What Is It?
Dance therapy (also called dance/movement therapy) is the use of choreographed or improvised movement as a way of treating social, emotional, cognitive, and physical problems. Throughout the ages, people of many cultures have used dance to express powerful emotions, tell stories, treat illness, celebrate important events, and maintain communal bonds. Dance therapy harnesses this power of movement in a therapeutic setting and uses it to promote personal growth, health, and well-being.
Dance as therapy came into existence as a marriage of sorts between modern dance and psychiatry. Its was pioneered by Marian Chace (1896-1970), who studied dance in New York City before establishing her own studio in Washington, DC, in the 1930s. Because Chase’s dance classes provided unique opportunities for self-expression, communication, and group interaction, psychiatrists in Washington began sending patients to her.
By the mid-1940s Chase was giving lectures and demonstrations, and other professional dancers soon followed her lead, using dance to help people with an array of emotional, mental, and physical problems. It was not until 1966, when the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) was founded, that dance therapy gained professional recognition. Today the ADTA has nearly 1,200 members in 46 states and 20 countries around the world.
How Does It Work?
Dance therapy is based on the premise that the body and mind are interrelated. Dance therapists believe that mental and emotional problems are often held in the body in the form of muscle tension and constrained movement patterns. Conversely, they believe that the state of the body can affect attitude and feelings, both positively and negatively.
Dance movements promote healing in a number of ways. Moving as a group brings people out of isolation, creates powerful social and emotional bonds, and generates the good feelings that come from being with others. Moving rhythmically eases muscular rigidity, diminishes anxiety, and increases energy. Moving spontaneously helps people learn to recognize and trust their impulses, and to act on or contain them as they choose. Moving creatively encourages self-expression and opens up new ways of thinking and doing.
On a purely physical level, dance therapy provides the benefits of exercise: improved health, well-being, coordination, and muscle tone. On an emotional level, it helps people feel more joyful and confident, and allows them to explore such issues as anger, frustration, and loss that may be too difficult to explore verbally. On a mental level, dance therapy seeks to enhance cognitive skills, motivation, and memory.
Dance therapists can also address specific problems in specific ways. For example, to help a patient reduce stress, a dance therapist would first identify how the person’s body reacts to stress, then explore specific movement techniques to increase circulation, deepen breathing, and reduce muscle tension.
What You Can Expect
Your dance therapy experience will depend on your ailment, whether you work with a dance therapist in private practice or in the context of a treatment team, and whether you are the only patient or part of a group. And naturally different dance therapists have different styles. You need absolutely no previous dance training to benefit from dance therapy.
Generally speaking, however, for the initial consultation, you will meet with the dance therapist in a dance studio. You should wear comfortable clothing for this and all subsequent sessions. First, the therapist will talk with you about your needs and your reasons for wanting treatment. Next, the therapist may ask you to walk around the studio in order to analyze your body shape, posture, and movements: Is your body erect or caved in? Do you reach out or hold yourself in? Do you move in a fluid or restricted way? Finally, the dance therapist will discuss your treatment goals with you, and the two of you might arrive at an agreement regarding the duration and nature of the therapy. You should review your goals with the therapist periodically to see if you are meeting them.
In your regular sessions, your dance therapist will watch you dance, encourage you to express your feelings through movement, and, at times, imitate your movements (this is called “empathic mirroring”) to establish rapport and make you feel accepted. The therapist may also try to help you connect your thoughts, feelings, and memories to your movements.
If you are part of a dance therapy group, the dance therapist will typically assess how the group works together–how you all interact and share emotional expression through movement–and intervene or direct the action accordingly. For example, the therapist might introduce the idea of leading and following to help draw a member of the group out of isolation or self-preoccupation. The dance therapist might also employ equipment such as beanbags, balls, and stretch cloths to explore a theme, such as trust.
The number of sessions, both for individual and group work, will vary. You might have to commit to at least six months of treatment, depending on your ailment. The sessions are usually weekly, although this can vary as well.
Dance therapy has a broad range of health benefits. It has been demonstrated to be clinically effective at improving body image, self-esteem, attentiveness, and communication skills. It can also reduce stress, fears and anxieties, as well as lessen feelings of isolation, body tension, chronic pain, and depression. In addition it can enhance the functioning of the body’s circulatory and respiratory systems.
Dance therapy has also been shown to benefit adolescent and adult psychiatric patients, the learning disabled, the visually and hearing impaired, the mentally handicapped, and the elderly (especially those in nursing homes).
Proponents of dance therapy claim that it has also been used successfully to help people deal with brain injury, AIDS, arthritis, amputation, stroke, cancer, and a number of other physical ailments.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Dance therapists work independently or as part of a treatment team, which might include an M.D., psychiatrist, psychologist, and/or other health-care provider. Whichever you prefer, your primary-care physician might be able to provide a referral. In addition, the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) in Columbia, Maryland, maintains a registry of dance therapists who meet specific educational and clinical practice standards. These include:
Dance Therapy Registered (DTR). This designation is granted by the ADTA to entry-level dance therapists who have a master’s degree and have completed 700 hours of supervised clinical internship. DTR therapists are qualified for employment as dance therapists, but cannot work in private practice.
Academy of Dance Therapists Registered (ADTR). This advanced designation is granted by the ADTA to DTRs who have completed 3,640 hours of supervised clinical work in an agency, institution, or special school, and have met various other requirements. ADTR therapists are qualified to engage in private practice.
If you have a physical or psychological ailment, consult your primary-care physician first. Your physician can refer you to a dance therapist or supervise your care as part of a treatment team that includes a dance therapist.
It is important to find a dance therapist with whom you feel comfortable, since the dance therapy experience involves spontaneity, trust, and the expression of sometimes difficult emotions.