“Oh, by the way, the MS ballroom classes are going great!” Rachel Payden said to me as we were wrapping up our weekly meeting—referring to classes for people with Multiple Sclerosis. If you don’t know, Rachel is Danceworks’ outreach director. She oversees our Mad Hot Ballroom and Tap (MHBT) and Intergenerational Multi-Arts Program (IMAP), along with all the other community requests that come our way on a weekly basis. It’s a big job that she handles with great care and commitment.
“We started the MS ballroom classes already?” I asked. Honestly, if there is a chance that dance can help someone, Danceworks is on it.
“Yes, this summer. It is so cool!” Rachel’s face lit up.
So, it’s my 12th year at Danceworks, and this is why I love my work. Every day I see how dance changes lives—as it did for me and for most of the people I work with. Some stories are of people who have chosen dance as a career path, but just as many are about finding dance in unexpected places.
Meet Alex Ng, Associate Professor of the Program in Exercise Science at Marquette University.
Alex has a wonderful marriage, and why wouldn’t he? Dance was an important part of the couple’s early dating when they were students at UW-Madison. This was when Alex realized that dance is much more than exercise, “I experienced the sheer joy and sense of freedom that comes with moving to music.”
He prefers to be called Alex to Dr. Ng and told me “NG” stands for “nice guy.” He’s right about that. After Rachel told me the classes had already started, we met with him for coffee at the beautiful, wide open Stone Creek warehouse on 5th and Plankinton (am I the only one who didn’t know about this place?) so I could hear more about his work.
I have to say that Alex’s smile and enthusiasm are as wonderful as the work he has involved us in. Alex will quickly tell you that he is not a physical therapist, so don’t ask him about injuries. Do ask him about how to improve quality of life, because he does have a few things to say about that.
“A friend had mentioned the impact dance had on people with Parkinson’s disease,” he told us. “Because of the impact dance had on my own life, I was intrigued to see if it could help our research on people with Multiple Sclerosis.
“I like ballroom dance,” he explained, “because you’re following a set of directions; there is a formula, but a lot of room for variation. With social dance you are working with a partner and it is less inhibiting.”
Alex and his team received a small amount of funding from Marquette and moved ahead with the exercise angle of dance and its impact on MS. They discovered that the increased activity had a quality improvement on things like heart rate and weight loss, but also on life measures like improved self-acceptance and reduced depression. His first workshop had 40 people. One woman with a walker said, “This is great because it’s something I didn’t think I’d ever do again.”
“It if weren’t for the class, some of these people would be sitting at home. One young man told me he’d be on the couch playing video games.” Alex said.
“We feel the same way Dr. Ng—I mean, Alex—about the people we work with,” I jumped in.
“We are still in the early stages of the research, working with a control group, comparing those in the program to those who aren’t; but evidence of the program’s success can be seen already, in that no one wants the program to end,” he continued. Alex hears many of the same things we hear from our own students, MHBT students in particular.
“Aside from the positive scientific measures you are discovering, what do you hope the participants will leave with?” I asked him.
“Wanting more,” he said. “Better connection with their partners, their spouses, with others. Life can be tough, and participants tell me they wouldn’t have been able to cope without this class.”
Rachel remembered one of her MHBT students sharing the same sentiment, “I started blue and left happy.”’
We finished our coffee, and I told him I’d be visiting a class soon to see the program firsthand.
Afterward, Rachel and I talked some more, and she shared her impression of the program’s value based on Danceworks instructor feedback and her own observations. “It was beautiful to see the evening out of vulnerabilities between people,” she said. “Some of the partners felt vulnerable about just being in a dance class—overwhelmed by the counts and rhythms. Others were confident about understanding the steps but needed their partners in order to execute them. The two met in the middle—each giving the life of the movement to the other.”
There’s a lesson here, I thought to myself. Shouldn’t all relationships be about giving life of the movement to the other?
Dr. Ng was encouraged to submit a Letter of Intent for a grant to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and received it. He expressed his genuine gratitude to the Foundation and to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society – Wisconsin Chapter for the opportunity to continue his work with a larger study, and to continue working with Danceworks in the coming year.
I want to express my gratitude to Pamela Landin, a professional ballroom dancer who launched this work with Alex, and to Danceworks faculty members Amanda Derus, Jessica Fastabend, Kathleen Grusenski and Ali Rice for the unique talent, spontaneity and fun they are bringing to these classes!
Do you have a story about how dance has changed your life? If so, I want to hear it. That’s what this coming year’s blog is about—making a case for dance.
Thanks for stopping by!
Welcome to the Danceworks blog, where we're hoping to share a little bit more about the heart and soul behind Danceworks… what made us join the dance and keeps us dancing, what keeps us inspired, and where we can share some of the stories worth telling.