At 145 km/hr (90 miles/hr), Jean-Marc François rode his motorcycle along the motorway in Lyon, France, south of his home country, Belgium. At that speed, little is perceptible. There is the asphalt triangle to the horizon and the purr of the engine between his legs. On one particular ordinary day traveling on this familiar stretch of road, Jean-Marc’s right hand trembled. This simple tremor that we have observed 100 times–a father jingling his car keys to soothe his crying daughter, a young boy jingling the loose yarn to taunt his cat–this same tremor, now meant that Jean-Marc’s life would forever change. 

In December of 2017, Jean-Marc was diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s disease. His doctor prescribed dopamine pills due to the decrease of dopamine production in the brain, a common symptom of this incurable disease. The band aid to this problem eliminated the tremors, yet his thoughts were a fog, lying motionless past the horizon. He could not bare feeling like a prisoner of his own brain, so he searched the web for alternative medicines and therapies for Parkinson’s disease. 

Jean-Marc needed to move. His wife insisted on the dopamine pills, yet he could not continue living a life without motion. He found an alternative therapy that would allow his mind to focus and give him his life back so that he could operate his printing business. At first, he only needed one gram of cocaine a week. He was honest with his doctor about using the street cocaine in lieu of the dopamine pills. Although cocaine was an expensive and illegal cure for his debilitating symptoms, it was also highly addictive. In no time, he was consuming ½ a gram a day to satisfy his new addiction and treat his symptoms.  He quit cocaine and switched to marijuana, which he learned helped with his tremors and calmed his mind; however, it made him particularly tired and sleepy, a common side effect of marijuana use.

And then came tango, one of the most empowering and addictive drugs from the streets of Buenos Aires. On Google, there are 356,000 search results for Parkinson’s disease and tango therapy. In Google Scholar, there are nearly 5000 peer-reviewed articles on the topic. In the last 10 years, there has been a spike of research studies aimed at using Argentine tango to improve patients’ motor skills and cognitive functions, reduce tremors, and improve patients’ psychological health.

Jean-Marc’s favorite orchestra is Francisco Canaro. The steady march of the bass lulls his frantic thoughts, offering him the clarity that he needs to function. With each step in his living room, the tango dances him. The tremors subside. Tango moves his body, moves his thoughts, a harmony of pure joy and calm. When the tremors return, they are for brief moments when he concentrates on a new pattern learned in tango class from the night before. For Jean-Marc, the tango in Belgium was not enough to satisfy his new addiction. And just like that, he divorced his wife of 25 years, sold his business, and moved to Buenos Aires to start over and continue his therapy in the milongas and classes of Buenos Aires. As a beginner, he has to contend with the common learning curve of embodying this dance, but he also has to navigate the social terrain of the milonga, trying to cabeceo followers who can dance despite his tremors or slow gait. After only one week in Buenos Aires, he has already been abandoned on the dance floor several times by disappointed followers. This story, he smiles at. What brings him to tears is the sight of a leader bringing a woman to utter bliss, eyes closed, smile warm and light. His dream is to one day cradle a woman in his arms, a Canaro lullaby swaying the ronda forward, side, back, side, forward, side, feeling the warmth of her smile.

Tango Couple in an Embrace

2 thoughts on “Tango Moves Me: A Parkinson Patient’s Road to Discovery

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