Better physical rehabilitation through dance

People of various ages and levels of motor proficiency use dance as a way to express movement in response to music. Professional dancers put a lot of effort and imagination into honing their abilities and exploring various dance genres. Dancers’ graceful, occasionally unexpected movements can be delightful, and the synchronicity of their coordinated movements can be mesmerising.

Lena, a neurologist and biomechanist, and Madeleine, a rehabilitation scientist and dancer, find it both exciting and challenging to comprehend the intricate motor skill involved in a ballet move or the physical language of coordination used in partner dancing.

There are significant applications in the actual world for understanding dance movements. In our research, we examine how holding hands—as in partner dancing, for example—can genuinely improve people’s balance and gait in various populations. The long-term objective is to create robots that can physically engage with people to assist with both motor assistance and motor learning, as well as to better plan and prescribe rehabilitation to those with limited mobility.
Walking and balance are affected by ballet training.

In ordinary life, it’s simple enough to tell a dancer from a football player by the way they walk: one flows like a liquid, the other is grounded and solid. That is consistent with our observation that dance instruction affects a person’s gait. However, it also goes against the idea in sports training that a motor ability is particular to the exercised movement, like hitting a bat or executing a cartwheel.

On the other hand, the concept of motor skill generalisation across many tasks is the foundation of rehabilitation. It would be impossible to prepare for every event that a person with a mobility limitation would face in the actual world. Therapists anticipate that by assisting patients in gaining strength and proficiency in a few exercises in the gym, gains in the real world would follow.

We didn’t specifically examine ballet dancing in a study directed by Andrew Sawers, who is currently an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Instead, we used the dancers’ extensive, years-long training to see if learning to move in a specific setting alters how we carry out daily tasks. We were interested in whether ballet dancers truly performed tasks differently from you and I than we do.
It showed out that ballet dancers continued to use their preferred, habituated patterns of muscle coordination when moving across a difficult, narrow beam as they did when doing so on a regular, level floor. The neurological system employs these patterns, known as “motor modules,” to create motions, similar to the idea of “muscle memory.” We recorded the electrical activity from numerous muscles in the leg and trunk as participants walked across beams of various difficulty in order to identify each participant’s motor modules.

Non-dancers who had trouble navigating the beam couldn’t rely on the same motor modules they used for regular walking, in contrast to the ballet dancers. Why? According to our research, dancers who trained in ballet for a long time developed a set of motor modules that are used for walking and made them more versatile so they could be employed in more difficult related tasks. This modified how dancers move in everyday situations.

Utilizing dance instruction in therapeutic settings

In rehabilitation and motor skill reacquisition for people with mobility impairments, the same mechanisms of motor skill acquisition in highly trained individuals—like ballet dancers—might also be at work.

Dancing is a powerful form of rehabilitation for those with balance and gait issues, especially those who have Parkinson’s disease (PD). Madeleine created Adapted Tango rehabilitation, in which participants learn a progressive series of tango dance moves especially created to solve issues that persons with Parkinson’s disease (PD) experience with balance, forward and backward walking, turning, and navigating complex environments. It enhances clinical measurements of walking and balance. Yet how?

In a pilot study, we discovered that participants with Parkinson’s disease resembled highly skilled ballet dancers more after a rigorous three-week programme of tailored tango rehabilitation. The results of adapted tango, according to Lucas McKay, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Emory University who specialises in the mechanics of balance impairment in Parkinson’s disease. Additionally, Jessica Allen, a future assistant professor at West Virginia University and a specialist in human gait, demonstrated that their motor modules were more reliable when performing balance and walking tasks.

Similar to ballet dancers, participants in the modified tango who had PD were able to employ the same motor modules for various motor tasks. In other words, while they strengthened their tango dancing skills, they also built motor modules that aided in their daily walking and balance. This process might help to explain how dancing helps improve balance and gait.

Physical collaboration between a person and a robot in “Dance with me”

Charlie Kemp, a roboticist at Georgia Tech, is another person we work with. He is interested in the natural and advantageous physical interactions that robots may have with people. Could rehabilitation robots one day dance with Parkinson’s patients to help them hone their motor abilities, for instance?

The development of this form of technology depends on the advancement of the science of physical interactions between people. The pressures between two people engaged in cooperative (such as hauling a table jointly) or competitive (such as tug-of-war) tasks are just now being studied by researchers.

In partner dancing, the leader and follower’s physical forces are crucial to the two people’s ability to stay in time with one another. Even with their eyes closed, humans can coordinate in such intricate ways.