I embrace Alice to lead her in the dance that takes two. Her hand trembles in mine but her presence is full and impeccable. The music begins and I lead Alice in a tango step called a molinete, or windmill, a circular grapevine. Alice, who suffers from Parkinson’s, not only stops trembling, her feet move as if airborne. “Beautiful, Alice, soooo fluid!” I exclaim. I’ve seen less coordination in students not afflicted. I am genuinely amazed. And it’s not an anomaly, her fluid feet when dancing this step in tango. It happens every time I lead her.
Just a couple of years ago, my co-instructor, Bob Noakes, and I were hired by Stanford’s Neuroscience Center to teach tango to people with Parkinson’s. As long as they were mobile and could walk onto the floor, they could learn to do this most sensual of partner dances. Certainly not the way you see on Dancing With the Stars. That is a choreographed version of social tango. The latter was born in the early 1900s among immigrants and others of the lowest socio-economic rungs in the Rio Platense area that encompasses the Plata River region of Argentina and Uruguay.
Knowing that Argentines say “It takes a lifetime and a half” to learn tango, I was a bit apprehensive at first for our balance-challenged students. I knew choreographer Mark Morris had shown how dance benefits stiff limbs and tremors, spreading the joy of dance to many. University researchers had shown tango’s benefits to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. (See Dr. Gammon Earhart’s studies.)
From the start, Bob and I, longtime tango aficionados, found the reward of sharing a passion for tango was ours. We’ve now, after two years, have watched a core group of students progress through tango’s basics. On the dance floor, with grace and elegance, their feet trace ochos or figure eights. They slide their ankles to the delicate cross, the sensual cruzada and like Alice, float through the grapevine, or molinete, and much more.
Our students still deal with challenges but say this tango class is the highlight of their week. We say it is for us, too. I’m reminded of the song that advises us to “spread joy up to the maximum, bring gloom down to the minimum.” Argentine tango is famously described as a melancholy dance, its lyrics of lost love, lost homeland, often bearing that out. But I say—as my own late father always said—you can’t NOT smile when dancing. My personal experience is proof positive of that belief. I was swept up by tango passion during a gloomy period and many years latermhave not stopped smiling when I tango—especially with my students.
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are the two most common degenerative neurological disorders. About one million Americans live with Parkinson’s with 60,000 more diagnosed each year. One tango composer famously described tango as a sad feeling that can be danced. He had not seen the likes of our Parkinson’s students.
If you or a family member have Parkinson’s come take our free class, Stanford Neuroscience Center, 213 Quarry Road, Stanford, Wednesday, 2:15 to 3:45pm. Or drop in to our (regular, non-Parkinson’s) tango class Thursdays at San Francisco Veterans Hospital, Clement & 42nd Avenue, 4:30 to 6pm, also free.