The Tango Effect

By Kate Swindlehurst

Parkinson’s and the healing power of dance



So what is it about tango that has the power to transform? Sceptics often add a second question: ‘Is it just..?’ Answer: no, it’s not just – the rhythm, or the music, or any one aspect which makes it different from aerobics or cycling, or even salsa or ballroom. I’ve read much of the research documentation, which describes and records the impact tango seems to have on an individual with Parkinson’s, and in some cases speculates about why and how this works. From my own experience, I have felt how each feature of the dance hits a particular Parkinson’s spot, with dramatic results.

Take grace. I’m no football fan, but watching an expert manage a ball for ten or twelve paces is infinitely satisfying: that combination of timing, poise, agility, fluency, dodge and weave, halt and go – wonderful, especially as these are skills I will never share. The grace of the tanguero is akin to that of the practised midfielder, except that I am not talking about professional dancers here. Of course, in performance, we enjoy these qualities, along with the complex motifs and patterns that ordinary mortals will never match. But what often draws that gasp of delight from those watching is a quieter moment, perhaps a hiatus before a step or a second or two where the balance of the follower is deliberately upset and then restored. Moments such as these are the stuff of the milonga. Any evening, almost every couple will glimpse perfection, that instant where everything comes together in the best possible way. And when you’re not on the floor yourself, look around: at every turn, amongst the clumsy and over-ambitious, fat or thin, skippers or gliders, shufflers or stalkers, the surprise of beauty.

Off the dance floor, those with Parkinson’s rarely achieve grace. It is common both to become ‘stuck’, unable to move when you wish, and to be unable to be still when you choose, beset by tremors and twitches which rattle on in spite of your best efforts to stop them. Characteristic movement aberrations include unpredictable stopping and starting, or moments spent teetering on the brink of motion followed by a sudden lunge. A friend of mine walks with a frame. When we last met I watched as, with the sense of a large obstacle in his path, he visibly prepared himself before setting off across the floor in a high-energy, high-velocity shuffle. Balance is notoriously problematic. Tango presents a challenge to any dancer. For those with Parkinson’s, the challenge is doubled; but then so, perhaps, is the benefit.

You could say that grace begins with posture. The correct posture is so fundamental to tango and so tricky to get right that many classes, even for advanced dancers, begin with attention to this area. Different teachers have different ways of describing what is required: upright is often how it begins, head up, chin tucked in slightly, spine straight, shoulders relaxed. This in itself was a challenge for me. After years of struggle with posture, I found myself tending towards text-book signs of Parkinsonism: a stoop, a poked head, a middle fold, a slumping chest. Or were these merely signs of growing older? Certainly, there were times when fatigue made it feel impossible to hold myself upright. And I’m sure there were psychological issues too. The emotional toll of the condition is well-documented. When I was feeling low, or especially unattractive or clumsy, I tended to retreat into a kind of defensive isolation, a closing-in. Standing tall, head up, chest open were the last things I felt like doing. If you are serious about tango, though, this is what you have to do.

You may be asked to start with a rocking motion, forward and back, side to side, shifting the weight from the heel to the ball of the foot, from one foot to another, from the outside to the inside of the foot, and then to find your centre...

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