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Ballerina turns researcher to help improve the lives of people with MS

Ballerina Emily Davis gave up her professional career in the US and came to Glasgow to look at how dance could help people with multiple sclerosis (MS) in Scotland, which has one of the highest incidence rates of the disease in the world.

There are more than 15,000 people in Scotland with MS. Prevalence of MS in the north of Scotland is particularly high. A study of north east Scotland found the level per 100,000 people in 2009 to be 229 in Aberdeen, 295 in Shetland and 402 in Orkney.

MS is a condition that can affect the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide range of potential symptoms, including problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance.

Emily Davis is pictured outside from the waist up

Emily, 27, was a professional ballerina with the world-renowned Philadelphia Ballet company for six years while also studying for a Biology degree at the University of Pennsylvania and working as a volunteer researcher in neurorehabilitation at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

After graduating with the highest distinction, she moved to Scotland in 2021 to start a PhD in the emerging field of dance health, funded by the Thouron Scholarship, and forging a unique partnership with Glasgow Caledonian University and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), in collaboration with Scottish Ballet, Scotland’s national dance company and a national centre for dance health.

Emily has been working with Glasgow Caledonian’s rehabilitation expert Professor in Allied Health Science Lorna Paul and RCS Senior Lecturer and Doctoral Degrees Coordinator Dr Bethany Whiteside, on her PhD study, which includes Dance for Multiple Sclerosis – A Systematic Review’, which was hailed the sixth most read research paper in the International Journal of MS Care in 2023.

Her review of dance interventions for people with MS demonstrated their feasibility and safety. She also uncovered positive themes, including enhanced body awareness, improved psychological wellbeing, sense of belonging and enriched social relationships.

Professor Paul said: “Emily’s groundbreaking research has provided evidence on the potential benefits of ballet for people with MS for the first time.”

Now in the third year of her PhD, Emily is continuing to study Scottish Ballet’s dance for MS SB Elevate®  programme, with the support and supervision of Professor Paul and Dr Whiteside, who also sit on the Scottish Ballet Health research committee.

Emily explained: “My PhD research focuses specifically on the topic of dance for people with MS, which is really a novel area of both practice and research.

“Dance for Parkinson’s, for example, is actually a very well-established global model. There’s a wide evidence-base supporting this programme and there are hundreds of programmes around the world.

“But when I looked at dance for other neurological conditions, such as MS, in my systematic review, I found that there were only 13 studies on dance for MS, so there was only limited research in this area, and we are aware of really only a handful of dance programmes around the world.

“We know that movement, especially rhythmic movement like dance, can be really beneficial for movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease. The global phenomenon of dance for Parkinson’s has resulted in this interest in looking at what more can be done for other neurological conditions such as MS.

“Scottish Ballet is at the forefront of dance for MS in the UK, and even globally, so it’s been the best place to start this research. Through my research, I’m really starting to understand how their programmes are working, who they’re benefiting, and in what contexts.

“My research is looking at their SB Elevate® classes here in Glasgow, where the programme first began development in 2018, and then looks at their more recently implemented SB Elevate classes further north in Perth and Orkney to find out what benefits the dancers with MS are experiencing in these other contexts.

“I’m also looking at how these classes are being implemented, how they’re really working on the ground in these very different places, recognising a city like Glasgow is very different from an island community like Orkney.

“The end result is really hoping to evidence and understand how these classes work and can support people living with MS, as well as to inspire future research using different creative methods.”

Professor Paul added: “People with MS can have problems with movement and balance which we know can be helped with exercise and rehabilitation programmes. For people with MS ballet is a form of physical activity which may be more engaging, expressive, fun and with a stronger social component than traditional forms of rehabilitation.

“Emily’s PhD has been the catalyst for the successful collaboration between Glasgow Caledonian, RCS and Scottish Ballet, and this collaboration will continue to grow and strengthen thanks to Emily’s work.”

Bethany Whiteside stands opposite a man in a ballet class

Dr Whiteside’s research focuses on the cultural and social analysis of participatory dance. Since 2015, Bethany has worked closely with Scottish Ballet, through leading mixed methods evaluations and conducting research primarily in the area of Dance for Health.

Dr Whiteside (pictured) said: “Emily Davis’ PhD, focused on the perceived impact and experience of dancing for individuals living with multiple sclerosis, through engaging with Scottish Ballet’s Elevate programme, will make a necessary contribution to the limited pool of existing research.

“Her study, the first known dance for MS PhD, is particularly significant through centering the voices of dancers with lived experience and skilled dance for health practitioners.”

Scottish Ballet’s Senior Dance Health Manager Lisa Sinclair said: “Scottish Ballet are delighted to have supported Emily Davis during her innovative Dance for MS PhD study, which makes a significant contribution to the global field of dance for health and prioritises the voices of people living with MS.”