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A Turn For The Better: Ballet Class Helps Parkinson’s Patients Connect Mind And Body

ballet class
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Debbie Braganza (right) leads the class through a barre routine.

Around the Phoenix community there are examples of the arts helping people stay mentally and physically fit as they age. The Phoenix Symphony has a project to connect those with Alzheimer’s to music. A ballet teacher in the Valley teaches classes specially choreographed for those with Parkinson’s Disease.

Debbie Braganza grew up in ballet slippers.

“My background is in dance, I started dancing when I was 3,” Braganza said.

She studied dance, and went on to teach classes to adults and children. Five years ago, she started a ballet class specifically for people with Parkinson’s Disease, a disorder with many symptoms, including loss of motor control.

“My father has Parkinson’s. He’s had it for over 20 years,” Braganza said.

Her father’s disease and her own love for dance merged when she found out about a program from Brooklyn called Dance for PD. Braganza trained with that program and now teaches three classes around the Valley. 

“She’s trained to design these for our limitations,” said Marlene Blakeney, who takes the class at Ballet Arizona.

They do warm up exercises on chairs so they don’t have to focus on balance right away.

Blakeney said she’s taken dance before, when she was 6 years old. 

"I didn’t practice at home so I didn’t get very good, and I gave it up pretty quickly,”  she said.

She picked it up again this spring. Doctors encourage Parkinson’s patients like Blakeney to be active to maintain their mobility. Dance is probably one of the tougher options. 

“My muscles don’t always do what I want them to do,” Blakeney said. “You’re body is saying 'no, you’re not going to go that way.'”

Blakeney said the rhythm of the music keeps her in step.

“And to stay with the class and the music and what’s going on, you kind of have to push it and force it and take the control back a little bit.”

'Medicine’s just not enough'

Each class, Braganza guides the group across the dance floor. Canes and walkers lean against the wall as the dancers turn in time with the beat. Braganza said she sees now how exercise plays into a holistic treatment of the disease.

“The medicine’s just not enough,” Braganza said. “They now get a prescription for medicine and exercise and they’re of equal importance. You have to take your medicine and you have to exercise.”

“You know, if exercise came in a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed medication in the universe,” said Dr. Darolyn O’Donnell, with the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix.

O’Donnell said any exercise is good, but dance especially helps improve the connection between mind and body. 

“Dancers have to think about how they move,” she said. “And with Parkinson’s, that loss of dopamine has affected their spontaneity of movement. So people with Parkinson’s, much like dancers, have to think about how they’re going to move.”

Research shows exercise may slow the progression of Parkinson’s. O’Donnell said dance targets many of the symptoms, with flexibility, starting a movement and transitioning.

For Marlene Blakeney, it’s realizing that what she can do on the dance floor, she can do  anywhere.

“I have felt at times when I’ve been out, like grocery shopping, give me a basket and I can lean on it and support myself and drag myself through the store,” she said. “And then I start moving and I start thinking, I can do better than this. Straighten up my shoulders, and stand a little taller.”

Just like a dancer.

Annika Cline was a producer for KJZZ's The Show from 2014 to 2019.