02 January 2010

Is Dance an Effective Therapy for Cerebral Palsy?

Overcoming Cerebral Palsy

By Justine van der Leun
Gregg Mozgala, a 31-year-old actor, used to feel inhibited by his cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that occurs when a child’s brain is damaged before the age of two and afflicts a million Americans — most often in the form of poor coordination, weak muscles, and compromised posture. But with a load of determination and the help of an unconventional choreographer, Mozgala is now set to star in an hour-long dance piece in New York City. “I have felt things that I felt were completely closed off to me for the last 30 years,” Mozgala told The New York Times. “The amount of sensation that comes through the work has been totally unexpected and is really
quite wonderful.” While there is no cure for cerebral palsy, Mozgala’s success suggests that a change in approach to the condition can translate into a change in the lives and capabilities of sufferers. Mozgala’s journey began in 2008 when he met choreographer Tamar Rogoff After seeing Mozgala play the lead in “Romeo and Juliet,” produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a group composed of disabled and nondisabled actors, Rogoff was inspired to create a dance piece for him. At first, both Mozgala and Rogoff imagined a 10-minute performance: Mozgala, who then walked on his toes with his upper body thrown back, assumed he could not
manage much more, and Rogoff figured she would create some basic choreography for him. But as they began to work together, her imagination and his capacities began to expand.

Rogoff, who knew little about cerebral palsy, taught Mozgala techniques to release muscular tension. She helped him locate areas of his body over which he had previously exercised no control. In agonizing and illuminating sessions, they worked together to increase his range of movement, employing dance and stretching techniques, and finding his true physical limits. Soon enough, Mozgala was able to stand up straight, to place both feet on the floor, as well as to feel
his Achilles tendon, which he had never before done. He called these revelations
“eureka moments” in the New York Times interview. “There are pre-existing structures in the brain that are very receptive to music, rhythm, and moving to music, which is why at a rock concert, everyone is swaying,” explained Mindy L. Aisen, MD, medical director of The Cerebral Palsy International Research Foundation. “The innate pleasure we get from music acted as a reinforcement for getting [Mozgala’s] body re-engaged and for forging new pathways in his brain.”Mozgala had been to physical therapists for over a decade, but his dance training
was different: While before, the therapists had moved his body for him, now he learned how to move his own body. Rogoff identified some of the physical patterns he had been stuck in and gave him specific instructions on how to overcome them, both in the studio and out. His daily life has changed: His balance and strength are so improved that he rarely falls; his gait is steadier,
and he is subject to fewer stares on the street. Most important, he no longer feels
mentally constrained by cerebral palsy. As he told the Times: “Everybody told me
there was nothing I could do,” he said. “That’s just what you hear, from the time
you’re five to adulthood. Tamar gave me an option.” According to Aisen, Mozgala’s story supports an open-minded, patientcentered approach to Cerebral Palsy and other neurological impairments. CPIRF is considering funding a dance therapy program, and at their Washington, D.C. Center, they have begun to use robotics and fun, motivational virtual games to help children use afflicted muscles. “Just as musicians have to practice to hone a motor skill, a brain that’s never had a chance to develop in areas needs the opportunity,” says Aisen. “We think we
can help anyone with cerebral palsy reshape their nervous system in a way.
It’s not a cure, but it is going towards a cure.”

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