what Parkinson’s made especially challenging.
An extra layer of difficulty stems from the fact that tango is improvised, relying on unspoken communication between the partners. Parkinson’s had left me reluctant to communicate and feeling increasingly isolated. The intense connection which Argentine tango requires breaks through this isolation. The close embrace can be a profoundly intimate experience emotionally, demanding but also supportive. The same is true of the music. Rhythmically, it presents many challenges for any dancer but also has the power to ‘awaken’ the dancer emotionally. Food for the soul, as well as the body.

It was at about this time that I learnt, from a BBC TV news item, of English National Ballet’s Dance for Parkinson’s programme. I can’t say I was impressed. The tango world had enabled me to function as a dancer, first and foremost, and to hold my own in an inclusive mainstream community. The last thing I needed was to join a group where I was defined by Parkinson’s. And then an opportunity to join the English National Ballet’s two-day training course for healthcare and dance professionals came my way. Whilst ‘professional’ was stretching a point, we were planning to incorporate support for people with Parkinson’s in mainstream tango classes. Foolishly, I spent the weekend hiding my symptoms, convinced I’d be sent home if I was found out. By lunch-time, though, I was a convert.

Now, I attend the Ipswich classes when I can. No one, of course, wishes to be defined by a condition but there is a peculiar bond which comes from sharing this common factor and it can be quite an emotional experience – I rarely come away dry-eyed. I’ve found the insistence that ‘we are all dancers’ to be more than lip service; and I often leave feeling rather proud to be a dancer with Parkinson’s.

I’m a dancer first, though. I’m keen to share my experiences in my new role as adviser to the Practice Group, hoping to make a bid for incorporating some tango into the mix. I’d also like to see some provision for dancers who become less able as their condition worsens. Once a dancer, always a dancer, after all.

Kate Swindlehurst
Dance artist & writer

Kate has written a new book, Parkinson's & the Tango Effect: My Year on the Dance Floor, published by Unbound.