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Flamenco dance offers unique form of healing for stroke patients

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Posted at 6:33 AM, Jan 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-14 08:33:15-05

PHOENIX — When someone suffers a stroke or other debilitating condition, beyond the physical rehabilitation, the emotional toll can also be very isolating. Now, Valley doctors have found a unique way to lift their patients' spirits while healing their bodies.

An Arizona Flamenco troop has been putting on shows for years at Mayo Clinic events. They do a bit of audience participation, teaching a series of clapping rhythms and helping the audience fumble through the coordination of using castanets, a traditional Spanish instrument that makes a "clacking" sound. That's when doctors had an idea to turn that performance into a Flamenco therapy pilot program for stroke, heart attack and transplant patients.

"It helps with their coordination, it helps with their habitual and non-habitual movement, and also with their fine motor skills," said Flamenco instructor Olivia Rojas. Rojas says the movement and short routines also help patients regain strength, memory function and mobility.

Beyond the physical benefits, there's also a social and emotional transformation. At the heart of Flamenco is community -- everyone contributes either with singing, dancing or creating the rhythm.

"They start relying on each other just a little bit more to help them with their healing," said Rojas.

Recreation therapists at Mayo Clinic say many of their patients don't consider themselves dancers but that often helps them approach the lessons with a more relaxed attitude and they're able to laugh at themselves, leading to emotional and physical gains.

"With a defective side, if they had a stroke and they're able to move it, they're exercising and doing those things that the therapists are working on and they don't even realize they're doing it," said Recreation Therapist Carol Graziano. "I think that's the magic of the program. It's something fun and takes their mind away from their illness."

Bonnie Crosby is a former professional dancer but a stroke stole much of her mobility. She says the Flamenco therapy offers her a new challenge to focus on and even the music helps her at least visualize movement that her body may not be able to do yet.

"The singing and the dancing and the arm movements just give you more of an impetus to get well soon. I just think they complement one another," Crosby said. "We heal, I believe, more quickly."

Rojas says she'll keep the classes going as long as the hospital keeps inviting her. Seeing the benefits first-hand, she's also branched out to create therapy programs for seniors and kids.