Parkinson's sufferers refusing to dance to the tune of crippling disease

Members of a special exercise group for Parkinson's victims tell the News how the lessons help fight the condition . . .

'DON'T go too fast," he smiles. "But you can speed it up a bit once we get the hang of it."

The guitarist curled in the corner of the lofty dance studio is softly strumming and singing Elvis's Love Me Tender.

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A group of men and women are sitting in a circle at Dance Base in the Grassmarket, while performing a range of gentle exercises, and Lindsay McDermid has just sought reassurance from one of the dance teachers about the speed of the new move that the class is trying out.

The 50-year-old has good reason to ensure that he doesn't push himself too hard – he does, after all, have Parkinson's disease.

He's not alone. Everyone in the circle, excluding the professional dancers, either has Parkinson's disease or is the partner of someone who is suffering from the neurological condition.

Dance for People with Parkinson's has just started at Dance Base, a class specifically aimed at people with the condition, as well as their family and carers.

Lindsay, who lives in Granton and was diagnosed with Parkinson's at the age of just 45, can't praise the fortnightly dance class enough.

The father-of-three, who is supported at the class by his wife Linda, says: "It may seem from the outside that the exercises and dance routines are very minimalistic, but they're actually very beneficial. It just gets you to move your body and limbs, and stretch muscles that you don't normally use every second of the day.

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"The class gets your body moving and the exercises that we do, like the stretching at the end, are great for helping with my walking. They stretch the muscles in the legs, which seize up with Parkinson's."

He adds: "My theory on Parkinson's is that exercise is as crucially important as the drugs you take. Fifty per cent of keeping Parkinson's at bay is to exercise regularly, and that's my philosophy."

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Lindsay's enthusiasm for the free classes is shared by professional dancer and visual artist Mo Morgan. She "fought tooth and nail" for the introduction of the dance class in the Capital after her mum, Margaret Wilkins, was diagnosed with Parkinson's in October 2008, at the age of 76.

With the backing of the Edinburgh branch of the Parkinson's Disease Society (PDS), the 50-year-old, who has been dancing for more than 30 years, organised a pilot workshop at Dance Base for people with Parkinson's in November.

That was run by dancers from the internationally acclaimed Mark Morris Dance Group.

The Brooklyn-based dance company, which was visiting Edinburgh as part of a tour, pioneered such classes for people with Parkinson's eight years ago, showing how dancers use thought, imagination, eyes, ears and touch to control movement.

Their methods have been hailed by Parkinson's experts worldwide and used as a blueprint for classes across the US – and now in Edinburgh.

That pilot proved so popular that Mo was given the nod to go ahead with a regular class at Dance Base for people with the disease, which would be funded by the Edinburgh branch of PDS.

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Mo says: "Initially we have funding for ten sessions, which takes us to the end of June, but we need funding for the classes after that."

Mo is desperate to ensure that the funding doesn't dry up and one glance at the damning statistics on the condition confirms why – one person every hour in the UK is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

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The condition is often associated with older people but can strike at a younger age – and Lindsay is a prime example. He can still remember the moment he was given the devastating diagnosis, at the age of 45, in November 2005.

"You feel a bit smacked in the face because you think: 'What have I done to get it so young?'," he says. "You kind of deny that it's happening to you. My symptoms are obviously worse now than when I was diagnosed, but I'm just not going to let it beat me. The last thing I'm going to do is sit down and accept it, because that would be a slippery slope downwards."

However, the progressive condition – the main symptoms of which are tremor, rigidity and slowness of movement – has inevitably affected several areas of Lindsay's life.

He made the decision to go freelance with his work as a graphic designer in May last year, and admits he often feels exhausted in the afternoons. He struggles with mobility in his right arm and leg, which has a "tendency to drag", and his voice is now quieter, often making it difficult to hear him.

"The Parkinson's affects my balance and speed of movement too," he explains. "If you're in a pub or club or cafe, some people actually think that you're drunk, which I think is a common misconception."

His wife Linda, a staff nurse at St Columba's Hospice, adds: "It also affects day-to-day things like writing and fastening buttons on shirt sleeves."

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Lindsay is one of the youngest people with Parkinson's to attend the dance class, which combines elements of modern dance, ballet, tap and social dancing.

Participants dance while sitting in chairs or standing up, as well as performing a range of gentle leg and arm exercises and stretches.

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The class is run by a team of four professional dancers, including Mo, to live music from guitarist Barney Strachan, 36, who has specially selected songs to suit each particular exercise. The music ranges from Tom Jones's It's Not Unusual to the Bare Necessities from The Jungle Book.

Another of the four team teachers is professional dancer Robert Heaslip, 28, from Edinburgh's New Town.

He says: "We work the class so everybody can do it at their own pace. There is a serious tone to the class but it has become a bit of a social gathering as well, where people can have a laugh and have fun."

The social aspect is something Linda, 51, finds pleasing: "The whole class is wonderful, Lindsay can meet other people with Parkinson's and I can meet people who are involved with people with Parkinson's too, and share information."

So why exactly is there a need for a specific dance class for people with Parkinson's?

Mo explains: "The people at the class know they can have the confidence in us understanding the condition, and we have the skill to get them prepared physically and mentally to move. That's why it is different from going to a normal dance class, because of speed and safety."

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Lindsay, who also cycles and attends a weekly Tai Chi class, agrees: "Parkinson's affects people in all different ways. It affects me differently from other people in the class and I think you need a teacher or instructor to actually take note that everybody at the class is different."

Lindsay has a simple message for people across Edinburgh and the Lothians who are living with Parkinson's: "I would just tell them to get off their bum and come along to the class," he smiles.

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Dance for People with Parkinson's is held at Dance Base, Grassmarket, every second Wednesday from 11am-12:30pm. The next class will take place on 14 April. For more information e-mail [email protected]


PARKINSON'S disease is a progressive neurological condition that affects around 120,000 people in the UK.

People with Parkinson's lack a sufficient amount of a chemical called dopamine because some nerve cells in the brain have died.

It is the loss of these nerve cells that causes the symptoms of Parkinson's to occur. Without dopamine, people can find that their movements become slower.

The main symptoms of Parkinson's are tremor, rigidity and slowness of movement.

As well as affecting movement, people with Parkinson's can experience tiredness, pain, depression and constipation, which affect their day-to-day lives.

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Most people who have Parkinson's are aged 50 or over but younger people can also suffer from the condition. One in 20 people with Parkinson's is under the age of 40.

The symptoms and how quickly the condition develops differ from person to person. Symptoms can be controlled using a combination of drugs, therapies and occasionally surgery.

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There is currently no cure for the condition and it is not yet known why people get Parkinson's disease.