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You have a body- move it! Dance!

Sun Dance camp, North America (Plains): Cheyenne, c1890

Dance is one of the most fundamental forms of human communication and expression. The use of human movement, gesture and dance as a therapeutic healing tool is as old as the dawn of civilization. Dance, music, art, connected us to the symbolic, and experiences of 'awe', and a belief in a force, or energy which is larger than ourselves. In addition, dance, music, art, religious/spiritual practices, and medicine were once inseparable in the healing process. It is a challenge to appreciate these modes of expression and wellness, as technology advances.

In today's culture, we find it easy, and at times necessary, to interact with the computer and our mobile phone screens. We sit, stare, and sometimes walk clumsily while looking at our screens.

These behaviors, in a sense, cause us to separate from our body, in psychology this experience is referred to as dissociate. This temporary, disconnection from our body can cause us a variety of problems from a stiff neck, and back pain, to other more serious challenges such as muscle weakness and atrophy to name just a few. Though, I am not going to focus on what is problematic with our sedentary life-modern lifestyle. Rather, I want to introduce you to a field within clinical psychology which promotes awareness of the physical body in motion.

Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) is a category within creative arts therapy, which focuses work and research on how dance, and physical movement, promotes psychological healing and wellness. It is a creative art therapy which is rooted in the expressive nature of dance and gestural movement.

Formed out of the modern dance movement in united states, DMT appeared as a 'profession' of sorts in the 1930's during the industrial revolution. A number of dancers and instructors rediscovered the healing power of movement, and the benefits of dance as a mode towards health and wellness. They viewed dance not exclusively about being on stage, or being seen as a titillating object, rather, dance and movement had a psychological benefit. These dancers and movers organized, and took this awareness out of the dance studios, clubs and theaters, and applied their ideas to people in need, which as that time, was in the back wards of psychiatric hospitals. These early DMT pioneers saw positive results in their interventions. They and began writing about their observations through case studies. As this information became more public, more research, and peer reviewed studies were needed to validate their claims. Eventually, more dancers and dance educators became interested, and schools and colleges began graduate training, and established DMT in the world of dance and psychology. Currenly, there is growing international interest in DMT as a mode of intervention towards wellness and health.

Dance Movement Therapy is defined by the American Dance Therapy Association as, the psycho-therapeutic use of movement to advance integration of one’s physical, emotional, cognitive, and social aspects. Here is a short clip with some Dance Movement Therapist's and a definition of their work:

The body, brain, and mind are interconnected, and there are direct neurological, physiological, connections between our feelings and how we express ourselves. Movement activity provides a means of assessment and a mode of intervention. Specifically, the therapist observes body posture, muscle tension, spontaneity, facial expression, and authenticity of movement expression. Then, the therapist incorporates verbal communication into the process, so the whole person is involved in the work. The body shifts, and changes subtly with increase conscious awareness, and perceptions may shift as mental constructs and patterns change.

There are a variety of rich psychological and theoretical approaches influencing the filed of DMT.

For example, the belief the the first relationship we experience is physical, is influenced by attachment theorist such as Bowbly, Winnicott & contemporary researcher Colwyn Trevarthen. Specifically, movement and physical interactions by mother (not exclusively so, though generally the case) lay the connection for a infants sense of self, and later a sense of identity. This early mother-child bond, helps us in the ability to go out into the world, also referred to in psychology as 'agency'. The experience of a physical connection to other, helps us create an internal locus of control, in other words, the secure feeling that 'someone has your back'. A dance therapist within this framework, is keenly aware that they need to creating a safe space where the client can integrate the experience of feeling held. Postures, gestures, prosody in verbal expression (i.e. soothing rhythm, warm tone of voice) communicate this internal experience which is needed with some clients who missed this early experience in some way. So, it is the therapeutic relationship within a safe environment which can alter, and enhance, one's sense of self and agency.

Some therapist followed and expanded upon the work of Carl Jung's theories of 'active imagination" and its' relation to creativity and the symbolic. Imagery, feelings, and fantasies from the unconscious are interwoven into the therapeutic process.

From this perspective, creative expression is encouraged though spontaneous movement. Such as noticing a client's expressive patterns when they mention a particular subject. The therapist may say something like, "as you talk about your partner, the palm of your left hand went up, do you have any thoughts about that?" Or the therapist may be more directive, such as asking the client to make the gesture larger, or direct them to move in a an opposite manner, such as moving the left hand. A DMT working from a Jungian perspective, assists the client to become more fully conscious, so they may integrate parts of themselves which may be causing personal and interpersonal difficulty.

Overall, movement action is the primary medium therapist use for observations, assessment research, therapeutic interaction and intervention. The goals they work toward depend upon the needs of the client or group. Rhythmic group movement decreases confusion and isolation. DMT is used to decrease depression and alleviate anxiety. Creative movement can increase coping skills, emotional regulation, improve interpersonal communication, and decrease hopeless helpless feelings. DMT also prevents muscle atrophy, and weakness, while increasing flexibility and range of motion. It can also increase body awareness and provide opportunities for self understanding.

The professional working environment for Dance movement therapists is varied. They work with individuals and groups of all ages. DMT work in psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities, drug, eating disorder, and trauma treatment centers, retirement and nursing homes, schools and alternative health care centers. In Portland OR, Dance Movement Therapist are employed at hospitals such at Providence Medical Center, and Unity Center for Behavioral Health, and other day treatment centers such at Sensory Kids. DMT also work in private practice and may function as licensed psychologist, social workers and counselors.

If you wish to read more about the healing power of dance and the work and research of DMT, some books and website links are below.

American Dance Therapy Associating (April 28, 2016) ADTA Talks - What is dance/movement therapy. Retrieved from

Bitti, F. (July 13, 2015) Dystonia. Rewiring the brain through movement and dance: TEDXNapoli. Retrieved from

Chodorow, J. (2015). Work in progress - Authentic Movement: Danced and moving active imagination. Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices, 7(2), 257-272.

Doonan, F., & Bräuninger, I. (2015). Making space for the both of us: How dance movement therapy enhances mother–infant attachment and experience. Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy, 1-16.

Duong. N (June 20, 2013) Dance as therapy: Natalia Duong at TEDXStandford. Retrieved from

Seoane, K. (2016). Parenting the Self with Self-Applied Touch: A Dance/Movement Therapy Approach to Self-Regulation. American Journal of Dance Therapy, 38(1), 21-40.

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