Tango class holds promise for Parkinson’s patients

The prospect of dancing, especially a dance as flashy as the tango, can strike fear in the heart. All those steps to remember and execute correctly. All those people watching.

But Dartmouth College professor Noelia Cirnigliaro hopes the Argentine tango workshop she’s presenting at Open Door Integrative Wellness in White River Junction on Saturday morning will have just the opposite effect.

Part of Cirnigliaro’s summer course, Tango Argentino: Music, Dance, Poetry, Community, the workshop will bring together college students and members of the community who have Parkinson’s disease or other neuromuscular challenges. The goal of the event, which will feature professional dance instructors and a live band from New York City, is to give participants back, for a time, the agility they’ve lost to disease, along with the chance to forget about the difficulties they confront in everyday activities.

“This is going to be really extraordinary,” said Cirnigliaro, who’s working with several community members to present the workshop. “We tried to imagine an experience that would be meaningful to everybody.”

Dance in general and tango in particular have shown promise in improving balance and agility among Parkinson’s patients.

“People with Parkinson’s, sometimes they can’t speak but they can sing. And sometimes they can’t walk, but they can dance,” said Diane Sherman, who coordinates the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Resource Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and is assisting with the workshop. “(Dance) seems to bypass something in the brain and allow for freer movement. … There’s been some research that tango is especially helpful.”

Cirnigliaro thinks that has something to do with the way tango dance partners interact. “Tango is a dance of walking in an embrace,” she said. “It’s also really constrained and grounded.”

Cirnigliaro, who grew up in Argentina and came to the United States in 2001, only recently became interested in the Argentine Tango, which originated in the country’s immigrant communities, fell out of fashion for a while and has been enjoying a renaissance of late. The class, which she’s teaching for the first time, examines the history of the dance, its cultural impact, themes, musical structure and physical form.

For her students to truly understand tango, she wanted them to experience it “bodily and emotionally.” That’s how the workshop was born. Working through Dartmouth’s Center for Social Impact, she connected with community partners including Sherman, who helped publicize and organize the event, and Kate Gamble, owner of Open Door Integrative Wellness.

Gamble, a professional dancer and physical therapist who specializes in working with people with neuromuscular challenges, believes the workshop will allow patients and their caregivers to transcend not just their physical challenges but the psychological ones that accompany them.

“Many people with chronic illness are so sick of being a patient,” said Gamble, who has completed training in dance therapy for Parkinson’s patients. Dancing with their caregivers allows them to focus on something joyful and graceful, she said.

It’s also beneficial to the caregivers. “They get to see their partner in a different way,” Gamble said. “It’s lovely to watch.”

The concept isn’t new. Events featuring tango as therapy for Parkinson’s disease have been growing in popularity around in the country. Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center has hosted dance workshops for Parkinson’s patients in the past.

But this event is unique in bringing together college students and Parkinson’s patients. Cirnigliaro is also bringing in live musicians, the renowned Pedro Giraudo Tango Quartet from New York City, and professional instructors from the Tango For All Dance Company in New York City.

The collaboration is part of Dartmouth’s push toward experiential learning, Cirnigliaro said. “My students are going to benefit on multiple levels,” she said.

The wider community can also get a taste of tango later in the day on Saturday. The dance instructors, Andres Bravo and Sarita Apel, will conduct a free introductory tango class in Dartmouth’s Alumni Hall at 2 p.m., and the Pedro Giraudo Tango Quartet will perform a concert on the green at 5 p.m., as part of Dartmouth’s 250th Anniversary Summer Celebration.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.