Who Can Dance Movement Therapy Help?

No matter our background, we all have an inherent impulse to use our bodies to express ourselves. From fierce war dances to the passionate flamenco, dance has been used to express every type of emotion, whether it’s crippling grief, boiling rage, or sheer joy. In fact, dance is such a powerful form of expression, it can actually be harnessed for therapeutic purposes. According to the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA), dance therapy is the “psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive and physical integration of the individual.”1

You by no means need to be an expert dancer to benefit from this therapy. Embracing the connection between the body, spirit, and mind, dance therapy seeks to creatively engage people and improve their social skills. By focusing on the non-verbal aspects of dance, this type of therapy can be especially useful for people who struggle to express themselves through words – like those who experience speech difficulties. Movement becomes their vocabulary. Dance therapy can improve self-expression and confidence, and can help a person manage emotions that may otherwise feel overwhelming.2


Registered dance/movement therapists must attend a graduate program approved by the American Dance Therapy Association or receive a Master’s degree in a related field and then complete additional course work specific to dance/movement therapy.3

How Does It Work?

  • A psychotherapeutic approach, it uses movement and dance for self-expression and self-awareness. Different dance forms (say, ballroom dancing or salsa), music, and even props may be part of a session.
  • The technique of “mirroring,” where the therapist matches or “mirrors” the physical movements of the patient, is used to promote empathy and engagement.
  • Physical movement is used as a symbol or metaphor to create an emotional distance from difficult feelings or memories.
  • The physicality of dance can also help those with a negative body image by making them feel more comfortable in their body.4
  • The process usually involves four stages: preparation, incubation, illumination, and evaluation. These stages are repeated as many times as needed during therapy, and a set of small goals are tied to each stage. During preparation, a safe space, free from distractions, is created for the participants and the therapist plays a supportive role. The focus is on making them comfortable with the environment and with moving their bodies. The incubation stage is one of mindfulness and exploring the subconscious through imagery and symbolic movements. The next step is illumination, where self-reflection and dialogue are used by the subjects to understand (and resolve) the subconscious impulses behind their physical movements. During the stage of evaluation, insights are discussed and the therapy session is brought to a close.5

Who And How Can It Help?

Dance therapy can help improve communication and self-expression, body image, depression and anxiety, and even the quality of life for people with debilitating diseases.


Express Yourself

Dance can be a powerful medium of communication, especially when a person finds it difficult to share painful feelings through words. Take the case of a family dealing with domestic violence by the father. During therapy the mother would become defensive and dismissive of the needs of her daughters, while one of the daughters was unresponsive and would stare blankly when spoken to as a means of disassociating from the trauma. So they turned to dance therapy where they became tied in a “family knot.” Exploring ways of untying this knot through physical movement helped them become aware of their familial roles and improved verbal communication as well as their ability to respond empathically to one other.6

Boost Self-Esteem and Body Image

Dance therapy has the potential to improve self-esteem and body image. A small study conducted among 15-year-old girls found that after 8 weeks of dance movement therapy, the participants had a more positive outlook about themselves, felt better about how they looked, and were more confident that they had what it takes to succeed in school. It also led to better communication skills.7 A case study of a 24-year-old bulimic woman who had suffered from anorexia as a teenager also supports this result: Dance therapy helped her develop a more positive body image. How so? Dance can help form a synergistic connection between the physical body and emotional feelings. In other words, the more comfortable you feel in your body, the more comfortable you feel with your emotions, and vice versa.8


Beat Depression and Anxiety

We all know that dancing can significantly boost our mood. For instance, a little dancing in the rain can turn a depressing downpour into a joyful event. This idea also works in a therapeutic setting. In fact, dance therapy can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.9 A study of adolescent boys, all formerly child soldiers exposed to the horrors of war, found a significant improvement in their symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even aggression after dance therapy. Later, the boys expressed their experiences through a public role play, showing how dance therapy was helpful for them to reintegrate into the community and overcome stigma.10

Deal With Dementia

Dance therapy may be helpful in managing agitation in patients with dementia. A 4-week study, in which patients and staff members of a residential dementia care facility attended dance sessions, found that not only did these sessions lower agitation in the patients but they also helped form a stronger therapeutic bond between the staff and patients, and made everyone more cheerful.11 Dance therapy can also improve communication, especially for those with dementia who gradually lose their memories, cognitive capacity, and the ability to speak. Body movements can stand in for missing words, while music may help evoke memories and generate thoughts. Dance therapy can also address complex issues like aging, the loss of physical abilities, and loneliness.12


Stay Balanced

A study that looked at people with brain injury and stroke found that dance therapy improved gait, cognitive performance, and balance.13 Another study focused on people with Parkinson’s disease compared exercise to dance therapy (a program where participants danced the tango). They found that the tango group showed significant improvements in balance while those in the exercise group did not. Understandably those in the tango group were also more interested in continuing with the classes!14

Improve Your Overall Quality Of Life

Dance therapy has the potential to improve the quality of life after illness. Participants in a 12-week program specifically designed for women with breast cancer showed significant improvements in quality of life measures related to breast cancer when compared to a control group.15 Another study found that it not only helped breast cancer survivors deal with the symptoms and treatment for cancer but also improved their sense of well-being, made them more appreciative of their bodies, and helped them settle back into their regular routine.16