For centuries, many cultures have used dance to communicate, show emotion, share stories and promote physical and emotional healing. The use of dance as a typical physical therapy and psychotherapy goes back to the 1940s, and today dance therapy is used to treat a variety of emotional and physical conditions.
What is Dance Therapy?
According to adta.org, “Dance therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses movement to further social, cognitive, emotional and physical development in the individual.” Today dance therapists work to help individuals develop improved emotional stability, a better self-image and essential communication skills. However, while dance therapy is considered a type of psychotherapy, it’s also used as a physical therapy technique to treat individuals with chronic pain, head injuries and other physical injuries or illnesses.
Therapists trained in dance therapy use the body’s expressive movements to help deal with emotional issues. Individuals of all physical abilities and ages can benefit from this therapy. While some therapists may provide private sessions, group dance therapy is also an option.
Dance therapy programs in many facilities may treat several emotional and physical issues. The following are a few of the scenarios where dance therapy is used:
- In a Hospital Environment – Dance therapy may be used in a hospital to help amputees adjust to changes in balance, weight and body boundaries. It can be used on cardiac patients after heart attacks to help them learn more about self-care and self-awareness.
- In a Psychiatric Facility – Patients in psychiatric facilities diagnosed with depression, bipolar disease, schizophrenia and other psychiatric problems may be treated with dance therapy. Therapists use this type of therapy to help patients learn about the connection between their minds and body.
- In Correctional Institutions – Within correctional institutions, dance therapy may be used to help individuals learn to trust themselves again while providing a foundation for developing improved relationship patterns.
- Substance Abuse Programs – Some substance abuse programs use dance movement therapy to help patients find their inner strength, helping them rise about external substance dependence.
- Chronic Pain Centers – Chronic pain centres may use dance therapy programs for individuals with chronic pain. This therapy helps teach these patients to become more aware of their bodies. Over time, dance therapy can help patients become more comfortable with their body while acquiring tools that let them feel like they have some control over their pain.
- Assisted Care Facilities – For seniors, dance therapy may be used to help older adults maintain greater flexibility and movement while enhancing their body awareness. For seniors dealing with dementia, dance movement therapy may also help eliminate feelings of isolation.
The History of Dance Therapy
While healers have used dance therapeutically for thousands of years, dance as therapy did not get its start until the 1940s. Marian Chace pioneered the idea of dance therapy after she noticed that students in her classes focused more on the emotional side of dancing than on the physical mechanics of dance. In response, she started to emphasize freedom of movement within her classes instead of focusing so heavily on dance techniques.
Eventually, local doctors began sending patients to Marian, including individuals with physical movement issues, patients with psychiatric problems and children with antisocial problems. Soon she became a staff member working with the Red Cross, becoming the first dance therapist to be offered a formal position by the federal government. Chace would later go on to study psychiatry at the Washington School of Psychiatry, using her training, along with her dance expertise, to begin treating patients.
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Soon other dancers were using the idea of dance therapy, such as Mary Whitehouse and Trudi Schoop. However, despite the work of these women, it wasn’t until 1966 that dance therapy was recognized and organized formally with the formation of the American Dance Therapy Association.
How Dance Therapy Programs Work
The idea behind dance therapy is that muscle tension often represents physiological and emotional ailments. During dance therapy, movement helps release muscle tension while allowing patients to express their inner feelings through their dance moves.
Each person moves in their unique way. When patients discover their way of moving, they learn more about how their body speaks. Dance therapy provides patients with a calm, safe place to discover how their body moves and speaks.
Every dance therapy session will look different. Some sessions may be serious, others may be playful, and some may be active. Sessions are designed to give the patient what is needed at that specific time. Therapists observe their patients and make decisions to help them reach their treatment goals.
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The specific dance movement is not as important as the patient’s relationship to the process. A dance therapy session may include a patient expressing emotions they’ve built up over time. It could include a patient finally reaching out to other individuals for the first time. With dance, patients utilize spontaneity, discovery, intelligence, and more, all while creating art with the human body.
The Benefits of Dance Movement Therapy
The studies surrounding dance therapy are largely experimental. However, these experimental studies show that dance therapy offers great benefits. Individual accounts also testify to the benefits of dance movement therapy. Some of the benefits include:
- Improved Range of Motion for Cancer Survivors – One study on breast cancer survivors showed that the therapy helped improve range of motion, particularly in the shoulders.
- Helps Improve Self-Esteem – Clinic reports and individual accounts support the idea that dance therapy helps improve self-esteem in patients of all ages. Improvements in self-awareness and confidence are often seen as well.
- It provides a Safe Place to Express Emotions After a Trauma. For individuals who have gone through trauma, dance therapy programs offer a safe place where patients can express emotions, even when they cannot talk about those emotions.
Some of the other dance therapy benefits that patients may experience include:
- Reduction in chronic pain
- Diminished body and muscle tension
- Reduced levels of anxiety, stress, depression and fear
- Improved body image
- Decreased feelings of isolation
- Improved communication skills
- The release of endorphins provides a sense of wellbeing
Using Dance Therapy for Troubled Children and Teens
Since dance therapy offers many benefits, it is an excellent therapy choice for troubled children and teens. When used for teens and children, it allows them to develop a healthier sense of self-worth. It also gives them the tools to cope with emotional issues and work through difficult problems and helps improve personal communication skills.
Dance therapists can use movement and dance to help the child or teen relax body tension, which improves emotional function. Through movement, children and teens can express themselves, show their feelings, and learn to understand themselves. For children and teens, dance therapy may include making up a new dance routine, telling a story through their dance, dancing as quickly as possible, dancing to mirror other people’s movements or even dancing to show a specific emotion.
Teens and children who are resistant to traditional therapy, have difficulty communicating or have experiences or problems that are too painful to talk about can be helped with dance therapy. This therapy specifically proves helpful for children and teens that deal with:
- Excessive or extreme anger
- Neurological issues
- Past traumas, such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Suicidal thoughts
- Problems with self-esteem
- Concentration problems, such as ADHD
- Eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia
- Stress or anxiety
If you are considering dance therapy for your child or teen, find a program that uses qualified dance therapists. Therapists should be approved and registered with the American Dance Therapy Association and have dance and psychology training.