Before he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1996, Jeffrey Gingold was a successful litigation lawyer in Brookfield, Wisconsin with a wife, one daughter, and another child on the way.
He used to jog regularly and practice amateur speed skating, but once the MS progressed to where he couldn’t put one foot in front of the other without tripping, he gave those up.
Gingold eventually started walking with a cane, only foregoing it when he could hold his wife’s hand for stability.
“The physical challenges I could deal with, but losing the ability to multitask, to concentrate, to remember people’s names or even where your house is located — I wasn’t ready for that,” he tells Healthline. The cognitive side effects of MS forced him to retire at 41.
“You begin to feel the loss of part of your being, you feel your life goals being rewritten for you — for your family. Some things get erased by MS,” Gingold says.
One thing he didn’t want to be erased: His ability to walk his daughter down the aisle and dance with her at her wedding.
That’s what he was thinking about when, years later, a researcher at Marquette University in Milwaukee invited him to participate in a study on how 8 weeks of dance lessons might benefit people with MS.
Gingold’s daughter was in a serious relationship and he wanted to know if, when the time came, he would be able to do what fathers without chronic conditions are able to.
Setting down his cane for dance lessons
For the study, Gingold spent week after week setting down his cane and reaching for his partner for support as they learned to ballroom dance across the floor. “When we started, I didn’t know what I could do — I only knew what I could not do,” he says.
He hadn’t tried to really move in years, let alone to a rhythm. But it turns out, dancing wasn’t as daunting as it seemed.
“Within [the] first few classes, I found myself smiling. I learned to laugh at myself. It was challenging to my mind — you have to always be thinking a few steps ahead so your body will react in time. But I was moving to a rhythm, and I enjoyed it,” he recounts.
Gingold had a newfound confidence in what he was capable of that surprised him.
This wasn’t ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ and I wasn’t about to lift or spin anyone, but I learned coordination and motion within my MS movements,” he says. “I was defying MS.
Science says ballroom dance is beneficial
Gingold’s experience isn’t unique. The study he was a part of — the results of which were published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise — found that learning ballroom dancing helped improve quality of life, balance, and cognition of people with MS.
Another study, published in the journal Neurology, found similar results with salsa lessons. When people with MS danced twice a week for four weeks, their gait and balance improved not just during the study but even months after the dance lessons ended. Plus, the participants who were dancing regularly throughout the study had an easier time becoming active on their own, probably thanks to that increase in physical stability.
Boosting physical activity with MS is key. The disease increases your risk of heart disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease, but exercise of any kind can help decrease this risk — along with that of other diseases like obesity and some cancers, says Alexander Ng, PhD, associate professor of exercise science at Marquette University and author of the study Gingold took part in.
What’s more, moving more can help lessen fatigue, improve gait, and improve quality of life, Ng adds.
Moving to a rhythm just offers a few more cherries on top.
"Dancing challenges your physical muscles to offer exercise benefits, but also challenges the brain with requiring you to step in different directions; learn, remember, and successfully recall novel motor patterns; and interpret cues from your partner." – Ng
And that goes for most every kind of dance. A forthcoming study of Ng’s, the results of which were presented at the Consortium of Multiple Sclerosis Centers annual meeting in 2015, found that when people living with MS learned various types of dance — rumba, foxtrot, waltz, salsa, and swing — it helped improve both their physical abilities (namely gait, balance, and athletic tolerance) as well as symptoms of depression.
Science says dancing when you live with MS can help improve:
- walking ability and gait
- mental health
- energy and activity levels
- quality of life
Gingold and his daughter deliver a crowd-pleasing dance.
A major payoff
When his daughter got engaged, Gingold went back to Dr. Ng, who referred him to one of the dance instructors from the study. Gingold started taking dance lessons with his daughter.
The process was slow, and it took a lot of patience. But when her big day came, Gingold got to do more than just the basic two step. With the help of the instructor, he and his daughter had choreographed an entire routine.
If you look closely, you can actually see that his daughter is guiding him most of the time and there isn’t actually a lot of movement on his part. But taking dance lessons offered Gingold something he hadn’t experienced in a long time. When we asked him how it felt to dance with his daughter, his response: “Normal.”
He adds, “MS should not be the center of attention at every social and family gathering and my goal was to take it out of the picture. And I did.”
It’s all about trying to hold onto normal as best you can. I think it’s important for people with MS.
He doesn’t take lessons regularly anymore. But when he and his wife are at a wedding or a bar mitzvah, they’ll get up and get “into the action a little bit” as she guides him. “I’m able to still engage with a social situation that would’ve normally left me sitting at a table watching,” he says.
Want to take MS-friendly dance lessons?
1. Call up a class ahead of time
Call class instructors ahead of time to explain you have MS to see if the class is a fit.
2. Opt for a form of dance that requires a partner
Your partner can serve as an “ambulatory aid” to help with balance, allowing for movement that might not otherwise be possible or safe, Ng says.
3. Choose a type of dance that looks fun to you
If you’re worried about whether your body is up for the challenge, Ng says anyone who can move around with minimal aid — like with a cane or walker — can probably handle partnered dance.
Beyond that, sign up for whatever interests you. “Whatever dance you enjoy doing most is what you’ll want to regularly participate in, and therefore get the most benefit from,” Ng says.
4. If you’re concerned about physical limitations, choose to rumba or waltz
Some dance types will be easier — rumba and waltz can be performed at a slower tempo and in closed positions. This means holding onto a partner with both hands, which offers more physical support for someone with MS, for example.
But, while salsa and swing would be more challenging (aerobically and balance-wise) thanks to their faster pace and open positions, these are also more cognitively stimulating due to their complexity. The aerobic challenge would also be beneficial if your body can handle it, Ng adds.
5. Pair up with someone supportive and patient
Gingold says that one of the things he found most beneficial in his dance classes was that his partner knew he had MS and was trained to work within his limitations — staying patient when he would count steps slowly, for example.
This also helped remove the fear that he would be pushed beyond his physical limits. Taking a private lesson would certainly deliver that — and may be a good option if you want to do one of those faster paced dances.
6. Don’t discount group classes
But a group class, daunting as it may seem, could also be really beneficial considering the socialization with a regular group. And the potential sense of camaraderie can offer emotional benefits, Ng adds.
Check your local community centers for dance classes.
This therapy hasn’t caught on enough that there are MS-specific offerings, but if you reach out to the teacher of a standard waltz or salsa class beforehand, they can give you a sense of whether the class will be a good fit for you and potentially make special accommodations.
Rachael Schultz is a freelance writer who focuses primarily on why our bodies and brains work the way they do, and how we can optimize both (without losing our sanity). She’s worked on staff at Shape and Men’s Health and contributes regularly to a slew of national health and fitness publications. She’s most passionate about hiking, traveling, mindfulness, cooking, and really, really good coffee. You can find her work at rachael-schultz.com.