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BUENOS AIRES (Reuters Life!) - On the fourth floor of Buenos Aires' largest psychiatric hospital, patients dance the tango with doctors and nurses.
A few months ago some were too shy to talk and others could barely keep their balance when they walked. Today, they embrace their partners cheek-to-cheek, gliding and pausing across the floor to the mournful chords of a traditional accordion.
Doctors as far afield as Italy and Australia are using Argentina's world famous tango to treat problems ranging from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease to phobias and marital breakdowns.
"Treatment is not just about therapy and drugs, it's about giving them a nice time to enjoy themselves," said Trinidad Cocha, a psychologist who teaches a weekly tango therapy class at the Borda Hospital in Buenos Aires.
"They relax and all the labels disappear. We're not doctors, nurses, musicians or patients. We're just tango dancers," she said as couples danced across the hospital's makeshift dancehall.
Cocha added that her class has helped patients and given them a renewed interest in their appearance and personal hygiene.
"The next lesson, they'll come bathed and well dressed," Cocha said. "That's a huge improvement. It's so rewarding to see their response."
Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine found the when patients with Parkinson's took tango lessons their balance improved.
Its intricate steps helped to improve the memory of Alzheimer's patients in Britain. In Italy the trust needed for the tango's tight embrace and its backward walk are used in couple's counseling.
"With tango, you have the advantage of having many different styles of dancing to fit each specific patient," said Martin Sotelano, chairman of the Wales-based International Association of Tango Therapy.
"You focus on the embrace and the communication for couples counseling; the eight basic steps of tango for Alzheimer's; and the tango walk, that requires so much grace and rigidity, can help a patient with Parkinson's."
Hundreds of dancers gathered in Buenos Aires this month for the International Tango Festival and Championship.
Most shows were held at some of the city's most elegant theater halls, but festival organizers also sponsored a special presentation at a small, concrete stage at the Borda Hospital.
Professional dancers Julio Duplaa, 70, and Natacha Poberaj, 50, glided across the hospital stage, pinned together, doing elaborate figure eights. When they came together, brow-to-brow, patients broke into applause.
Patient Sergio Villa, 37, has partial paralysis after suffering brain damage from years of consuming paco, a crack-like drug popular in Argentina's slums. Tango lessons have helped him improve his movements.
"I love the music," he said. "Tango helps me walk better and there's nothing like the embrace."
Editing by Helen Popper and Patricia Reaney