Addiction A-Z

Dance therapy

Dance therapy is a form of expressive therapy that involves the use dance and movement in order.  Also referred to as dance/movement therapy, the primary goal of this therapeutic treatment approach is to promote emotional, mental, and physical growth and healing.  Like music therapy, art therapy, and other expressive types of therapy, dance therapy is based on the premise that healing is facilitated and enhanced when people are encouraged to express themselves openly and freely in a safe and supportive atmosphere.

Creative self-expression not only stems from deeply-felt emotion, it also gives a voice to feelings that are often difficult to articulate with words.  This is one of the reasons dance therapy is especially effective for individuals who are struggling with unresolved trauma and other deeply painful emotional issues.  When those feelings get trapped within the body, they manifest in a variety of problematic ways.  Dance therapy provides a unique medium for catharsis and healing because it emphasizes the powerful connection between the body and mind.

Since dance therapy doesn’t rely on verbal expression or interaction, it breaks down barriers that traditional talk therapy and most other types of therapy can’t.  This makes it suitable for a wide range of individuals and conditions, including those with dementia, developmental delays, traumatic brain injury, as well as those who struggle to find words to express their thoughts and feelings.

Dance therapy is used in a wide variety of clinical and non-clinical settings.  It’s appropriate for young children to the very elderly.  Since dance is a universal language, dance therapy is appropriate for individuals from all backgrounds and walks of life.  The ability of dance and movement to touch the soul at the deepest level enables dance therapy to improve a person’s wellbeing in every way – emotionally, physically, mentally, and socially.

Dance therapists use movement as an intervention – a means to elicit buried emotions, give a voice to taboo topics, and allow for the processing and release of internal conflicts, worries, and fears.  A skilled dance therapist uses various forms of movement to help therapy clients relax and open up.

Underlying Principles of Dance Therapy

Dance therapy is based on several psychological principles.  These include:

  • Trauma and other emotional issues are often “trapped” or held in the body, manifesting themselves in a variety of ways including chronic pain, somatic complaints, restricted movement, and muscle tension
  • Both physical and mental health are impacted (in both positive and negative ways) by the body’s current state
  • Both personality and unconscious processes are reflected in dance and movement
  • Recurrent themes can be identified via expressive movement
  • The mind and body are interconnected; treating them together rather than separately helps facilitate healing
  • Improvised dance and spontaneous movement allow give individuals an opportunity to explore different ways of being
  • A substantial part of any therapy is non-verbal; dance therapy provides a perfect opportunity for non-verbal expression, particularly when verbal expression is severely hindered (e.g. due to cognitive decline or severe trauma)


People have been dancing – both for enjoyment and emotional expression – for thousands of years.  Much of the theory behind dance therapy as we know it today originated in the UK.  In the U.S., dancer, performer, and choreographer Marian Chase is often regarded as the pioneer of dance therapy.  Trained in New York City and strongly influenced by the work of Carl Jung, Chase opened a dance studio in Washington, D.C. back in the 1930s.  Psychiatrists at a local hospital saw improvements in their patients who were attending her dance classes.  Chase began giving lectures on the benefits of dance in the 1940s. Over time, other professional dancers followed suit, using dance to help people with a variety mental and physical health issues.

In 1966 the American Dance Therapy Association was established, and dance therapy became recognized as a viable form of psychotherapy.  The ADTA is the only U.S. organization that’s dedicated to the profession of dance and movement therapy.  Members of ADTA hail from all over the U.S. as well as 39 countries throughout the world.

Today, dance therapy is used in a variety of treatment settings. These include mental health centers, rehabilitation programs for eating disorders, substance addiction treatment facilities, hospitals and medical centers, treatment centers for dementia, nursing homes, adult day care centers, assisted living facilities, prisons, specialized school programs, mental health clinicians in private practice, and other healthcare facilities and programs.  

Types of Dance / Movement Therapy

The types of dance and movement used in this type of therapy will vary, depending on several factors.  These factors include the unique needs of the patients (e.g. elderly patients with limited range of movement versus agile adolescents or young adults), and may also depend on the therapist’s background and preference.  Some therapists primarily use more traditional types of dance, such as ballroom or Latin dance styles. Others focus more on the use of freestyle types of dance or yoga.  Also, therapists will vary their approach depending on the client, focusing on one style of dance or movement for one patient, and an entirely different style for another.  Dance therapy typically involves both choreographed and improvised dance.

What to Expect

Dance therapy, like almost all types of therapy, starts with an initial consultation with the therapist.  During this session, you and the dance therapist will discuss why you’re seeking treatment, what your needs are, and what you’d ultimately like to see change as a result of therapy – i.e., your specific treatment goals.  The therapist may also have you do some form of movement, so it’s important to wear somewhat loose, comfortable clothing.  The therapist will assess how you carry yourself, the way you move (e.g. do you move freely or is there some degree of constraint).  The approximate length of treatment and the nature of dance therapy will also be discussed.

In a typical dance session, the therapist will observe as you dance.  You’ll be encouraged to express your thoughts and emotions through your movement to the music.  In order to build a therapeutic connection with you the therapist may mimic your dance movements at times.  This is known as “empathic mirroring”.  The success of almost all types of psychotherapy depends at least in part on a solid therapeutic relationship. If you don’t trust or feel supported by your therapist, it will hinder your healing and greatly increase the likeliness that you’ll drop out of treatment prematurely.

If you’re participating in group dance therapy, the therapist will also observe how you interact with other group members – and how the group works together as a unit.  Group sessions often include designating a member to lead the movement.  Group sessions are often centered on a theme, such as boundaries or trust.

Various props are sometimes used in dance therapy.  These include things such as balls, scarves, string or yarn, instruments, costumes, and beanbags.  Two goals in dance therapy include getting you involved and helping you connect to your emotions.

The therapist will observe a variety of things during each session, and guide sessions accordingly.  Observations will include things like how you interact with the therapist and / or other members, whether or not there are any themes emerging in your movement, and the various emotions that are elicited.

A dance therapy session usually follows four distinct stages:

  • Preparation – this initial stage involves getting warmed up for movement and dance; proper warm-up ensures safety by reducing the risk of injury
  • Incubation – this stage focuses on being mindful, relaxed, and open to the process
  • Illumination – this stage is where you’ll learn what different movements reveal and represent, and how they impact you
  • Evaluation – the last stage involves processing or reviewing the session (e.g. talking about what occurred and its significance, what you experienced, the therapist’s observations, reviewing progress towards treatment goals, etc.)

Generally, dance therapy sessions are done on a weekly basis for outpatient treatment.  In some settings, such as a hospital or residential treatment facility, the sessions may occur daily or several times a week.  The length of treatment will vary based on multiple factors, including but not limited to your particular health concern (e.g. depression, healing from trauma, recovering from addiction, or a physical health concern).

As with all types of therapy, it’s important to have specific goals in mind in order to get the most out of treatment.  Granted, as things emerge during therapy your goals may expand or change to some degree.  If you’re participating in dance therapy as an adjunct to regular talk therapy, your dance therapist and primary therapist will periodically touch base regarding progress and any issues or concerns that may emerge.

Disorders, Issues and Conditions That Can Benefit From Dance Therapy

One of the greatest things about dance therapy is that it can very beneficial in the treatment of a wide range of mental health disorders, emotional issues, and physical health conditions.  Essentially, it can be helpful for anyone struggling with almost any life challenge, even if the person doesn’t have a diagnosable disorder.  Following is a list of many conditions and problems that can benefit from dance therapy:

  • Anxiety
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder / unresolved trauma
  • Addiction recovery
  • Depression
  • Social phobia
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Body dysmorphia
  • Autistic spectrum disorders
  • Learning disabilities
  • Developmental disorders
  • ADD / ADHD
  • Schizophrenia / psychotic disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Low self-esteem
  • Chronic stress
  • Dementia / cognitive decline
  • Grief and loss
  • Negative body image
  • Chronic pain
  • Feelings of loneliness
  • Muscle tension
  • Arthritis
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • AIDS patients
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Cancer patients
  • Stroke patients
  • Circulation problems in diabetic patients
  • Amputees and individuals with limb deficiency
  • Balance problems and disorders
  • Coordination problems

Benefits of Dance Therapy

Individuals who participate in dance therapy often experience a multitude of benefits.   Following is a list of just some of the potential benefits from this expressive form of therapy:

  • Increased self-awareness
  • Improved mood
  • Greater sense of joy
  • Greater awareness and understanding of the mind-body connection
  • Healthier body image
  • Greater self-esteem
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Decrease in feelings of social isolation
  • Greater sense of calm
  • Reduction in chronic pain
  • Increased mobility
  • Improved coordination
  • Better balance / decreased risk of falling
  • Better circulation
  • Improved respiratory functioning
  • Greater attentiveness
  • Reduction in muscle tension and stiffness
  • Greater flexibility
  • Decrease in anxiety
  • Improved ability to handle stress
  • Improved communication skills
  • Improved overall quality of life
  • Better coping for those dealing with recovering from serious medical issues
  • Improved overall health
  • Enhanced cognitive skills
  • Improved memory
  • Greater self-trust
  • Increased energy
  • Enhanced creative
  • Greater ability for healthy emotional expression
  • Improved motivation
  • Greater range of motion
  • Stronger neurological pathways

Advantages of Dance Therapy

There are numerous advantages to dance therapy. They include:

Non-verbal emphasis – The emphasis on non-verbal communication makes this an especially beneficial therapy for individuals who find it difficult to articulate, release, or express their thoughts and feelings verbally.  This is one of primary reasons dance therapy is often used with children and adults who have been severely traumatized and aren’t ready or able to talk about their experience.  It’s also the reason dance therapy can be particularly useful for individuals suffering from dementia, traumatic brain injury, impaired memory, developmental delays, learning disabilities, and autistic spectrum disorders.

  • Dance therapy can be a useful alternative or adjunct therapy when talk therapy hasn’t been effective.
  • Unlike most forms of psychotherapy, dance therapy’s utilization of physical movement adds a unique and powerful dimension to healing.  As such, it provides a host of physiological benefits (e.g. increased flexibility, improved circulation, decreased muscle tension) that contribute to a person’s overall wellbeing and strengthens somatic awareness (i.e. being more in touch with one’s body and the mind-body connection).
  • Dance therapy can be used for almost any demographic, including children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly from any race or ethnic background.  It can be used effectively with individuals who are visually or hearing impaired.  It can be conducted on an individual basis, with couples and families, or in a group format.
  • Dance therapy provides a safe and supportive environment for dignified self-expression via movement, something that may be foreign to many individuals – especially those who struggle with coordination problems, self-consciousness, poor body image, and low self-esteem.  This element of dance therapy also helps bring people out of their comfort zone and experience new ways of expressing themselves.
  • Dance therapy in a group format promotes social interaction.  This can be particularly advantageous for individuals who have a difficult time talking in a group setting, struggle with social anxiety, or are experiencing social isolation.  The social aspect of group dance therapy can decrease feelings of loneliness, help individuals overcome shyness, and improve communication and interpersonal skills.
  • Dance therapy gives individuals who are struggling with anger, rage, and hostility an opportunity to release negative emotions through movement while discovering new, appropriate ways to express negative emotions.
  • In a group setting, dance therapy can help individuals learn to establish and respect healthy physical boundaries. This can be particularly helpful to individuals who’ve been sexually or physically abused, have aggressive tendencies, or struggle with reading social cues from others.
  • Dance therapy gives patients an opportunity to deal with painful emotions without having to talk about them.  As such, it can provide an enjoyable and relaxing break from the difficulties they face in their day to day life.  This is one of the reasons it can be particularly beneficial for individuals who are recovering from or struggling to cope with serious health issues such as cancer, terminal illness, or a life-altering injury (e.g. the loss of a limb).
  • Dance therapy is often very relaxing, which is beneficial for both physical and mental health.
  • Despite what some may assume about this particular treatment mode, dance therapy doesn’t require prior dance experience, athleticism, or good coordination skills.  Even self-proclaimed clumsy individuals, elderly individuals with physical limitations, individuals confined to wheel chairs, and anyone else with any movement challenges can benefit from dance therapy.  In fact, for those whose self-esteem has been impacted by a physical disability, serious illness, or coordination issues, dance therapy can be particularly advantageous. This is because it can help boost confidence and enable these individuals to see themselves – and their wounded, ill, or “broken” bodies – in a new, more positive light.

Finding a Qualified Dance Therapist

Before getting involved in dance therapy, it can’t be stressed enough that you find a dance therapist with the appropriate training and credentials.  One of the best ways to do this is through the American Dance Therapy Association website.

There are two credentials for dance therapists:  Registered Dance/Movement Therapist (R-DMT) and Board Certified Dance/Movement Therapist (BC-DMT).  Registered dance therapists have gone through the basic level of training required by the ADTA. They are qualified to offer dance therapy in a clinical or educational setting.  Board certified dance therapists have completed both the basic and advanced levels of training.  This qualifies them to offer dance therapy in a private practice setting.  Board certified dance therapists are also qualified to provide supervision and training in dance therapy.

If your healthcare provider or current therapist has recommended dance therapy, he or she may be able to provide a referral to a local, qualified dance therapist.   Due to the expressive and spontaneous nature of dance therapy, it’s crucial to work with a therapist you trust and with whom you feel comfortable

Dance therapy is very different than most other types of therapy.  It can provide a fresh new perspective, help you heal from psychological wounds, and enhance your overall wellbeing.  If you’re dealing with any number of physical health issues, in the process of recovering from an addiction, or striving to cope with a painful loss, consider looking into dance therapy. You may find that expressing yourself through therapeutic dance and movement brings rewards you never thought possible.

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