Happy St. Paddy’s Day! We think this is the perfect time to share Terrance O’Dwyer’s knowledge of the therapeutic effect of Irish traditional (“Trad” for short) dancing on Parkinson’s disease. One of his goals is to get the word out: Trad “reely” helps!
PUW Event Director
Reel Therapy: Irish Set Dance & Parkinson’s Disease by Terrance O’Dwyer, Team O’Dwyer
Which is more probable – the chances of winning $50 million in power ball super lotto or, the likelihood of an Irish dancer and Irish composer naming a newly composed Irish jig tune after an Italian neurologist, who just happens to be a member of an Irish traditional music band (Trad for short,) and who has documented the therapeutic effects of Irish set dancing for those of us with Parkinson’s disease (PD)?
Trick question, to be sure, and I am not sure we have an answer. Clearly, the two events are pretty improbable. Nevertheless, two selections from Mary Beth Taylor’s new DVD entitled Sean Nos Jigs for Everyone are named in honor of Italian neurologist, Doctor Daniele Volpe. The story of how this all happened is remarkable.
Daniele Volpe is not an ordinary Italian neurologist. In addition to heading up the Parkinson’s Rehabilitation unit at the St. John of God hospital in Venice, he is a musician who loves Trad and who visits Ireland frequently to play in a band.The story began in June of 2010 in Peppers’ Pub, a Trad hot spot located in the tiny village of Feakle (population 126), in County Clare. Pepper’s regularly offers Trad nights where customers can enjoy music, and if so inclined, participate in set dances. One night, just as the band was about to start, the Italian doctor noticed a man with an unsteady but familiar gait enter the pub. “Someone with Parkinson’s,” he remembered thinking.
About 20 minutes later, the band opened the floor for a set dance, and Volpe was surprised to see the man with Parkinson’s among the dancers. What followed was incredible: the man who walked so unsteadily required no assistance to dance. Indeed, the man went through the moves effortlessly, as if he were a different person. Dr. Volpe was quite puzzled, and asked one of the band members about a particular leg movement he noticed. Thus Dr. Volpe learned about the Reel step.
Dr. Volpe made an important observation. For many with Parkinson’s, posterior-anterior advancement of the lower limb during the swing phase of the gait’s cycle is compromised. Yet, the Reel Step enabled a dancer with Parkinson’s to override these impediments.
But why? He surmised the answer may be dance steps associated with the strongly accented upbeat music that characterizes Trad. To test his idea, he ran a small-scale 6-month randomized study involving 24 patients who presented moderate stage Parkinson’s symptoms. While all forms of therapy were beneficial, the Irish set dance group improved more than the control in every measurement category.
Doctor Volpe presented his initial findings in June 2012 to the International Congress of PD and Movement Disorders in Dublin, and, followed his medical summation with the best presentation possible: his patients performed a set of dances before the audience of nearly one thousand. Talk about pressure!
One man’s reaction. I first read about the Volpe discoveries in October, 2012 and was overjoyed. I was first diagnosed with PD in 1997. I also love Trad and noticed that when listening to it, I could perform some dexterity tests – such as tapping my thumb with my pointer finger – for significantly longer durations than when without music. Moreover, I found my improvement with dexterity occurred only with Trad, and a few distant relatives, like a Cajun two-step. While I still have not learned to dance, I knew that Doctor Volpe was onto something, and I thought it would be wonderful for someone to name a piece of Trad music after him. The question was, how do I do this?
Enter Martin Tourish, one of Ireland’s leading Trad composers when he is not pursuing his doctoral studies in music at Dublin Institute of Technology. I sent an e-mail to Martin and within a day he wrote back saying that he had just finished composing ten Irish jigs for Mary Beth Taylor’s new DVD entitled, Sean Nos Jigs for Everyone. Eight were not yet titled, and pending Mary Beth’s approval, he would be delighted to name two of the jigs in honor of Doctor Volpe. A day later, he again wrote to say that she enthusiastically agreed.
Next steps. Follow-up testing is now underway with an international randomized trial being conducted by researchers from University of Limerick in Ireland and the University of Melbourne in Australia.
And the tiny village of Feakle will celebrate Doctor Volpe’s discoveries with two major events in August of 2013. As part of the 26th Annual Traditional Music Festival, organizers have invited Dr. Volpe’s dance group of Parkinson’s patients to be special guest performers. And, Doctor Volpe will present his latest findings at a conference on “The Therapeutic Effects of Irish Set Dancing in the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease.”
Finally, for anyone who does not know what set dance is, and for those that love it, here is a video of ‘reel music’ and its effect on happy feet!