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The Healing Power of Dance


Living with a severe mental illness is always emotionally distressing. But the disease itself is typically worsened by consumers’ often justifiable feelings of isolation, fear and shame—emotions that can be very difficult to convey to other people, even those who might be of help. 


While traditional talk therapies and medications play an integral part in the rehabilitative process, the use of some non-traditional therapies for identifying and addressing consumers’ mental tribulations has been steadily gaining legitimacy within the mental health/medical communities. One such non-traditional method of treatment – dance/movement therapy (DMT) – has been proving itself to be a powerful tool that can help in managing mental health problems, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.


What is Dance/Movement Therapy?

The definition of DMT as defined by the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA)  is “the psychotherapeutic use of movement as a process that furthers emotional, cognitive, social and physical integration of the individual.”  This definition stems from an underlying belief that the body and mind are interrelated and that an individual’s state of mind is reflected in the way he or she moves. Movement is therefore a non-verbal cue that can allow the individual to express or confront innermost, sometimes subconscious thoughts and feelings.  And expressing those emotions through movement may allow individuals to tear down mental barriers that may have been preventing them from living psychologically healthy lives.


DMT has been applied to help a wide range of afflictions – not just severe mental disorders.  It can be used, for example, to treat individuals with eating disorders, victims of domestic violence, abused children, dysfunctional families, the homeless, autism, the elderly and substance abusers. And the therapy is slowly joining the mainstream for treating chronic physical illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, chronic pain, arthritis and breast cancer.


Therapists have advanced a number of different theories on exactly how DMT works, but the process clearly involves some interplay of both mental and physical components.  Physically, dance is a form of exercise, and thus improves circulation, muscle tone, balance and coordination. As exercise, dancing leads to better oxygenation of tissues, including those in the brain, and releases brain chemicals called endorphins that are known to improve mood, heighten positive feelings, foster creativity and reduce anxiety and stress.  Additionally, dance therapy can be, but does not have to be, a social activity, taking place in a group setting and involving physical contact with others. These aspects of dance can help an individual overcome feelings of social isolation by improving social interaction and communication through the acceptance and understanding of peers.


Whether DMT is done individually or in a group session ultimately depends on the needs of the patient.  Individual sessions work best when a one-on-one dialogue to deal with personal emotional issues is necessary.  Group settings work best when helping patients to overcome feelings of isolation and loneliness and to  gain acceptance from their peers.  Group therapy is especially useful for patients who have suffered some form of abuse and need to learn to reestablish bonds with other people.  Whatever the context, treatment is always individualized.


The technique used by the therapist may come from one, or a combination of approaches including psychodynamic, humanistic, cognitive behavioral, Jungian and relational frameworks.  Ultimately, however, the therapy session is a dialogue, both verbal and non-verbal, between patient and therapist.



While our culture may have come late to the therapeutic possibilities in dance, we shouldn’t be surprised by its growing role. There is obviously something intrinsically human in the urge to express oneself through rhythmic movement. Every culture everywhere on earth seems to include some form of dance, whether it’s for pure pleasure, some sort of religious ritual or as a means of non-verbal, yet highly emotional communication.


The roots of dance/movement therapy can be traced to the early 20th century and the work of DMT pioneer, Marian Chace. Chace was a modern dancer in Washington, D.C. who began teaching dance after ending her career with the Denishawn Dance Company in 1930. She noticed that some of her students were much more interested in the emotions they expressed in dancing than in the mechanics and technique of dance, and so she began to encourage this form of self-expression.  Word spread of the dance students’ reported feelings of well-being after they mentally unburdened themselves through dance, and doctors became intrigued. They began to send their patients to Chace – many of whom were people with psychiatric illnesses.  Later, Chace became part of the staff of St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington D.C. and studied at the Washington School of Psychiatry.  While at St. Elizabeth’s, Chace’s methods began to attract others, and by the 1950’s, dance therapy became the subject of serious study at the facility.


DMT gained even greater legitimacy with the formation of the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) in 1966, with Marian Chace, fittingly, serving as the first president. Today, the ADTA works to promote the highest standards of education and practice in the field.  It maintains a registry of dance/movement therapists, who must meet stringent standards of education and clinical practice. Additionally, the association has created a code of ethics, and publishes research and scholarly work in the American Journal of Dance Therapy and through publications funded by the Marian Chace Memorial Fund.   Membership in the association has grown from its original 73 members in 15 states, to 1200 members across 46 states and 20 foreign countries. 


How Sessions Work

Patients are advised to wear loose comfortable clothing to the session. Once there, the therapist discusses with the patient the goals of the treatment.  Sometimes music is used – though sometimes it is not if the therapist wants the patient to attend to his/her own internal rhythm, or if it is felt that the music may be associated with painful or traumatic memories.


One tool that may be used is called ‘Empathic Reflection.’  Here, the therapist moves with the patient to support their expression.  Other times, the therapist will act strictly as an observer, encouraging the patient to close his/her eyes and move spontaneously, in what is termed ‘Authentic Movement.’ The therapist can either discuss the movement with the patient as it is taking place, or at the end of the session.  Often times the movements may symbolize some difficult situation or emotion that the patient is experiencing and the therapist can suggest other movements as a counterbalance.



DMT Training and Certification

Professional training in DMT begins at the graduate level, and dance therapists usually have extensive dance experience and a liberal arts background, with some psychology coursework. Graduates from an approved[1] institution are eligible for the D.T.R. (Dance Therapy Registered) credential after 700 hours in an intern program. After graduating, dance therapists who have completed 3,640 hours of supervised clinical work are awarded A.D.T.R  (Academy of Dance Therapists Registered) certification.  Only an A.D.T.R is qualified to teach, supervise interns and engage in private practice.  


Currently, there are five approved DMT programs spread across the United States in colleges in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New York, Chicago[2] and Colorado. 


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Bibliography and Further Reading



American Dance Therapy Association –

National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Association –

Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine: Dance Therapy –

The Center for Health and Healing –




Thera-dance – by Katia Bachko, Dance Teacher Magazine, October 2003

Dance therapy helps victims get in step with repressed feelings – by Jane E. Brody, New York Times, October 22, 1995



Foundations of Dance/Movement Therapy: The Life and Work of Marian Chace

Edited by Susan L. Sandel, Sharon Chaiklin, and  Ann Lohn

Published by the Marian Chace Memorial Fund of the American Dance Therapy Association,


Dance/Movement Therapy: A Healing Art

Revised Edition, Fran Levy, Ed.D., M.S.W., A.D.T.R.

Published by the National Dance Association,



[1] An approved program is one that has met the basic educational standards of the American Dance Therapy Association.

[2] The  Dance/Movement Therapy Department  of Columbia College in Chicago, Susan Imus, Chair,  contributed to the research and writing of this article.


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