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Parkinson's impairs movement. This group dances to keep the symptoms at bay.

Instructor Richard Caruso stands in front of the class, demonstrating a macarena move.
Paul Cuno-Booth
Instructor Richard Caruso leads the macarena during an April 16 dance class for people with Parkinson's.

For people with Parkinson’s, daily life can grow harder as the disease impairs their movement and balance.

Exercise is one of the best ways to slow down those symptoms. That's why people with Parkinson’s, and their partners, gather at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon every Tuesday for a weekly dance class.

Editor's note: We strongly recommend listening to the audio above to hear what it's like to be in one of these classes.

Kevin and Sharon Thomson of West Lebanon attend the classes together.

They said the movements they practice in class have helped ease some of Sharon's symptoms, and she's incorporating them into her daily life. "I'm not afraid to do things as much," she said. " ... If I can do that, I can do this."

The group covers all types of dances: the macarena, tango and twist were among the dances at a class in April.

Richard and Diane Caruso have been leading the Parkinson's dance class at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center since 2017, drawing on their background in ballroom, Latin and other types of dance. They adapt the routines to work on issues facing people with Parkinson’s – things like balance, coordination, strength and mobility.

"We're just trying to find all the things that people want to work on that are going to make their lives a little better, and we do it with music," Richard Caruso said.

Research by the Parkinson’s Foundation has found that exercising at least two and a half hours per week can slow the disease’s progression and help maintain quality of life.

For many at the dance class, the benefits are as much social as physical.

Parkinson's can be a "devastating" diagnosis, said Betsy Warren of West Lebanon – but it helps to be around others. Along with dance, she's taken up boxing and joined the board of Upper Valley Programs for Parkinson's, which runs various exercise programs.

"I had no idea I'd make so many good friends when I was diagnosed with Parkinson's," she said.

Another participant, Dick Roy of Woodstock, Vermont, said he and his wife used to love dancing at birthday parties and weddings.

"That's the hardest part for me, is I can't dance anymore," he said.

Still, he comes to these classes for exercise and camaraderie.

"It's a little frustrating, because I can't do what I used to do," he said. " ... But the benefit overrides the frustration."

Richard Caruso said the people in class are very supportive of one another. It's also beneficial for the partners of people living with Parkinson's.

"Quite a few people refer to it as date night," he said. "This is our night to go out. We're arm in arm, we're dancing together, we're doing things that we did when we were young."

Members of the Parkinson's dance class stand in a circle, with their hands linked and arms raised.
Paul Cuno-Booth
Members of the Parkinson's dance class wrap up for the day.

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.

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