Ballroom dancing to fight effects of MS
By Joni Moths Mueller
Since when is waltzing used in scientific research? Since there has been evidence that dancing helps people who suffer with neurological conditions, including Parkinson's Disease and stroke. Now a study at Marquette is testing whether ballroom dancing can help people who have MS fight fatigue, improve balance and build confidence.
Assisted by the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and funded by the Marquette University Committee on Research, Dr. Alexander Ng recruited seven people who have MS to participate in the eight-week study that measures the effects of dancing on their physical and psychological health.
"We expect that social ballroom dance will represent an adequate exercise stimulus for cardiovascular conditioning," says the associate professor of exercise science in the College of Health Sciences. "We are also testing to see if ballroom dance improves balance, gait, depression, fatigue and self-reported quality of life."
Already, Ng spots some "dance data" or, in science parlance, early results: "A little bit of normal frustration with lots of smiles, laughter and improvement."
It's true. The laughter is contagious when the dancing couples take the floor for the weekly class taught by research associate Pamela Landin, who holds a master's in sports medicine and was a competitive ballroom dancer at one time.
She gets the participants moving — and not to music by Johann Strauss. No, this class waltzes, rhumbas and fox trots to Beyoncé's "Single Ladies," and music by Nikki Minaj, Celtic Women, Shawn Kingston, Maroon Five and more.
"I play music I competed to," says Landin.
She demonstrates a step and then it's the newbies' turn. "Just dance and don't think," Landin says. "Your mind will get in the way."
That's easier said than done but the dancers are game. They execute steps that are a little foreign, moving slowly at first. Pretty soon their pace quickens. Jeffrey and Terri Gingold circle Cramer Hall 050, their steps becoming a tad smoother with each progressive turn.
Jeffrey, Law '88, was diagnosed with MS in 1996. It affected his vision first and then progressed to numb his left leg and left hand. He and Terri say this class is a way for both to stay in shape.
"Dancing gives me confidence that I haven't felt in awhile," says Jeffrey. "People with disabilities often feel they have to go into the shadows. Dancing is different. You have to get on the floor; you can't dance in a closet."
"We've attended every session. It was a little intimidating at first," admits Terri.
There is ample evidence that ballroom dancing or partner dancing is beneficial for people with neurological disorders, according to Ng, but its benefits haven't been tested with MS.
"Exercise is recommended for persons with MS," he says. "However, people with MS tend to be relatively inactive. Ballroom dance could be a fun, lower-impact alternative to traditional exercise."
Vicki Raddant was diagnosed with MS when she was 33 years old. She says it affects her balance and causes fatigue. Although she didn't want to get out of bed for today's dance class, she also didn't want to miss the fun — and she says the exercise helps relieve stress.
"Each class helps repair the damage that's going on here," she says, pointing at her head.
So Raddant and the entire class rock step and march. They practice the cuddle, the underarm turn and the man's turn. They learn to synch their arms and legs, and circle the floor without bumping into other couples. They do all of this while Landin calls out to remind them that dancing is challenging but also a lot of fun.
The class will test Landin's claim when they celebrate their newfound skills at a ballroom dance with friends and family in August.