Dance Therapy for Epilepsy and a Look Inside a Therapeutic Dance Classroom

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By: Lauren Michelle

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Plenty of research on exercise as a means to reduce seizures exists, but not much research is done on dance as a therapy for those with epilepsy. Yes, dance is a form of exercise and, because 86.5% of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities do not meet the daily recommended physical activity standards, dance can be an inclusive means of getting active in creative ways. It’s meaningful because consistent movement could lessen the strain placed on the health of someone who is only able to exercise less than recommended (1). For those with epilepsy, research shows that the “positive effects of exercise may help to reduce seizures for some people” but, aside from exercise, a lot of stories from individuals show that dance carries an increase in the overall quality of life for those struggling with epilepsy (2). According to research done by Sarah DiPasquale and Caroline Kelberman, “it has also been suggested that dance may have meaningful effects on brain structures, improving neuroplasticity and rhythm perception networks” (3). Though the particular research of DiPasquale and Kelberman’s article focuses on individuals with Down syndrome, their data points to dance benefiting somebody both socially and psychologically, not just physically (1). 

 Devin Larsen is a professional dancer who, after being diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of three, was placed into dance classes by her mother (4). Through dancing, their goal was to work on building brain connections lost during Larsen’s seizures. Larsen also wanted to address her loss of balance and coordination, these things side effects from four medications she had to take to stave off seizures. Through consistent dance and following a ketogenic diet, Larsen went from averaging twenty complex partial seizures–later turning into generalized tonic seizures–per day to being seizure-free and successfully weaned off her medication just before her tenth birthday.

Seizure-free at last, Larsen was still developmentally delayed at ten and continued dancing as a means to smooth out her movement as well as to refine her cognitive development. Today, she still dances; with dozens of productions under her belt, she now works as a professional freelance ballerina and has begun teaching at Vision Dance Center in South Jordan, Utah as part of their ballet faculty (5). For a professional dancer combatting seizures, defeating epilepsy may be a crucial step if upholding the aesthetic image that a dance routine often entails is something important for the dancer. That sense of perfection is precisely how the gist of the choreography in a classical production of Swan Lake is the same in Santiago, Chile as in San Antonio, Texas. If perfect execution of movement phrases is the name of the game, dance can seem daunting for someone particularly new to the practice or for a non-dancer finding themselves in a dance class for the purposes of therapy for developmental disabilities.

Founded in 1966, the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) advocates for “the inclusion of dance/movement therapy in healthcare, legislative, educational, and research systems” so that the connotation between perfection in movement from an able-bodied dancer and the concept of dance do not keep away those who may massively benefit from dance/movement therapy (6). ADTA defines dance/movement therapy as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement and dance to support intellectual, emotional, and motor functions of the body,” a therapy that “looks at the correlation between movement and emotion” as a focus. While Larsen enrolled in classes to refine her movement and build brain connections that were lost during her seizures as a young child, dance/movement therapy “takes therapeutic dance to another level [by allowing] people in treatment [to] communicate conscious and unconscious feelings through dance, which allows a therapist to respond in kind” (7).

Goodtherapy.org highlights a 2009 study from Alzheimer’s Care Today suggesting that dance/movement therapy can even directly improve memory recall in people with dementia. Despite the particular disability, therapists of dance/movement therapy “utilize ‘mirroring’ to illustrate empathy or make use of a ‘movement metaphor’ to help a person physically demonstrate a therapeutic challenge or achievement.” At its core, non-verbal expression is what dance/movement therapy sessions aim to provide to aid in the healing and growth of an individual so that their seizures do not control them.

For Sarah DiPasquale, Assistant Professor and Associate Chair of Dance at Skidmore College, her Bridges to Saratoga program rests somewhere in between dance as therapeutic and dance/movement therapy. She partners with Saratoga Bridges, an organization in the Saratoga Springs community that builds connections between individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities and “the communities where they live, work, recreate, and volunteer” and also works to empower those individuals and their families “to identify and purse their life goals through knowledge, collaboration, and experience” (8). In her own words, DiPasquale notes that teaching dance to the Bridges to Saratoga program:

 is a really meaningful experience, [and] the students in the class also really benefit. It’s a mutually beneficial process because we all learn to accept. We all know that we walk into the room in our own bodies and that those bodies come in different abilities and shapes and sizes. I think that kind of acceptance when you walk in the door is just such an important and wonderful thing that you don’t always see in dance. (9)

Knowing that DiPasquale’s classroom is a bona fide safe space, memories of her former students show that flourishing within her classroom is something a regular occurrence.

Through her personal research, DiPasquale developed a particular kind of warm up that “was a very mindful way of addressing some of the imbalances we see in bodies,” noting that these imbalances are not just those we see in folks with disabilities. “Sometimes, they’re just more pronounced. Moving off of your center of balance is something that can be really challenging to folks,” and so too can working on your posture. DiPasquale and her class complete these mindful warm-ups “that is put to music and that is not just exercise. It has intention, it has more meaning to it, and then it has artistry to it. You combine these things, and you don’t even know you’re doing these exercises,” all uninterrupted for twenty-five to thirty minutes a session, with sessions being held twice weekly.

After this warm-up, the second part of the class involves students moving across the floor, another time when people’s heartrates are up. They work on locomotive patterns across the space as well as on coordination activities. In the third and final bit of the class, all come to the center and DiPasquale creates a movement phrase for all to work on, gradually being modified and lengthened over the weeks that the class takes place.

Beyond being a place to exercise consistently, a great deal of social interaction and presence in a space with a true lack of judgement do wonders for the confidence of a new dancer. The consistency of the meeting times and three-part structure of the class offer a lot in terms of mental wellbeing. DiPasquale notes that observing the growth of her students is an incredible experience in and of itself. From a student with epilepsy and a traumatic brain injury improving their balance and smoothing out movement patterns to a student with cerebral palsy gaining the confidence to perform standing up rather than opting to perform in their power chair, her anecdotes show so well that her classroom is a place “where we can push each other and motivate each other. There’s no expectation that you were going to do something amazing because we’re all just trying.”

In her own words, DiPasquale notes that dance classes “are some of the things that are quite life changing in a way—it’s how people spend their time, it’s how people have their social interactions through classes and experiences like this. It’s a type of therapy in a sense, and although it may not be marketed as such, sometimes these experiences can be as beneficial, if not more beneficial, than a traditional therapy where you’re working one on one.” A lot of ADTA-certified therapists offer individual work while this particular approach to mindful, ability- and personal-improvement-focused dance in a group setting is relatively rare. DiPasquale and I both agree that more research on the topic ought to be done, but her personal anecdotes show that dance as an inclusive, therapeutic tool works wonders in many respects—mitigating seizures through physical exercise, enriching mental health through focus and improvement on one’s personal abilities, and socializing through sympathetic movement as a group.

Sources

1. International Journal of Exercise Science, “Integrative Dance for Adults with Down Syndrome: Effects on Postural Stability” by Sarah DiPasquale, Benjamin Canter, and Mary Roberts, pp. 1317-1325, 2020.

2. Epilepsy Society, “Exercise and epilepsy.” https://epilepsysociety.org.uk/living-epilepsy/wellbeing/exercise.

3. Arts & Health, “An integrative dance class to improve physical function of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities: a feasibility study” by Sarah DiPasquale and Caroline Kelberman, pp. 1-14, Oct 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/17533015.2018.1537295.

4. Pointe Magazine, “How Oklahoma City Ballet Member Devin Larsen Overcame Epilepsy and Found Dance” by Nancy Wozny, Feb 2017. https://www.pointemagazine.com/ballet-devin-larsen-epilepsy-2412956930.html.

5. Vision Dance and Learning Center, “Our Dance Staff: Devin Larsen, Ballet Faculty.” https://www.visiondlc.com/dance/dance-staff-2/.

6. American Dance Therapy Association, “About,” https://www.adta.org/about.

7. GoodTherapy, “Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT),” May 2018. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/dance-movement-therapy.

8. Saratoga Bridges, “About Us,” https://www.saratogabridges.org/about-us/.

9. Personal interview, January 2021.

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