Dance Therapy

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Dance therapy


Dance therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses movement to further the social, cognitive, emotional, and physical development of the individual. Dance therapists work with people who have many kinds of emotional problems, intellectual deficits, and life-threatening illnesses. They are employed in psychiatric hospitals, day care centers, mental health centers, prisons, special schools, and private practice. They work with people of all ages in both group and individual therapy. Some also engage in research.

Dance therapists try to help people develop communication skills, a positive self-image, and emotional stability.


Dance therapy began as a profession in the 1940s with the work of Marian Chace. A modern dancer, she began teaching dance after ending her career with the Denishawn Dance Company in 1930. In her classes, she noticed that some of her students were more interested in the emotions they expressed while dancing (loneliness, shyness, fear, etc.) than the mechanics of the moves. She began encouraging them by emphasizing more freedom of movement rather than technique.

In time, doctors in the community started sending her patients. They included antisocial children, people with movement problems, and those with psychiatric illnesses. Eventually, Chace became part of the staff of the Red Cross at St. Elizabeth's Hospital. She was the first dance therapist employed in a formal position by the federal government. Chace worked with the emotionally troubled patients at St. Elizabeth's and tried to get them to reach out to others through dance. Some of them were schizophrenics and others were former servicemen suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder . Success for these patients meant being able to participate with their class in moving to rhythmic music. "This rhythmic action in unison with others results in a feeling of well-being, relaxation , and good fellowship," Chace said once.

Chace eventually studied at the Washington School of Psychiatry and began making treatment decisions about her patients along with other members of the St. Elizabeth's medical team. Her work attracted many followers and the first dance therapy interns began learning and teaching dance therapy at St. Elizabeth's in the 1950s.

Other dancers also began using dance therapy in the 1940s to help people feel more comfortable with themselves and their bodies. These dancers included Trudi Schoop and Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse later became a Jungian analyst and an influential member of the dance therapy community. She developed a process called "movement in-depth," an extension of her understanding of dance, movement, and depth psychology. She helped found the contemporary movement practice called "authentic movement." In this type of movement, founded on the principles of Jungian analysis, patients dance out their feelings about an internal image, often one that can help them understand their past or their current life struggles. One of Whitehead's students, Janet Alder furthered Whitehead's work in authentic movement by establishing the Mary Starks Whitehouse Institute in 1981.

In 1966, dance therapy became formally organized and recognized when the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) was formed.


Dance therapy can be helpful to a wide range of patientsfrom psychiatric patients to those with cancer to lonely elderly people. Dance therapy is often an easy way for a person to express emotions, even when his or her experience is so traumatic he or she can't talk about it. It is frequently used with rape victims and survivors of sexual abuse and incest. It can also help people with physical deficits improve their self-esteem and learn balance and coordination.

Dance therapists also work with people who have chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases to help them deal with pain , fear of death, and changes in their

body image. Many people with such illnesses find dance therapy classes to be a way to relax, get away from their pain and emotional difficulties for a while, and express feelings about taboo subjects (such as impending death).

Dance therapy is suitable even for people who are not accomplished dancers, and may even be good for those who are clumsy on the dance floor. The emphasis in dance therapy is on free movement, not restrictive steps, and expressing one's true emotions. Children who cannot master difficult dances or can't sit still for traditional psychotherapy often benefit from free-flowing dance therapy. Even older people who cannot move well or are confined to wheelchairs can participate in dance therapy. All they need to do is move in some way to the rhythm of the music.

Dance therapy can be useful in a one-on-one situation, where the therapist works with only one patient to provide a safe place to express emotions. Group classes can help provide emotional support, enhanced communication skills, and appropriate physical boundaries (a skill that is vital for sexual abuse victims).


There are currently more than 1,200 dance therapists in 46 states in the United Sates and in 29 foreign countries. Like other mental health professionals, they use a wide range of techniques to help their patients. Some of the major "schools of thought" in dance therapy include the Freudian approach, Jungian technique, and object relations orientation. Many therapists, however, do not ascribe to just one school, but use techniques from various types of dance therapy.

The authentic movement technique is derived from the Jungian method of analysis in which people work with recurring images in their thoughts or dreams to derive meaning in their life. Instead of asking the patient to dance out certain emotions, the therapist instructs the patient to move when he or she feels "the inner impulse." The moves are directed by the patient and the therapist is a noncritical witness to the movement. The moves are supposed to emerge from a deep level within the patient.

In Freudian technique, dance therapists work with patients to uncover feelings hidden deep in the subconscious by expressing those feelings through dance.

In object relations technique, the therapist often helps the patient examine problems in his or her life by considering the primary initial relationship with the parents. Emotions are expressed in a concrete, physical way. For instance, a patient would work out his fears of abandonment by repeatedly coming close to and dancing at a distance from the therapist.

Dance therapists sometimes use other types of therapy along with dance, such as art or drama. Therapists also discuss what happens during a dancing session by spending time in "talk therapy." Dance therapists use visualizations during sessions, too. For example, the therapist might instruct patients to imagine they are on a beautiful, peaceful beach as they dance.

In one frequently used technique, the therapist mirrors the movements of the patient as he or she expresses important emotions. This is especially powerful in private one-on-one therapy. It is thought that this device provides a sense of safety and validates the patient's emotions.

The underlying premise of dance therapy is that when people dance, they are expressing highly significant emotions. A fist thrust out in anger into the air or a head bent in shame has deep significance to a dance therapist. Through dance therapy, the theory goes, patients are able to more easily express painful, frightening emotions, and can progress from there. After experiencing dance therapy, they can talk about their feelings more freely and tear down the barriers they have erected between themselves and other people. The hope is that eventually they can go on to live more psychologically healthy lives.


People who want to use dance therapy should find a qualified therapist. The ADTA provides lists of qualified therapists. The person should begin dance therapy with an open mind and a willingness to participate so he or she can get the most benefit.


A qualified dance therapist should have completed a graduate program in dance therapy approved by the ADTA and should be registered with the ADTA. He or she should not just be a dancer, but should also have extensive training in psychology.

Side effects

No known side effects.

Research & general acceptance

Dance therapy was once dismissed as simply an ineffective, "feel good" treatment, but it is now more respected. Many research studies have proven that dance therapy can be an effective tool to help people overcome psychological problems.

In a 1993 study, older people with cognitive deficits showed that dance therapy could significantly increase their functional abilities. Patients improved their balance, rhythmic discrimination, mood, and social interaction.

In 1999, a pilot study of 21 university students showed that those who took a series of four to five group dance therapy sessions in a period of two weeks significantly reduced their test anxiety as measured by a well-known exam called the Test Anxiety Inventory. Afterwards, the subjects reported that their dance movement experience was positive and provided them with psychological insight. The researchers concluded that dance therapy could be a viable method of treatment for students who suffer from overwhelming test anxiety, and should be researched further.

In another 1999 study presented at the ADTA national conference in November 1999, dance therapist Donna Newman-Bluestein reported success in using techniques of dance therapy with cardiac patients. In a stress reduction class, health professionals used dance therapy methods to teach body awareness, relaxation, self-expression, creativity, and empathy. According to Newman-Bluestein, the dance therapy techniques helped the patients deal with such stressful emotions as anger, increased their self-awareness, made them more relaxed, and helped them adjust emotionally to having heart disease .

Training & certification

Dance therapists should have dance experience and a liberal arts background with coursework in psychology for their undergraduate degree. Professional dance therapy training takes place on the graduate level. A qualified dance therapist has received a graduate degree from a school approved by the ADTA, or has a master's degree in dance or psychology and has taken additional dance therapy credits.

After graduation, dance therapists can become registered with the ADTA, meaning that they are qualified to practice. After two years they may receive an additional recognition when they become an Academy of Dance Therapist Registered. They can then teach dance therapy and can supervise interns.

Dance therapists can also obtain psychological credentials by taking a test and becoming registered by the National Board for Certified Counselors, Inc.



Halprin, Anna. Dance as a Healing Art: Returning to Health Through Movement and Imagery. Mendocino, CA: LifeRhythm, 2000.

Levy, Fran J., ed. Dance and Other Expressive Art Therapies: When Words Are Not Enough. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Pallaro, Patrizia, ed. Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Jane Adler and Joan Chodorow. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999.


Brody, Jane. "Dancing Shoes Replace the Therapist's Couch." New York Times (10 October 1995): C13.

"Dance/Movement Therapy Opens Communication Pathways." Brown University Long-Term Quality Advisor (July 15, 1996).

Erwin-Grabner, et al. "Effectiveness of Dance/Movement Therapy on Reducing Test Anxiety." American Journal of Dance Therapy 21, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1999).


American Dance Therapy Association. (410) 997-4040. [email protected]


Newman-Bluestein, Donna. "You Gotta Have Heart: Integrating Dance Therapy into Cardiac Rehabilitation Stress Management." Presented at the ADTA National Conference. (November 1999).

Barbara Boughton