Humans are, at a cellular level, born to dance. In a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that even tiny infants had the ability to respond to the beat in a piece of music, and the better they could match the movements of their wee bodies to the sounds coming into their small ears, the more they smiled. Moving just feels good, and it seems to be a hardwired response.
That response might stay in place when all other forms of communication have faded away. People who have advanced dementia, and who can’t seem to speak their thoughts clearly, might still be able to respond to music and movements. People with serious mental health concerns might not be able to verbalize their worries, but they may be able to respond to a therapist’s movement. Dancing just seems to break down barriers, and for some, it’s a vital part of healing. Dance therapy is designed to bring this kind of healing about.
Typically, dance therapy is provided to people who are severely ill and who have a compromised ability to communicate. People like this might not be able to participate in traditional talk therapy programs, as they might not be able to:
- Pull together coherent, intelligible sentences
- Learn new information
- Listen to a therapist
- Remember details from the past
Their illnesses make formal therapy more difficult, but they might still need to process serious mental health concerns. They might be approaching the end of life, for example, and they might need to work through feelings of guilt and loss. They might be frustrated at their inability to speak, and feel isolated and alone. They might also feel trapped in their broken bodies, and they might grow to hate those bodies as a result.
Since the mid-1990s, dance therapy has been considered an approved form of treatment for people with severe cognitive dysfunction, according to the American Dance Therapy Association, but this isn’t the only group that could benefit from this kind of therapy. Its use in alternate groups might seem a little unusual, but it could be beneficial.
Anyone dealing with a mental health issue, such as addiction, an eating disorder, depression or interpersonal conflict, has a message to share and healing to do. Often, that means people must make a connection with someone else. A therapist or counselor or doctor might have the answers that could lead to robust health, but the person in need must trust that professional and feel willing to share. That person must also have a sense of hope that life really could be different, and that all of the hard work that goes into healing will be worth the effort in the end.
It can be hard to develop these thought processes in a traditional therapy program. People might walk into these sessions feeling low, isolated and angry, and while their bodies might reflect these messages, their mouths might remain closed. Dance therapy might provide another way for a person like this to communicate, and it might also allow a person like this to make an emotional connection with a living person who wants to help. In some cases, it could be the spark that allows the person to more fully participate in care.
Not a Typical Dance Class
While dance therapy can be helpful, it can also seem a little unusual, as it’s not similar to any sort of dance people may have engaged in previously. Many young people walk into dance classes on a weekly basis, learning how to hold their hands just so and position their feet in a specific way. They’re honing an art form, and while the steps might be pleasant and even interesting, they might not show the emotions a person is feeling. The movements might also be just difficult to perform.
A dance therapy session is different. The therapists aren’t trying to make their clients into talented performers who could get jobs on the world stage. They’re trying to help clients heal from a specific mental illness by using movement and connection. As a result, the movements in a dance therapy course tend to be spontaneous and unrehearsed, and they tend to originate with the client.
In an interview with The Boston Globe, a dance therapist suggests that she begins her sessions with mirroring techniques. Music is in play, and a client might twitch a hand or move a leg. The therapist echoes that movement, and the two might begin to move in tandem with one another. The client might express deep emotions and blocked thoughts with those movements, or the client might just enjoy the idea that someone else is listening to the message the client is trying to send. They are trading movements, messages and stories here, and dancing is the medium.
In group settings, participants might hold corners of a scarf or string while dancing and moving together, or they might interpret a song playing with their own individualized sets of movements that don’t adhere to the motions that others are making. Some dance therapists incorporate costumes, instruments or other props in order to reach people who aren’t motivated by music. Anything that can get people involved is fair game.
Making It Work
Dance therapy sessions tend to work best when the client and the therapist have a specific set of goals they’re trying to achieve with their time together. A quick meeting before the session, along with a meeting that involves the person’s primary therapist, can help the dance therapist to understand the issues at play and the problems the person is trying to amend.
The goals can be variable, but as an example, an article in Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention suggests that goals for people with anorexia nervosa might include:
- Develop a realistic vision of the self
- Provide an outlet for nervous energy
- Enhance social skills
- Learn to love and appreciate the body
During each session, the therapist can review these goals and develop activities that can make each milestone attainable. At the end of the session, the therapist can provide notes about what took place, and how well the person is progressing in the achievement of those goals. Notes like this can then be shared with the person’s primary counselor.
When the session is complete, the person might be exposed to awakened feelings or new sensations that merit deeper exploration. Some people find it helpful to discuss those issues in their primary therapy session, bouncing ideas off their therapists and otherwise sharing their thoughts and experiences with that mental health professional. Others might let those lessons infuse their private thoughts, experiencing a healing that they don’t quite feel willing to share.
Getting the Right Help
Dance therapy can be intensely helpful.
For example, a comparative study of the therapy found that it was effective in increasing a person’s quality of life, and reducing feelings of anxiety and depression.
But the results a person might obtain are deeply dependent on the help a person has, meaning that finding the right therapist is absolutely vital.
Dance therapy professionals often have years of experience behind them when they start work. Often, they hold a master’s degree level of education, and they’ve studied both dance and psychotherapy. This well-rounded and intensive form of education allows them to supervise a movement-based type of therapy, and it also allows them to handle the problems and emotional issues that might come up during a typical session. An education like this can also allow these professionals to speak with the therapists that might be primarily responsible for the client’s care, without feeling the need to ask for definitions of terms.
It’s important for people in need to visit a dance therapist like this, rather than just signing up for a dance class in the community or grooving to the music at home. While getting out and getting active like this could be good for almost anyone, achieving the real benefits of dance therapy means working with a professional steeped in mental health, and that’s not typically part of the work of a traditional dance teacher.
Further Reading About Dance Therapy
- A Vouchers Approach to Addiction Treatment
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
- Adventure Therapy
- Art Therapy
- Behavioral Modification
- Cognitive Analytic Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Concentrative Movement Therapy
- Dance Therapy
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy
- Evidence-Based Treatment Practices
- Holistic Treatment
- Mindfulness in Recovery
- Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET)
- The Matrix Model
- Yoga and Recovery
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton