Dance Therapy Uses Movement to Address Mental Health

Dance Therapy Uses Movement to Address Mental Health

We may dance through life, but how many of us dance through therapy?

Much of our communication is nonverbal, yet traditional therapy relies heavily on talking as a way to process people’s most vulnerable experiences.

As an alternative, more people are looking for ways to get past purely verbal communication to access their emotions. And with dance therapy, movement becomes the mode of intervention within the therapeutic relationship.

In dance therapy, a master’s-level clinician uses authentic movement as expression to heal and integrate the mind, body and spirit. Dance/movement therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive and physical integration of the individual, according to the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA).

Dance/movement therapists focus on helping their clients improve self-esteem and body image, develop effective communication skills and relationships, gain insight into patterns of behavior and create new options for coping with problems, the ADTA says. The approach can be used for a range of ages, diagnoses and populations.

“Dance/movement therapy provides a supportive space where an individual is gently guided by the therapist to connect to their bodies through attunement, mirroring and/or expressive and interactive movement in order to process emotions and messages that are difficult to verbalize or that they simply can’t verbalize,” says Lisaura Lozada-Goode, LCPC, a Chicago-based dance/movement therapist.

“Through the nonverbal interaction, the mirror neuron system is activated, encouraging the development of empathy and creating a space for the individual to feel seen and heard,” she adds. Movement might enter into the therapy session through posture, gestures or other nonverbal cues.

By working with a dance/movement therapist, individuals can reframe mental health through a mind-body lens. Dance can also be used as a metaphor, such as how people so often “dance” in relationships, as well as in navigating big life decisions and managing daily stress.

Dance therapy has a broad range of health benefits. Dance therapy was proven to be effective in improving body image, self-esteem, self-confidence and self-consciousness among adolescent participants in a small 2010 study. And a 2014 meta-analysis in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy suggested that dance therapy and dance are effective for increasing quality of life and decreasing clinical symptoms such as depression and anxiety. A positive effect was also noted on well-being, mood and body image.

A body-centered approach to psychotherapy can also help validate and support an individual who is nonverbal, due to sensory processing issues, dementia or other difficulties with language.

In addition to clients being able to use their body as a resource, dance therapists may use their own body as a resource as well. Movement therapists don’t just listen with their ears, they listen with their entire bodies. They may address what they see by mirroring and modeling what the client may be unconscious of.

One need not be a good dancer or even have body awareness to benefit from dance/movement therapy. If you have reached a plateau in talk therapy or lack the skills to talk about what is going on in your life, then movement therapies may help.

Creative arts therapies, including movement therapies, can give you a voice, says drama therapist Azizi Marshall, LCPC, founder and CEO of the Center for Creative Arts Therapy, an arts-based psychotherapy practice and training center in Downers Grove.

“Creative arts therapy can help when you are struggling to find the words to your emotions or when you’re too upset, confused or disconnected to know what you think or understand how you feel,” Marshall says. “When you can enact that experience through scene work, improvisation and role play, those tools become ingrained in the mind and the body.”

One does not “need to be a professional dancer or actor to benefit from creative arts therapy,” Marshall says. “Instead, you simply engage in the material and focus on expressing your emotions through that medium, whether it’s movement, music, drama or art. The final product is merely a reflection of the self, but the process is one that is full of healing.”

Above photo courtesy of the Center for Creative Arts Therapy