Can Irish set dancing benefit your health?

Joanne Shanahan is a Chartered Physiotherapist and Irish set dancing teacher. She completed her PhD in the University of Limerick. Joanne was the lead co-author of “Set dancing for people with Parkinson’s disease: an information resource for Irish set dancing teachers”. In this blog Joanne discusses her research.

irishSet dancing is an Irish cultural and social dance form. It involves dancing in a group of eight (sometimes four) people and is accompanied by the lively distinct beat of Irish dance music. Today set dancing is enjoyed by people worldwide with classes, workshops and ceilis organised all year round. Until recently the health benefits of set dancing were unknown. Recent Age and Aging publications by Shanahan et al. (2016), presented at the Irish Gerontology Society Annual Meeting 2016, have informed this question.

The first publication compared balance, physical fitness and quality of life in healthy older Irish set dancers and age-matched non-set dancers.  This study involved over 70 adults, aged 55 years or older. The set dancers attended regular set dancing classes during the six months preceding the assessment and were compared to non-dancers. The promising results demonstrated that regular set dancers had better balance, endurance and quality of life compared to non-set dancers.

The second study examined the feasibility of a randomised controlled study design and compared set dancing to usual medical care for people with Parkinson’s disease in Ireland. Participants involved in the study were from nine different locations in Ireland and attended 10 weeks of set dancing classes. The results found that set dancing was an enjoyable form of exercise that motivated participation. Set dancing may also improve quality of life and slow deterioration in motor function and endurance. The results also identified a number of feasibility issues relating to the study design that need to be considered in future research.

The mechanisms underlying the potential benefit of set dancing are not fully researched. It is thought that the aerobic component and numerous multidirectional movements involved in set dancing may improve balance and functional capacity. This could help reduce the risk of falls and improve functional ability. Additionally, the social environment along with the music can create an enjoyable and happy experience to help improve quality of life. Music can also facilitate movement for people with Parkinson’s by acting as a rhythmic cue. Future studies will provide further information on the benefits of set dancing.

This research was carried out by Dr. Joanne Shanahan (Chartered Physiotherapist, set dance teacher), Dr. Amanda Clifford (senior lecturer, Chartered Physiotherapist) and Dr. Orfhlaith Ni Bhriain (lecturer and Irish dance teacher) from the University of Limerick, Ireland. Collaborators involved included Prof Meg Morris (Physiotherapist) at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia, Dr Danielle Volpe (Neurologist) at Casa di Cora Villa Margherita, Arcugnano (VI) & Ospedale Classifcato Moriggia Pelascini, Gravedona (CO), Italy and Prof. Tim Lynch (Neurologist) at the Dublin Neurology Institute.

To learn more about research on set dancing by Joanne and colleagues, please click the following links:

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