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Parkinson’s and the Tango Effect

Posted in Online First,Personal Perspective on 15th Mar 2018


Kate Swindlehurst
, MA, lives and works in Cambridge, where she writes full-time (when she isn’t dancing). She has had short stories & non-fiction published in print and online. She is interested in health and well-being, both for the individual and as a society, and in our relationship with the natural world. She is currently working on a novel exploring our attitudes to migration.


Correspondence to:
Provenance and peer review: submitted and internally reviewed
Published online: 15/3/2018
Acknowledgements: Thanks to tango teachers John Connatty and Ellie McKenny and to the support of the Cambridge tango community
Parkinson’s & the Tango Effect: my Year on the Dance Floor was launched with publisher Unbound in December 2017

Several years after diagnosis, I took up Argentine tango again – it had been one of the casualties of the early years of Parkinson’s – and with two teachers began to explore the impact of the dance on my experience of the condition. We knew that exercise was good for the brain, effective in creating plasticity1 and protecting against disease2, and that some studies suggested that dance was particularly helpful. We looked at research which compared tango with other dances3 and began to evolve a framework for presenting our findings. Essentially this would be a personal account, an insider’s view.

Inclusion was a crucial social benefit: the opportunity to dance as part of a mainstream community, to be defined as a dancer, rather than as a member of a ‘special’ class where I was defined by the disease. The challenge of holding my own in a mixed group was amplified by the physical demands of the dance. In addition to good posture and balance, tango requires confident stepping and turning, and changes in speed and direction, which may target specific movement difficulties associated with Parkinson’s. It is also a multi-tasking activity. We observed that responding to these multiple challenges was part of what worked, enabling me to achieve ‘beyond the restrictions caused by PD’.4 In the private lessons, we noted improvements in posture and fluency of stepping and less upper body rigidity. In the milonga5 I felt my twitches and tremors slip away as I joined others on the dance floor. A curious effect concerned energy: fatigue had been an issue for me more or less since diagnosis. Now I found that the more I danced, the less tired I became6.

A further challenge stems from the fact that tango doesn’t have a set sequence of steps but instead is improvised, relying on unspoken communication between partners. As I step into my partner’s arms, I enter a relationship which demands complete presence, a tuning in to his frequency and the core of that elusive ‘connection’ which is the goal of every dancer. Both sensory cue and physical support, the close embrace is often described as a ‘natural, loving hug’ and can be a powerful counter to the feelings of isolation which come with Parkinson’s.

And then there’s the music. The function of music as an auditory cue is well-documented7. My experience, though, was more in line with the power of music to ‘awaken’8 the listener emotionally, combined with the intensity of the words to the tango songs. Whilst I have undoubtedly benefited physically and socially from my tango habit, the most far-reaching effect has been its emotional nourishment.

Parkinson’s & the Tango Effect takes the form of the diary of a year. It offers an insight into the profound impact of Argentine tango on my quality of life and I hope will be a useful complement to research on the more readily measurable physical benefits of dance. It offers an example of living well with illness, supporting recommendations that dance should become more widely available as part of traditional treatments9. Perhaps it also paves the way for the patient’s voice to be heard more clearly10. However, publication depends on the funding target, currently running at 84% (as at 27/8/18), being reached. ACNR readers can help this happen by spreading the word. Find out more at


1. Petzinger GM, Fisher BE, Van Leeuwen JE, Vucković M, Akopian G, Meshul CK, Holschneider DP, Nacca A, Walsh JP, Jakowec MW. Enhancing neuroplasticity in the basal ganglia: the role of exercise in Parkinson’s disease. Movement Disorders 2010; 25:S141-5 doi: 10.1002/mds.22782

2. Gerecke K, Jiao Y, Pani A, Pagala V, Smeyne RJ. Exercise protects against MPTP-induced neurotoxicity in mice. Brain Research 2010;1341:72-83 doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2010.01.053

3. Lötzke,D, Ostermann T, and Büssing A. Argentine tango in Parkinson disease – a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Neurol 2015;15:226 Published online 2015 Nov 5. doi: 10.1186/s12883-015-0484-0

4. Rodrıguez-Quiroga SA, Arakaki T, Vanotti S, et al. Argentine tango as a rehabilitation therapy for Parkinson’s disease patients. Mov Disord 2013;28 (suppl 1):s100–s101 doi:10.1002/mds.25605

5. A tango social dancing event

6. Hackney ME, Earhart GM. Short Duration, Intensive Tango Dancing for Parkinson Disease: An Uncontrolled Pilot Study. Complement Ther Med 2009;17 (4):203-207 on the effects of a “high dosage social dance program” doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2008.10.005. Epub 2009 Jan 7

7. Hackney ME, Kantorovich S., Levin R., Earhart GM. Effects of tango on functional mobility in Parkinson’s disease: a preliminary study. Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy 2007;31:173-9 doi: 10.1097/NPT.0b013e31815ce78b.

8. Sacks O. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Picador 2007; Kinetic Melody: Parkinson’s Disease and Music Therapy:248-258

9. Bognara S, DeFariaa AM, O’Dwyera C, Pankiwa E, Boglera JS, Teixeirab S, Nyhof-Youngc J, Evansa C. More than just dancing: experiences of people with Parkinson’s disease in a therapeutic dance program. Disability & Rehabilitation 2016

10. Patient advocate Sarah Krüg on The Patient Doctor Tango