Movement Therapy

Dance/movement therapy is defined by the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual, for the purpose of improving health and well-being. It is a holistic approach to healing, based on the empirically supported assertion that mind, body, and spirit are inseparable and interconnected. As a form of expressive therapy, dance music therapy looks at the correlation between movement and emotion.

It is important to note that there is no single fixed type of movement style used within this therapeutic exposure. Programs range from traditional dances like ballroom to more subtle forms of movement like yoga, exercise and stretching to calm the body.

Through this exposure, a therapist will use movement to help a client achieve emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration. The benefits include stress reduction and mood management. Founded within the idea that motion and emotion are interconnected, this creative expression can also help improve communication skills for better relationships.

History of Dance Therapy

The roots of dance therapy can be traced back to the modern dance movement of the 19th century. The movement grew from the idea that dance could go beyond simple entertainment and be used as a form of communication and expression. In other words, emotional content was infused into dance. By the middle of the 20th century, the modern dance movement had laid the groundwork for dance therapy pioneers Marian Chace, Mary Whitehouse, and Trudy Schoop. They formed the foundation for dance therapy through the addition of observation, interpretation, and the manipulation of dance elements into the practice.

In the 1940s, dance therapy was influenced by psychodynamic theory. In the 1960s, research on non-verbal behavior and the role of the body in mental health issues influenced the practice as well. In 1966, the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) was established and with it came the development of training and certification standards for the field.

How Dance Therapy Differs from Dancing

Most people know that dancing can be good for their health. It improves cardiovascular endurance, muscle tone, balance, and coordination. In a dance therapy session, movement becomes more than exercise – it becomes a language. People in treatment communicate conscious and unconscious feelings through dance, which allows a therapist to respond in kind. Dance therapists help people work on issues through the use of a “movement vocabulary” that is centered around physical expression instead of words.

Dance/movement therapists assess body language, non-verbal behaviors, and emotional expressions. Some intervention examples may include:

  • Utilizing “mirroring” (matching/echoing the person's movements) to illustrate empathy for an individual and validation of his or her experience.
  • Incorporating jumping rhythms into a dance with a group of people experiencing depression because research has shown decreased levels of vertical movement in people with depression.

Letting Your Body Speak for You

Patients new to dance and movement therapy are introduced to movement therapy by tapping into their breath and body sensations.

“Clients often feel the need to tell their story, but either can’t find the words or the words are triggering” said Erica Hornthal, founder of Chicago Dance Therapy. “We use the body to tell the story.  This can look like a series of gestures, postures, or dance, which allows the body to process the story without re-traumatizing the client.”

Dr. Mike Dow, a psychotherapist and brain health expert, says that dance therapy can help patients tackle some of the deeper issues fueling their anxiety. “Therapy, like exercise or yoga, can be helpful in teaching patients to tolerate physical sensations in their body that have been viewed through a catastrophic lens, like, ‘What’s wrong with me? Am I okay? Am I going to have a panic attack?‘” he said. “Dance therapy can also help patients to tackle deeper issues fueling their anxiety.”

Principles of Dance Movement Therapy

Dance Movement Therapy sessions often include observation, assessment, warm-up, intervention, verbal processing and cool-down phases. Sessions can be highly structured or non-directive and may be conducted individually or in groups. Although each dance/movement therapist will have his or her own style, certified dance/movement therapists adhere to the following principles:

  • Body and mind are interconnected so that a change in one impacts the other
  • Movement can express aspects of the personality
  • Part of the therapeutic relationship is communicated through non-verbal means
  • Movements can be symbolic and can represent unconscious material/processes
  • Movement improvisation/experimentation can bring about new ways of being

What Can Dance Therapy Be Used to Treat

Dance therapists work with people in therapy to help them improve their body image and self-esteem. Dance movement therapy is a versatile form of therapy founded on the idea that motion and emotion are interconnected. The creative expression of dance therapy can bolster communication skills and inspire dynamic relationships. It is commonly used to treat physical, psychological, cognitive, and social issues such as:

  • Chronic pain
  • Arthritis
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Aggression/violence
  • Domestic violence trauma
  • Social interaction
  • Family conflict

Exercise: Another Form of Movement Therapy

Exercising regularly during and after addiction treatment provides an opportunity to discover the underlying causes of addiction. According to the National Institutes on Health, exercise and substance abuse have an inverse relationship. Essentially, regular exercise reduces the risk of substance abuse and helps reduce the cravings associated with addiction recovery. They explain that treatment programs use exercise as an alternative solution when cravings occur. Furthermore, exercise impacts the brain in a positive way that reduces cravings for a substance without causing physical harm.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, substance abuse activates the pleasure centers of the brain and creates a false feeling of pleasure. It changes the brain over time and causes cravings for the substance. Regular exercise also activates the pleasure center of the brain and releases dopamine naturally – reducing the risk of substance abuse relapse in the future.

Other advantages of exercise therapy include:
  • Managing cravings
  • Strengthening the body
  • Improving physical health
  • Increases supply of oxygen and nutrients
  • Improves memory, learning, and concentration
  • Improves short-term memory, attention span, organization, planning, problem solving, and multitasking
  • Improves functioning of the endocrine, cardiovascular, and pulmonary systems
  • Leads to an overall happier, more stable, mood

Exercise is also an excellent stress reliever. It can help recovering addicts work out tension and pent up frustrations that may have caused them to use in the past. When the temptation to use drugs or alcohol arises, those who have utilized exercise therapy are more likely to first consider all of their hard work and accomplishments. This can dissuade a recovering addict from exposing their body to the harm and risks associated with relapse.

There are many different types of exercise therapy including:
  • Yoga
  • Martial arts
  • Horseback riding
  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Running
  • Weight training

Some treatment centers give recovering addicts even more fitness options such as obstacle courses, rock climbing walls and rope courses. Completing these physical challenges can boost self-confidence during recovery while also releasing dopamine in the brain. The memories made during these exercise therapies can be strong reminders that you’re capable of overcoming any challenges.

Exercise therapy helps with addiction recovery by reinforcing positive and healthy behaviors. Including regular exercise in a treatment program improves an individual’s physical, emotional and mental health. It also protects against future substance abuse and reduces the risk of relapsing after treatment.