Dance Your Doubts Away

By: Adline A. Ghani

When a baby hears a catchy tune, it usually starts to move to the beat but have you ever stopped to wonder why? Perhaps it’s because dancing comes naturally to all of us. As soon as we can start to enjoy music, we have used dance as a mode of self expression. Across time, dance has also been a crucial part of culture, not only as a form of performing arts, but also to enjoy oneself and have a good time. But, what about dance as a form of therapy? Would you feel odd if your shrink or therapist asks you to start busting a move?


When dance is used to improve someone’s mental and physical well-being, it is referred to as dance therapy. Also known as dance movement therapy or DMT, dance therapy is a form of psychotherapy that employs movement and dance to treat emotional, cognitive, social, behavioural and physical conditions. The basis for this form of therapy is that our physical movements and emotions are inseparable. Therefore, when the body moves and changes, so does the mind and spirit.

While some ancient cultures have used dance as part of their healing rituals for centuries, dance therapy only started to make its mark in modern Western medicine during the 1940s. In 1942, a dance instructor named Marian Chace was invited to work at the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. The psychiatrists there found that their patients felt much better after joining Chace’s dance classes. The therapy sessions at St. Elizabeth’s were so successful that dance therapy quickly caught on. Later, Chace would go on to study at the Washington School of Psychiatry. She also began to teach her theory on dance therapy and helped establish the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) in 1966. Today, the ADTA remains the authority that governs the standards and ethics of dance therapy.

Like many other forms of treatment, dance therapy can be conducted either on a one-to-one basis, between the therapist and patient, or in groups. The therapy sessions can take place in a variety of healthcare settings, such as in schools for children with special needs, nursing homes, day care facilities, rehabilitation centres and even prisons. Unlike dancing for exercise or enjoyment, however, dance therapy is about more than just cutting the rug. In fact, the therapy sessions are purposely configured, usually  around four main stages – preparation, incubation, illumination and evaluation.

At each stage, patients seek to achieve a set of goals with guidance from the therapist.  In the first stage, ‘preparation’, also known as the warm-up stage, patients start to feel at ease and safe. Then, during the second stage, ‘incubation’, patients begin to let go of conscious control, allowing their bodies to make symbolic movements. Next, in the ‘illumination’ stage, the therapist observes a patient’s bodily movements. According to Dr. Fran Levy, author of Dance and Other Expressive Art Therapies: When Words Are Not Enough, these observations are crucial because “body movement reflects inner emotional states.” Finally, in the ‘evaluation’ stage, the therapist discusses his or her observations with the patient and suggests ways in which to address underlying issues.


As with regular types of dancing, dance therapy has both physical and emotional benefits. However, as a form of treatment, dance therapy creates an emphasis on the unity of the mind, body and spirit. The aim, ultimately, is to help a person achieve a healthy balance and a sense of wholeness. Dr Levy  explains that “changes in movement behaviour can lead to changes in the psyche, thus promoting health and growth.” As such, throughout the world, dance therapy has been used in the specialised aid and treatment of a wide range of ailments, disabilities and conditions. This includes stress, depression, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), autism, learning disabilities, mental retardation, physical handicaps, deafness, blindness, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and also childbirth.

Although the benefits can vary from patient to patient, in the physical sense, dance therapy has been found to improve mobility, balance, control and coordination. Just like other forms of exercise, dancing can trigger the release of endorphins, which are the neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel good. In addition, dance therapy promotes better sensory-motor and social skills, as well as cognitive abilities. It has also been suggested that dance therapy can help reduce muscle tension and strengthen the immune system. Emotionally, dance therapy is believed to help boost spontaneity, creativity, self-awareness, self-confidence, inner stability, interpersonal interactions, body image and personal expression.

This form of therapy has also been successful in reducing feelings of isolation, stress, fear and anxiety. As Chace herself once said of her work, “this rhythmic action, in unison with others, results in a feeling of well-being, relaxation, and good fellowship.” Some cancer patients use dance therapy as a means of coping with tension and pain, particularly during  recovery periods. As the American Cancer Society states on its website, “dance therapy can be useful for both physical and emotional aspects of quality of life.”


There are now thousands of dance therapists throughout the world and the method is gaining acceptance as a complementary means of achieving improved wellbeing. However, dance therapy is not without its detractors. Some are reluctant to embrace dance therapy because few scientific studies have been carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of this form of therapy. Since much of the praise for dance therapy has been collected from personal individual accounts, more research is needed to provide evidence on the benefits of dance therapy in prevention, treatment and recovery.

As a result, although dance therapy has been around for over 70 years, it is still considered a relatively new field. Therefore, if you are thinking of exploring this form of therapy, be sure to choose the right dance therapist. Firstly, think of a dance therapist as more of a psychological professional, rather than a choreographer. Secondly, he or she should use dance as a healing tool for the mind and body, and must be able to tailor therapy sessions to your individual needs.

In addition to having trained in dance and movement, your dance therapist should also preferably possess a Master’s Degree or equivalent in psychotherapy or counseling. Feel free to ask about his or her hours of clinical training and if you can, speak to others who have undergone treatments with the therapist. Last, but not least, before engaging in dance therapy, be sure to check with your doctor, particularly if you suffer from a chronic health condition like arthritis or heart disease. If your doctor gives you the green light, go ahead and dance away!

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