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Dr. Matthew Woolhouse, Assistant Professor in the School of the Arts and director of the Digital Music Lab, is working in collaboration with the Hamilton City Ballet Dance for Parkinson’s (D4P) program to develop an interactive technology-based system that enables people with Parkinson’s Disease (PD) to take dance classes in the comfort of their own homes. An article about the D4P program recently appeared in The Hamilton Spectator: “Parkinson’s patients defy the disease through dance” and the Globe and Mail: “So you think you can dance (with Parkinson’s)?” Dr. Woolhouse was also recipient of the McMaster Innovation Showcase’s 2016 Synergy Award for his collaborative, interdisciplinary efforts to benefit those living with Parkinson’s Disease.

PD is an incurable neurodegenerative condition, currently affecting approximately 67,500 people in Canada. Typically, symptoms can include increasing difficulty with motor movement, resting tremors, depression, anxiety, and negative moods. Research has shown that music and dance can have positive therapeutic effects on people with PD, improving both physical and mental health, and quality of life.

Hamilton City Ballet (HCB) was the first classical ballet school in Canada to launch a Dance for Parkinson’s program, similar to the English National Ballet model in the UK. HCB’s Dance for Parkinson’s enables people with PD to enjoy ballet classes taught by professional dancers. These classes are custom-choreographed to support a variety of low-intensity movements that address common motor coordination and mobility issues experienced by people with PD. The program provides biweekly classes during three terms per year—the McMaster team wanted the people enrolled in the program to have the chance to practice dance in between classes.

When a McMaster university student received a scholarship to conduct independent research under the supervision of Dr. Woolhouse, and volunteered to work with the Hamilton City Ballet on their Dance for Parkinson’s program, the collaboration between the Digital Music Lab and HCB was born.

Since 2014, Dr. Woolhouse and his interdisciplinary team of student researchers have generated the research funding needed to develop an in-home dance system using Microsoft’s Kinect camera — a low-cost motion-sensing device which can track body movements, and that allows users to interact with the application using gestures or spoken commands. The interactive platform looks somewhat like a video game: a dance avatar provides visual cues that tell the user how well she or he is dancing; the avatar modifies its movements in real time depending upon the performance of the user. Based on choreography and music from HCB’s Dance for Parkinson’s classes, the device is designed to complement and reinforce the many benefits of the program.

Avatar, centre, demonstrates a dance move; achievement bar, left, indicates user performance; user movement graphic, bottom right.

Avatar, centre, demonstrates a dance move; achievement bar, left, indicates user performance; user movement graphic, bottom right.

To ensure the multimedia application is user friendly, the research team worked closely with HCB students and their caregivers to refine various elements of the system. User feedback led to new features such as emergency text-messaging that alerts caregivers if the system user is unresponsive for a given period of time. The team also maintains a connection to the local community through a Facebook page that provides regular project updates, research news, and links to relevant information on the web.

Seeing the benefits of the HCB program and the in-home application developed by The Digital Music Lab, Dr. Woolhouse and his team continue their work to improve the quality of lives of those affected by PD, looking toward future opportunities to conduct longitudinal studies on the long-term psychological and physical impacts of dance on PD. They are also exploring the potential contribution of technology-based dance applications in providing well-rounded health care support and helping an aging population to remain active and culturally engaged while staying longer in their own homes.