Archives December 2015

An Unlikely Hero


An Unlikely Hero

Rafi Eldor is becoming an increasingly known and respected figure among the Israeli public, and among people all over the world who are interested in the way dance may help confront the limiting effects of Parkinson’s disease. In fact, even people with no connection to the condition consider him an example of resilience and of the triumph of mind over body. What is it about Eldor that makes him such a fascinating figure?

Fame Against the Odds

Rafi Eldor is an unlikely hero because his public advocacy for facing Parkinson’s bravely was preceded by his career as a professor of Economics. He specializes in risk management, options, and future bonds, and is a successful, often cited economist who publishes on a wide variety of economics subfields. His is a somewhat grey and dull area for people uninterested in economics, but for Rafi teaching and academic research were his primary, lifelong passions and interest. Before dance suddenly entered his life that is.

Venturing Outside the Comfort Zone

Eldor has the appearance of what many may imagine to be a quintessential academic. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he did not shy away from creative and unconventional ways of confronting his hardship. Breaking the surface mould of a mature economist, Eldor turned to a place well beyond his comfort zone. He has said that when a doctor recommended dancing as a way of stabilizing his condition he was a little embarrassed, so he went to look for a young inexperienced dance instructor in the hope that they would have more patience towards his then deteriorating condition. It was then that he met Roni Peled: a therapeutic dance instructor, who recalls (in a joint interview published on YouTube) how when she first met Rafi he could hardly circle his arms around. But after overcoming the difficult beginning the practice payed off: Now, after dance assisted him in confronting the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, Eldor instructs others and participates competitions, one of them being the Pro-Am dance contest he participated with his partner- the famous Israeli dancer Anna Aharonov.

Spreading Hope

Eldor’s journey, from the somewhat esoteric and introverted realm of academia and from being unable to walk at a normal pace or stand in an upright posture, to being an accomplished ballroom dancer and participating in competitions in front of crowds — is the journey which inspired so many people to battle their own disabilities and conditions. This victory against the odds is a story worth telling in order to spread the hope that is often so lacking for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease. And Rafi Eldor is committed to doing so. He keeps dancing and practicing for future competitions, he has given an inspirational talk about his personal story on TED, and he actively participates in fundraising for Parkinson’s disease research.

The Social Implications of Parkinson’s disease

dots inside human skull

Parkinson’s disease results from the death of neuro-cells called substantia nigra, which are responsible for the generation of dopamine, directly influencing the motoric ability of the body (for more information, see the “What is Parkinson’s disease” page). The physical symptoms are fairly well-known: slow movement, shaking, and typically later on deccelerated responsiveness and speaking, and memory issues. However, the effects of Parkinson’s impact much more than patients’ physical world. While pragmatic changes are sometimes manageable, those with the condition often also have to deal with social deficiencies originating from their condition.

Changing Social Roles

Due to the progressive lack of control over movement, muscles, and cognitive function, participating in daily activities becomes increasingly challenging for the Parkinson’s disease patients. Simple chores such as shopping for groceries, washing dishes, or clearing the pathway become more difficult as the symptoms worsen. For those with children, the disease challenges their role as parents, as tasks such as taking care of a baby, making dinner become too demanding to manage. Such domestic dysfunctions originate from the cognitive, mental, and physical impairments of the condition. As the physical issues progress, so do the social.

Parkinson’s Social Surroundings

Parkinson’s disease also affects patients’ self-confidence, and thus impairs their ability to maintain or create new social ties. Even the more subtle physical symptoms can have social implications. Research conducted in McGill University discovered that the way Parkinson’s patients speak causes people to perceive them in a negative light. According to the research, the softer, slower, and sometimes disorientated speech that patients often develop as their condition progresses, triggers unfavourable impressions from people around them. However, symptoms are typically far more obvious than unusual speech patterns: the limitations of mobility caused by Parkinson’s disease compel patients to stay at home more, and cut off contact with the more empathetic company of relatives or friends. Many people with Parkinson’s are cared for at home, often by close relatives, who are undoubtedly also affected by the disease’s impact on the patient’s lifestyle. The redistribution of house chores, daily confrontation with a relative’s deteriorating condition, and the burden of intensive care for a patient all take their emotional toll on caregivers.

Dancing Away the Symptoms

The heavy social burdens discussed above are not, however, an inevitable fact for Parkinson’s patients, and while the diagnosis of the disease always requires readjustments, these do not have to entail an unfulfilling life. As is evident from Rafi Eldor’s story, Parkinson’s disease’s physical as well as social symptoms can be confronted through dancing. Eldor often says that dance is the opposite of Parkinson’s because it requires movement, muscle control, and agility. But this activity is also the social opposite of Parkinson’s disease. Dancing requires the patient to go out, interact intimately with their dance partner, and be sensitive to his or her movements. It requires profound social interaction, which stands in contrast to all the social symptoms mentioned above. As such, dancing can assist not only in confronting the physical symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but also its social implications.

Taking the First Step

two dancers on the floor

Considering that dancing is fun and mentally and physically healthy, it is not surprising that its popularity is increasing every year. The more awareness there is of the benefits of dancing, the more likely it is to grow as a trend, and the fact that this activity can help deal with things like the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease is testimony to its great power. There are many people, however, who would like to try out dancing but do not know where to start, or are afraid to take the initial step — quite literally. There can be something frightening about expressing oneself physically through movement. It is a practice which requires some measure of courage and outgoingness, because for those who are not used to it there is often a sense that they will be judged for their supposedly poor dance skills: it is not rare to find a group of people at a wedding or a party who “just don’t dance”. Enjoy the benefits of dancing requires that initial leap of faith, and professional help or group support can often help in doing so.

How to Begin

So what are the ways in which one can take the first step towards the dance-floor? Online lessons and beginners’ classes are two good places to start.

Online Lessons

Online dance lessons could be the perfect solution for those who are anxious or embarrassed about dancing socially. There are numerous free and paid websites where you can learn to dance from the comfort and convenience of your own home. This obviously does not require as much courage as doing so in public and, importantly, the vast amount of content available through the web offers an endless variety of different types of dance, helping you to discover the styles you connect to the most.However, it is important to remember that online lessons do not quite provide the same benefits social dancing offers. As we learn from Rafi Eldor’s story, and many other Parkinson’s disease patients who have confronted their condition through dancing, one of the therapeutic effects of this activity is its social environment. The excitement and intimacy of real life interaction is simply missing when one dances alone in their living room.

two dancers on the floor

Beginners’ Classes- A Supportive Environment

There is good incentive to go out there and be brave, but one does not have to be brave alone. There are many schools which offer beginners’ group lessons, ensuring that upon venturing out to explore dancing one is joined by like-minded people who probably also feel uncomfortable about dancing to some degree. The empathy and support one gets from the group is important for overcoming the initial fears of social dancing, and you could also take a friend or a spouse with you for extra fun. There are many single people who attend beginners’ classes though, and it is actually a great place to meet new make friends. This can be especially beneficial for people dealing with Parkinson’s disease, as it offers the kind of social interaction that is missing in many patients’ daily lives. However, social interaction and human contact is something missing from many people’s lives in the modern world. Going to a dance class can offer this and more, within a safe, supportive and fun environment that eliminates the initial fears some may associate with dancing.