Ontario Brain Institute: How dancing can boost cognitive health

TVO.org speaks with Sarah Robichaud of Dancing With Parkinson’s about how physical exercise can help the body — and the brain
By Daniel Kitts - Published on May 25, 2021
Sarah Robichaud founded Dancing with Parkinson’s 13 years ago. (Sarah Robichaud)

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Science has firmly established the links between regular physical activity and mental health, and there’s evidence that exercise can help children do better in school.

New research suggests that physical movement can also help keep the brain itself healthy — lowering the risk of dementia and reducing the symptoms of other neurological disorders.  

On Wednesday evening, the Ontario Brain Institute is streaming a public talk about how physical activity affects brain health. One featured guest is Sarah Robichaud, founder and executive director of Dancing With Parkinson’s, a group that uses movement to help people living with the disease.  

TVO.org speaks with Robichaud about the inspiration for the group and the wide-ranging impacts of dance.

TVO.org: You started Dancing With Parkinson’s 13 years ago. How did you get involved in this type of work?

Sarah Robichaud: I was a professional dancer and choreographer, which led me to segue into personal fitness. So I was a personal trainer, and I started working with a man named Andy Barrie, who was the host for CBC Radio’s Metro Morning for many years. Andy came to me for personal training once he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He was like, “What do you know about Parkinson’s? How can you help me?” And I was like, I don’t know anything about Parkinson’s, but I will do my best to do as much research as possible.

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As I was researching, I came across the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York City. They were offering Parkinson’s dance classes and, at that moment, I was like, oh, my gosh. It was one of those aha moments, because dancing with Parkinson’s makes so much sense. In dance, we use a lot of visualization and imagery to get to movement. Dance is this sort of non-verbal form of expression where nothing is wrong, however you move your body, and it’s a direct response to music. People with Parkinson’s often have a lot of rigidity. They lose their flexibility. They have issues with coordination and balance. And dance speaks to all of those things, but not in a way where it feels like exercise.

TVO.org: This is now essentially your full-time job. Why were you specifically drawn to helping people with Parkinson’s?

Robichaud: First of all, I adored Andy. I really wanted to help him. And when I learned that dance could be helpful in helping him initiate movement and enjoy movement — he was not enjoying movement, let me tell you — I was like, oh, my gosh, this works with him, and this could work with a bunch of other people.

To be honest, my entire adult life I’ve always wanted to find my place to give back. I knew that one day it would hit me like a ton of bricks, and that was the moment when I realized I could help a lot of people feel some joy in their bodies who don’t feel that, and all I have to do is dance with them. I love dancing.

TVO.org: Parkinson’s makes controlling your body’s movements difficult. What techniques do you use to help people with Parkinson’s complete dance movements?

Robichaud: Music is absolutely integral. We all respond to the beat of the music; that’s innate in all of us. So, we certainly pick music that has a really good beat — things that people can identify with, that they can have an emotional connection to. The other thing that I touched on earlier was the imagery: the visualization and the storytelling that you do when you dance. For example, I just did a piece this morning about making a pizza. You pull the dough apart between your hands as far as you can, and then you bring it back in, and then you stretch it out. And that that sort of ability to visualize the dough, how the dough feels, what’s the texture, the pulling, seems to help our dancers access movement in a way that, say, “Put your arms out to the side” does not. People with Parkinson’s often lose at least some ability to initiate movement on command.

TVO.org: Studies show that dance can help people with Parkinson’s cognitively. How so?

Robichaud: For example, learning a small piece of choreography is working one’s cognition. Or having to learn a step and remember a step. We’re also working with neuroplasticity, because we’ll repeat certain things through weeks, through months.

TVO.org: How quickly can somebody see improvement in their symptoms after joining one of your classes?

Robichaud: I’ve never heard of someone coming to our class and saying, “That did nothing.” The consensus is they feel better immediately after the class. Now, how long does that last? That is different for everybody. And that’s something that research is really trying to figure out. What is the correct dose of this to have lasting impacts? The dancers feel better after class. Can that last one day? Can it last two hours? How many classes would a person need to do to feel better all the time?

TVO.org: Because of the pandemic, you’ve switched from in-person classes to online classes, seven days a week. When things return closer to normal, how do you foresee your classes evolving? Do you think you will stay online?

Robichaud: We are definitely going to do a hybrid model. We poll our dancers, and I’m going to say the majority of them feel like it’s just easier to attend online. Getting around with Parkinson’s can be quite challenging. Some people can’t drive anymore. Traffic, parking, taking public transportation and wheel transit — it can also be a barrier to access. Certainly, when we are able to safely be in person again, we will be opening in-person locations. But the pandemic has really caused us to reevaluate how we can help more people and increase the accessibility of this program.

TVO.org: Is there anything else you want to add?

Robichaud: I would love to add that, although these classes are specifically designed for people with Parkinson’s disease, these online, daily, 20-minute classes are open to all seniors across Canada. Seniors are very isolated right now. Seniors need connection and movement and laughter — and some joy. We’re providing that every single day for free: the more the merrier.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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