|What Is It? |
How Does It Work?
What You Can Expect
How To Choose a Practitioner
Evidence Based Rating Scale
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.
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.
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.
Unfortunately, there are relatively few reports of formal studies of dance therapy in medical conditions. One recent study showed that dance movement therapy significantly improved emotional responses in adolescents with mild depression. (1) A pilot study of another dance movement program improved the quality of life in 35 women who were survivors of breast cancer. (2) A review summarized clinical studies that supported the use of dance therapy in psychiatric disorders (psychosis, dementia, and neuroses), as well as in such conditions as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, and terminal illness. (3) One case study illustrated the benefits of dance/movement therapy in a patient with severe brain damage after head injury (4), and a brief study demonstrated improvements in verbal and nonverbal communication among laryngectomy patients after dance therapy. (5)
There are more reports featuring the benefits of dance programs, though you should be aware that these studies did not employ formal dance therapy. A 12-week program of Korean traditional dance improved balance and reduced healthcare utilization in elderly women. (6) Four sessions of social dancing appeared to support the feelings, communication, and behavior of 6 nursing home patients with dementia (7), and seniors who danced an average of 3 hours a week showed improvements in bone density. (8)
One reviewer concluded, “Dance may help the healing process as a person gains a sense of control through (1) possession by the spiritual in dance, (2) mastery of movement, (3) escape or diversion from stress and pain through a change in emotion, states of consciousness, and/or physical capability, and (4) confronting stressors to work through ways of handling their effects.” (9)
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 (www.adta.org) 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.
The Evidence Based Rating Scale is a tool that helps consumers translate the findings of medical research studies with what our clinical advisors have found to be efficacious in their personal practice. This tool is meant to simplify which supplements demonstrate promise in the treatment of certain conditions. This scale does not take into account any possible interactions with any medication/ condition/ or therapy which you may be currently undertaking. It is therefore advisable to ask your doctor before starting any new treatment regimen.
Several small studies have suggested a benefit in adults and adolescents with mild depression.
A few studies suggest a quality-of-life benefit in cancer patients. This is supportive therapy.
Several case studies and clinical experience suggest a benefit in a range of psychiatric conditions. More research is necessary before firm conclusions can be drawn.
- Jeong YL, Hong SC, Lee MS, Park MC, Kim YK, Suh CM. Dance movement therapy improves emotional responses and modulates neurohormones in adolescents with mild depression, Int J Neurosci 2005;115:1711-1720.
- Sandel SL, Judge JO, Landry N, Faria L, Ouellette R, Majczak M. Dance and movement program improves quality-of-life measures in breast cancer survivors. Cancer Nurs 2005;28:301-309.
- Ziarko B, Twardowska M. Dance therapy in the treatment of psychiatric and somatic disorders. Wiad Lek 2002;55:472-477.
- Berrol C. Dance/movement therapy in head injury rehabilitation. Brain Inj 1990;4:257-265.
- Peto AC. Dance therapy in laryngectomy patients: our experience. Rev Lat Am Enfermagem 2000;8:35-39.
- Jeon MY, Bark ES, Lee EG, Im JS, Jeong BS, Choe ES. The effects of a Korean traditional dance movement program in elderly women. Taehan Kanho Hakhoe Chi 2005;35:1268-1276.
- Palo-Bengtsson L, Winblad B, Ekman SL. Social dancing: a way to support intellectual, emotional, and motor functions in persons with dementia. J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs 1998;5:545-554.
- Kudlacek S, Pietschmann F, Bernecker P, Resch H, Willvonseder R. The impact of a senior dancing program on spinal and peripheral bone mass. Am J Phys Med Rehabil 1997;76:477-481.
- Hanna JL. The power of dance: health and healing. J Altern Complement Med 1995;1:323-331.