Associate Professor Patrick Corbin: Using dance to ease Parkinson’s symptoms and create intergenerational bonds

Patrick Corbin is an associate professor of practice at the USC Glorya Kaufman School and an internationally renowned dance artist whose career has spanned over 30 years and bridged the worlds of classical ballet, modern and contemporary dance. He recently spoke to us about his work, exploring the positive effects that dance can have on neurology.

On movement and movement therapy

Well, on a neurological level movement is cognition. Movement stimulates cognition. So that’s sort of the sciencey part. The other part is that dance is a multifaceted, multilingual way of movement, and we’re actually in a duet from the time your mother becomes aware of you in the womb, you’re already in a duet with her. So you’re dancing before you’re born. We come into this world dancing and we dance through life. So, it is intrinsic to our development. So why shouldn’t it be also important to therapies and things?

Movement therapy can range from anything from occupational therapy and living with different disorders to dance class or performative sort of therapies. Also, movement therapy can be sports anything obviously involving movements.

Exercise can look like so many different things, and that’s why we are getting in touch with each other and starting to work together. Because the more fun the exercise, the more people are going to do it. Dance is fun; therefore, people are going to do it and keep it going.

On the benefits of dance in general

There are a whole host of different areas where dance brings people together. We dance at parties; we dance at weddings we dance, and we don’t even know that we’re dancing. So, anybody who says, “ugh, you know, I’m not a dancer, I can’t dance.” You know you don’t even need two legs because that’s even ableist going on.

Do you move through space and do you like music? Then you dance and it’s doing something good for your brain. Because of course, we focus on people maybe with disabilities or syndromes or some kind of situation that way, but actually dance is just really good for everybody, you know?

It’s all about community. You don’t have to do dance in a group setting, but often we do. So, it’s always keeping that active, curious, creative form of connection going with others. And also, it makes you feel a little sexy, right? So why shouldn’t somebody who’s 80 years old who has Parkinson’s feel a little sexy? I think that’s one of the best things that dance does, it puts us in touch with that sexier self, that sassy self, where you can express so many things through it. And I think that’s one of the great gifts it can bring to anybody.

On the benefits of dance for people with Parkinson’s disease and other conditions

The anecdotal evidence is just massive, right? Everybody has stories about their family member who just started going to dance class and their quality of life changed. So, the scientific evidence is quite strong. Also, especially when you’re talking motor skills, gait, and speed.

When you’re talking about the, the experiential evidence we want to talk about dance as, once again, this multifaceted art or form of exercise that brings together other domains other than just the motor. So, you have the sensory, you have the motor, you have cognitive, you have social, emotional, spiritual, rhythmic, and of course your creative process.

So, what does that do to the whole person, right? What does that do for somebody who may be, have become isolated for whatever reasons? And, and I’m going to go across the board here with many different kinds of disabilities that this is, these are often invisibilized populations when you’re talking about elders or when you’re talking about, especially in the past, children with autism, or for instance.

Now, one thing I did witness at one time is sometimes what happens the slowing happens so much, or the automaticity is so in decline that an actual freeze will happen. And so there are different ways that you can cue people out of a freeze. And this is specifically in Parkinson’s. So, the person who was teaching our class said that when one of her students froze at the door, she just said, no, just do your waltz. Do your waltz and waltz into the room. And they were able to cue themselves in waltz into the room where they were completely frozen and couldn’t take a step. So those are the kind of things, immediate things that we actually see in real-time.

On USC’s Dance and Ability course focused on people with Parkinson’s

The goals for the course in a broad sense as far as the University and USC Kaufman goes, is that have been wanting to do something that was truly interdisciplinary since I landed here on campus eight, almost nine years ago. And it’s been that gentle pressure and getting to know different people. And then that finally culminated this year in getting funded by Arts and Action, which is a great funding organization on campus here at USC that I was able to bring together Giselle Petzinger and Michael Jakowec from Keck Medicine and Neurology. We brought the OT school; we brought the PT school into it. We brought John Walsh from Gerontology. We worked with a community group in Pasadena called Lineage Performing Arts Center where we designed this course together.

So, I want to give our students a chance to use their fierce intellects and their fiercely intelligent bodies to start changing things in the world and to start understanding that your research in the studio is real research and it has real effects on people’s lives.

And the best thing about it, and this was my greatest hope, and was sort of the greatest payoff, was the intergenerational connection that came with our students getting off this campus and going to work with an elder population in Pasadena. And we were just dancing together and the love that filled that room, that number one, are students valuing these amazing people, right, that are, that are dancing through this these elements of trauma in their lives. And those folks up there, you know, maybe viewing young people in a different light than they possibly have been lately…It’s all about connection. So, we can sort of complain about the lack of connection because of social media, but what are we doing about it? So that’s, that’s the other thing I want to do is create a community. And that’s what happened. It was really kind of magical up there.

On the benefits for caregivers

In Parkinson’s the caregivers if joining into class are getting every bit of spiritual physical, feedback reward that anybody involved in the classes…The caregivers when we went to Lineage, I noticed that they were taking time to sit and read a book and maybe do a little self-care on their own if they weren’t joining in, some were joining in. And so, I know that it offers a respite, and it also offers a moment where they can view the person who’s in their care as a dancer, right? As they’re doing something, that maybe they’re too afraid or don’t feel able to do. So that’s sort of a power dynamic shift that’s kind of a beautiful thing too.

When I was working with the children with autism, one of the services that we were providing was a respite for these parents who I mean, these were, these were working-class people in Carlstadt, New Jersey that could not leave their child unattended ever, right? Incredibly intelligent, these kids, one was a computer whiz, and he would go in and just wreck all of the computers. So, I realized that they could go and have a cup of coffee and maybe be just a couple for 45 minutes. So, I know that that’s also something that any kind of service you’re providing that, that is community and group-oriented, you’re taking care of the whole family. And that’s another thing that I wanted to impress upon the students. And they got it. The students really, really stepped up.

On cross-campus collaboration

So, the structure of the class is it’s all in the studio, but we have lectures. So, we will have two lectures in a row and then a creative session, then two lectures in a row, creative session. And then we also peppered three times throughout the through that were field trips, field work that will be again in Pasadena in the spring, and of course in the fall will be in Culver City. So, we have whoever might be available to do the lectures. What we tried to do is we tried to give some kind of background in whatever we’re studying. So, we had a few lectures with the neurologists about Parkinson’s, just what it is. Then we had a creative session with the practitioner from Lineage Performing Arts Center and myself, who was training in dance for Parkinson’s at the time. and then we rinse and repeat that cycle over with somebody from occupational therapy, in gerontology, in physical therapy. And then we would wrap it up again with the neurologist coming back into it. And throughout that we’re then putting it into action or putting it into practice when we, when we visit on the field trips.

It’s just a dream come true. And because I’ve been, you know, researching on my own just as a curious person in the world and doing so much reading and watching films and sort of diving in on a pretty deep level to some of these things that then when I’m sitting in a lecture with Gisele Petzinger and Mike Jakowec or Dr. Walsh or Lisa Fukuzato from Occupational Therapy or Marisa Hentis, that as a dancer coming into this academic space that I know something and I know something that is valuable, and I’ve been able to bring these things together because I knew that there was a there there, and it just needed a spark to come together. So that was the most gratifying and invigorating, edifying takeaway from this whole experience is so that dancers in general, artists, I should say in general, can walk into these spaces and have a conversation with a neurologist, and we can have a real conversation about science because I’ve done the work. So, I want that to be apparent that we’re, we’re all doing our research, whether it’s in the studio or whether it’s in the laboratory. Yeah.

On dance and aging

And of course, there are issues in the field. It’s getting better. Also, our perceptions as ourselves as aging bodies is different. You know I, as a 58-year-old going on, 59-year-old person don’t feel old in this body at all. Whereas, my mom, God rest her soul, my mom at even at 40, she felt she perceived her aging body differently. So culturally that is changing in a broader sense. And so that is of course, filtering into dance in general. There are very few opportunities for aging dancers, but they are specialized and they, some of them are very high level but when you’re talking about performing, it’s the same sort of ageism and ableism that you have in any other sort of aesthetic process like acting, dancing, anything like that. But it’s getting better. I’m working on it on a daily basis with my students. I’m like, you should be able to keep up with me, <laugh>, look at me. I’m strong. You know? And also, what I want to impart to my students in general is that if we take care and accept our bodies where they are and honor our bodies at each stage or season in life, then we can express through them instead of shutting down and becoming isolated. Share your aging body as a thing of beauty.