How dance keeps people with Parkinson's disease moving in the UAE

Movement therapist Vonita Singh's personal experience with the disease is the subject of a play in Dubai

Movement Mantra helps people with Parkinson's move through dance
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When Vonita Singh's father was living with Parkinson's disease, she did not know then what she does now. The dancer and the rest of her family were quick to rush to help their papa with the everyday tasks that parkinsonism makes so difficult, encouraging him to rest as they rallied around.

At the time, they believed they were caring for him in the best possible way, but if Singh could go back, she would take an entirely ­different approach. “We all used to say: ‘Oh, dad, let me do that for you’; and ‘Let me feed you’, but we kind of harmed him because we stopped his movements totally,” she explains. “And somebody with Parkinson’s needs to keep moving; your muscles rely on it.”

Parkinson’s affects the nerve cells in the brain, causing muscle rigidity, tremors and changes in speech and movement. It affects about one in 500 people worldwide, and currently has no cure. ­Patients are usually treated with medication and supportive therapies.

Before her father’s diagnosis, Singh had little understanding of the disease or its effects. Movement, however, was something she understood inside out. “I have been a ­passionate dancer from the age of three,” she says. “It’s not that I came from a family of dancers or musicians, but dad appreciated music and the rhythm of dance. He was very keen that I learn.”

Singh carries that passion for dance into her adult life, but it wasn’t until she watched her dad lose all movement, and eventually lost him in 2009, that it took on a whole new meaning for her. “It was only during the last stage when he was totally rigid and immobile that I thought: ‘I wish I had helped him move’,” she says. “Dance helps you to gain control over your body. It helps you to move in a particular direction, and it gives you the beat to be able do a particular thing. Honestly, I thought I was [the first one] who thought of this brilliant idea, to connect dance to Parkinson’s sufferers.”

As it turns out, there were already programmes using dance to keep people with Parkinson’s moving in the US and the UK, but Singh’s dance-therapy company was a first for the UAE. After training in the US, Singh returned to Dubai in 2013, and Movement Mantra was born. “I discovered that dance is very deep,” she says. “I had been doing it so mechanically; learning, performing, learning, performing – but there is so much more to it. Movement Mantra became my calling – a very passionate one. It has also been a learning curve; there has been an ‘aha’ moment in every session.”

Vonita Singh shows finger movements inspired by dance to a Parkinson's patient at a Movement Mantra class
Vonita Singh shows finger movements inspired by dance to a Parkinson's patient at a Movement Mantra class

Initially, Singh worked with one person whom she ­connected with via ­Facebook, and used a combination of dance, breathing and yoga to stimulate her patient’s muscles and encourage ­movement. Soon she was contacted by other people with the disease who had heard about her techniques, and Movement Mantra began to morph into an unofficial support group.

“With Parkinson’s, you start to isolate yourself, you become depressed, you are unable to perform or function normally, so you start to stay behind the door or closet yourself,” she says. “People stop going outside because they are embarrassed, and that’s when isolation happens. When we meet in the group we move but, more than that, people look forward to it because it’s a new engagement with a new group. They regain their confidence and share their experiences. There is impact on a physical, psychological and social level.”

Each year on April 11, Singh marks World Parkinson's Day by hosting an event with Movement Mantra. Last year, it was a cricket match in Dubai; the year before, a seminar for the families of Parkinson's sufferers. But this year's event is particularly close to Singh's heart. "I saw a movie called Still Alice, which is based on Alzheimer's, and I said to myself: 'One day, I hope there is something similar on Parkinson's,'" says Singh. "I was talking to a friend about it. She is involved with the theatre and suggested we do a play, and the thought just clicked."

On April 12 and 13, Still ­Dancing will show at Dubai's The Junction, marking the ­culmination of months of work by Singh and Sanjeev Dixit, founder of Third Half Theatre, who has written and directed the production

Still Dancing brings Singh's story to life on stage, while raising awareness for the condition and giving a voice to those who suffer from the disease. "The play is based on the real-life experiences that our family has gone through, but it can be anybody's family, anybody's dad, anybody's brother," says Singh. "It was a mixed feeling, digging into my wealth of old memories, taking out photographs to show [the actors]. It's difficult at times; there are moments that trigger bittersweet memories, but I am glad I've got this opportunity to be able to share my story and raise awareness," she adds.

Still Dancing coincides with World Parkinson's Day. Third Half Theatre
Still Dancing coincides with World Parkinson's Day. Third Half Theatre

For writer and director Dixit, Still Dancing marks his first experience with Parkinson's. He worked closely with Singh, who regularly sent him voice notes detailing her father and her family's experience with the disease, which helped to create a script that would paint a picture of the impact the disease can have on the lives of those affected. "One of the members [in the play] has Parkinson's, and how they struggle with that is an important factor," explains Dixit, "but it is still the story of a family, their individual joys, their collective grief – it's a slice of life."

Dixit wants to help raise awareness for the disease, and hopes that the production goes some way in helping people recognise the symptoms and have a better understanding of their effects, but he also believes it’s a story that will resonate with everyone. “All of us go through something in our lives that leaves us grief-stricken or makes us think: ‘If only we had known this before,’” he says. “These are universal emotions that make up the human experience.”

Still Dancing will be performed at The Junction, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, on April 12 and 13. Tickets are from Dh100 and can be booked from