The Healing Dance

by Wendy Glauser (MA ’10)

photography by Sofie Kirk

Joseph DeSouza is the first to admit that he’s not the most graceful person in the room. But that hasn’t stopped him from taking classes with classically trained dancer Sarah Robichaud at her downtown Toronto studio.

For the last seven years, DeSouza has been a regular fixture at Dancing With Parkinson’s, a Canadian charitable organization and evidence-based dance practice using movement therapy to help people with the neurological disorder better manage their symptoms. Robichaud founded it in 2008, some years after U.S. choreographer Mark Morris, of the Mark Morris Dance Group, first began teaching dance to Parkinson’s patients, proving to the world that dance alleviates some of the slow and jerky movements associated with the disease.

It’s this aspect of Robichaud’s class that most fascinates DeSouza, a professor in systems neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at York University who has spent a good part of his career studying the impact of dance on individuals living with Parkinson’s.

While research has previously established that dance helps people with movement challenges due to Parkinson’s, DeSouza and his former graduate student Karolina Bearss (PhD ’22) are the first to show it actually slows the advancement of the disease.

I want to show there’s a formula where people can do this and have a better quality of life

In 2021, the York scholars published a paper in the journal Brain Sciences that followed the progress of people with Parkinson’s who danced weekly over three years. For the study, DeSouza’s lab partnered up with Rachel Bar, who is currently the director of the Research and Health department at Canada’s National Ballet School, to provide the classes.

People with Parkinson’s who danced had no significant motor decline three years in, based on independent assessments, while patients with Parkinson’s in the control group showed motor-function decline. The dancers with Parkinson’s also showed significant improvement in speech.

Now, DeSouza’s lab is sharing another groundbreaking discovery, this one about the beneficial effect of dance on mood. In a not-yet-peer-reviewed study, research out of DeSouza’s lab has shown that, over one year of dance, seven out of eight patients with Parkinson’s saw steady improvement in depression scores (and the eighth had no signs of depression to begin with). MRI scans of the patients show reduced activity in a small area of the brain that some call the depression centre (due to increased activity in this area of the brain in people with depression).

DeSouza is committed to compiling enough evidence to show that dance training, in the right form and frequency, can be a treatment for Parkinson’s as well as for depression, which people with Parkinson’s struggle with at much higher rates than the general population.  “I want to show there’s a formula where people can do this and have a better quality of life,” he says. ■

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