Tango provides fancy footwork for therapy

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Monday, April 7, 2008)

By Cynthia Billhartz Gregorian St. Louis Post-Dispatch

For more than a year now, Wilfried and Ute Adelt of Bridgeton have been dancing the Argentine tango in their kitchen several times a week.

They don’t perform any dramatic dips, kicks or swings. And, quite frankly, the kitchen island can be an impediment.

But as Ute likes to say: “That’s besides the point. We can dance!”

Tripping the light fantastic has played a significant role in the couple’s life since meeting at dance class in Aachen, Germany, in 1951. Wilfried had signed his entire fraternity up for instruction after hearing complaints from local ladies about their lack of skill cutting a rug.

Through the years, Ute, 67, and Wilfried, 73, continued dancing when opportunities arose. But that stopped nine years ago in a Tunisian courtyard while they were on vacation.

Ute remembers waltzing as a warm breeze blew. “Then Wilfried said, ‘Let’s stop. This is making me uncomfortable. I don’t like the backwards motion,” she said.

It was no surprise. Wilfried, a retired engineer, had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease seven years earlier. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. Cells in the part of the brain that control muscle movement are destroyed, leaving patients with a long list of symptoms that include loss of balance and frequent falls.

Then one day nearly two years ago, Wilfried spotted a flier at an exercise class for Parkinson’s patients. Washington University researchers were looking for Parkinson’s patients to participate in a study involving tango.

Despite his body’s betrayals, Wilfried is a man with a twinkle in his eyes and a palpable joy for life. So this was right up his alley. He went home and announced in his German accent: “We are going to do the tango.”

“What? The tango?” Ute asked in astonishment. “I pictured all these moves where you lean into your partner. And I thought: ‘Oh my god. Spare me,'” Ute says. “But it was not that bad. It’s very precise footwork with lots of crossing over. Sometimes we don’t get it. But who cares? We have been doing it ever since, and we’re loving every minute of it.”


As it turns out, the sexy South American dance just might be the ticket to better balance, confidence and even happiness for patients wracked by Parkinson’s disease.

So far, Washington U. researchers have conducted two studies looking at the effects of tango on Parkinson’s patients. The first involved 19 patients who danced twice a week for 10 weeks in 2006. The most recent, earlier this year, involved patients who danced every day for two weeks to see if they’d reap equivalent benefits in a shorter but more intense time period.

“It looks like they experienced some benefits, but the gains weren’t quite as large as with the first study,” says Gammon Earhart, assistant professor of physical therapy, anatomy, neurobiology and neurology. “And also people were really tired after every day.”

Earhart, senior author of the study, and her student, Madeleine Hackney, a doctoral candidate in movement science, will follow up with patients to see how long they maintain the benefits. Then, they’ll figure out a maintenance program.

“Maybe they can dance for one hour a week,” Hackney says. “Typically with most exercise, once you stop, you eventually go back to where you were before you started.”

Some churches and nursing facilities offer exercise classes for Parkinson’s patients. Hackney and Earhart would like to see them incorporate tango soon.

Earhart says tango seems to slow progression of the disease but that the biggest gains were in balance. She suspects that constantly having to think about what’s coming next in the intricate dance has something to do with this. Plus, she says, tango movements address specific impairments associated with the disease.

Parkinson’s patients, for instance, take very short steps and shuffle. When doing the tango, they must take long steps. Losing their balance while moving backward is also an issue. In the female role of traditional tango, dancers move backward, so the researchers had everyone dance both roles. They also had them switch partners several times during each class, causing them to relearn how to move. This boosts confidence.

Turning is another big problem, because it triggers something in the brain that makes people with Parkinson’s freeze in the middle of a movement.

“They’ll report feeling like their feet are glued to the floor,” Earhart says. “With tango they have to practice turning in many different directions.”


After attending a medical conference, Earhart came up with the idea to have Parkinson’s patients dance tango. A Canadian researcher there reported on a study that compared tango to walking among groups of people who where at risk for falling for non-neurological reasons. Some, for instance, had poor balance because they were on several medications or had impaired vision. Whatever the case, the Canadian researchers found that tango worked better than walking, Earhart says.

So she told her student, Hackney, who once danced professionally for a modern dance company in New York and for musical theater productions touring Europe. Hackney had returned to school to study how the brain controls movement.

“I thought I’d be doing typical studies like seeing how people walk on a treadmill,” she says. “But Gammon suggested I teach tango to Parkinson’s patients and see how it works.”

Patients who participated in the research were base-line tested before the study using the Berg Balance Scale. For safety reasons, they had to be able to walk at least 10 feet without using a walker and were paired with healthy young volunteers who had been trained how to move with them.

Still, Hackney remembers wondering how one woman was going to manage, because she shuffled about even when using her walker.

Not only did that woman survive the study, Hackney says, but by the end of it her balance score had increased dramatically.


The first two studies are only the start of examining the effects of tango on Parkinson’s disease. Earhart and Hackney will conduct more studies to determine which factors have which effect.

“Is it the music? The partner? What’s the magic ingredient? Is it the social aspect?” Hackney asks. “There are still a lot of questions to be answered. Also auditory cues have been found to be very important with Parkinson’s disease.”

As movement scientists, Earhart and Hackney are interested in whether tango helps with walking and balance. But they also want to know whether it makes them happier and more confident about walking. The answer to that also seems to be yes.

One thing’s for sure, tango has made a profound difference in the lives of Wilfried and Ute.

“First of all, I can dance again. And it’s very important to me,” he says. “Also, my problem with balance has improved. I can handle steps backwards, which was highly unusual for me. And I feel very comfortable among the (other Parkinson’s) dancers.”

He also says that, now, when he freezes up, he’ll count out tango steps and can instantly move again.

He and Ute recently demonstrated the tango for a couple of visitors in their kitchen. Wilfried takes a drug that prevents his movement from freezing all the time but causes spasms to twist and pull at his limbs.

While gliding around with Ute in his arms, his movements suddenly seem smooth and animated. The two have been taking tango instruction at the Monday Club in Webster Groves.

“Now, he’s back in demand on the dance floor,” Ute says, as they move around their island to an Argentinian beat.

Wilfried’s eyes twinkle.

“I cannot complain,” he says.

cbillhartz@post-dispatch.com | 314-340-8114

Copyright 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.