University of Hertfordshire’s ‘Dr Dance’ uses rhythm to research Parkinson’s
- Credit: supplied by the University of Hertfordshire
A University of Hertfordshire researcher known as ‘Dr Dance’ spoke to us about the link between rhythm and Parkinson’s, being on the same stage as President Obama – and the importance of cake.
Dance psychologist Dr Peter Lovatt has a mission to understand the relationship between Parkinson’s and dance.
Parkinson’s is a progressive condition which affects people’s control over their bodily movements, among other symptoms.
“One thing that people [with Parkinson’s] say to us, and what we know from our research, is that when they dance or walk to rhythmic music, they feel less likely to fall down,” said Dr Lovatt.
“I wanted to know what it is about rhythm that makes people feel so good.”
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He explained how walking, or just holding a conversation with a friend, is a rhythmic act, that people with Parkinson’s can struggle with.
He and his Herts Uni colleague, neuroscientist Dr Lucy Annett, first made the connection between rhythm and Parkinson’s when they saw research papers about it.
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“Lucy and I were discussing this paper and quite frankly we didn’t believe it,” he said.
But after looking into it more, the pair decided to test the theory themselves, which led them to set up a whole line of research.
“Ever since then we’ve been on a quest to work with lots and lots of people with Parkinson’s,” he said.
But he was limited by the number of people with Parkinson’s who could make it into their laboratory.
So, in partnership with digital wizards Qualtrics, Dr Lovatt developed an online tool called Tap-a-Tempo that can reach far more people – and you can get involved too.
The simple website asks its visitors, whether they have Parkinson’s or not, to tap along with a song’s rhythm.
Then you have to try and continue the beat after the music has gone silent.
After a few questions about your age, gender and health – you can stay anonymous if you want – you’ll get a score, and you’ll have helped ‘Dr Dance’ to collate valuable data about the connection between rhythm and the condition.
In the first week of launching Tap-a-Tempo, a whopping 2,000 people tried it out.
“That makes our data much richer and it makes our conclusions much more interesting,” said Dr Lovatt.
But the question still remains whether the positive effects of dance on people with Parkinson’s is purely down to, well, having a good time.
If somebody with Parkinson’s reports feeling more in control after a dance class than before, is it simply because they’re limbered up, socialising and happy?
Through hosting regular dance sessions for people with the condition at the university, his research also looks at the social, emotional and physical effects of dance.
“It’s a very vibrant class,” said Dr Lovatt.
“And there’s cake,” he added, which he described as “very important” to the class.
Dr Lovatt has personal experience in how dance can transform lives.
He explained how, as a pupil at Beaumont School in St Albans, he was “pretty rubbish” at everything – except dance.
He struggled to read and write and, never imagining he’d one day be an academic, went off and had a successful career on stage.
But his urge to study dance’s positive effects led him to improve his reading and writing enough to get his A Levels in his 20s, and ultimately led him to get a PhD in experimental cognitive psychology.
Now as a Herts Uni researcher, he was recently invited to the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit in Salt Lake City, to present his research on the same stage as Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson – his “all-time fantasy dinner party guests”, as he put it.
Backstage, when Obama walked in, “it was like he was floating two inches off the ground,” said Dr Lovatt.
“He just had this cool chill about him.
“But right now I’m sure Obama is talking to his local paper about meeting me, too,” he joked.
“What was really lovely was there were 10,000 people in the audience. It was just fantastic to be able to talk about the work that we’re doing on the same stage as them.
“The only fantasy guest who was missing is Fred Astaire, but in his place I was thinking about all of the people with Parkinson’s who dance every week at the university and who give so generously of their time to enable our research.”
To try out the Tap-aTempo tool and help ‘Dr Dance’ with his research, go to www.tapatempo.com.