When we hear the word “therapy,” we often think of sessions with a therapist on a couch in a dimly lit room. Dancing does not come to mind. However, as dancing can lift your spirits and help you connect with your body, it can definitely be a form of emotional and physical healing, and dance therapy could be the solution you need for building happiness and self-love.
Therapy in itself is a way to improve the soul—to make it feel whole and fulfilled—and if dance therapy means burning some calories and having fun while doing so, it’s a great habit to integrate into your day.
What is Dance Therapy?
“Dance therapy or dance/movement therapy (DMT) as it is officially named, is a psychotherapy that uses movement to support mental health and facilitate the integration of mind, body, and spirit,” explains Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT with Chicago Dance Therapy.
DMT provides emotional and behavioral support on a cellular level, meaning it helps create expression and uncover hidden thoughts, feelings, and urges that you may not have embraced or realized had existed in the past.
“We may suppress, deny, or choose not to acknowledge parts of us that feel unsafe or uncomfortable, but the body never lies. It is through DMT that the body’s language can be witnessed, supported, and validated in turn providing a safe outlet for individuals to experience and express their unmet needs or desires for wellness and health,” Hornthal says.
What often makes DMT so powerful is that the therapist is mirroring and attuning to what the client brings into the room, in terms of movement and body language. It’s then up to the clients to discover what’s deep within, by acting upon these bodily sensations.
How Does it Work?
“Similar to talk therapy, sessions are confidential in nature and are often facilitated behind closed doors,” shares Hornthal. “For an individual session, the client may be invited to warm-up with gentle movements of each body part to become more embodied and aware of how they are feeling outside of their mental state.”
Movement is used to symbolize and express what the client is feeling and then can be guided into verbally processing what they’ve just experienced. That’s where change can happen. “Breathing, mindfulness exercises, dance, and even creative movement can be used to explore issues of concern,” Hornthal demonstrates.
For group work, dance therapy is often about using movement to create a rhythmic connection to others in order to facilitate empathy, cooperation, collaboration, and self-expression. “How” the therapy is implemented is very dependent on the individual’s or the group’s need. “A trauma-focused group will be facilitated differently than a group for individuals living with dementia,” Hornthal points out.
Here’s a case example Hornthal provided:
Upon entering the therapy session, Sara mentioned that today was a particularly difficult day and her anxiety was a 9 out of 10. This therapist invited Sara to identify where in her body she was feeling her anxiety. As she put her hand to her stomach, this therapist invited her to identify the rhythm and intensity of the anxiety. Sara began to vigorously rub her stomach in small intense circles. This therapist encouraged Sara to move the rhythm to different parts of her body while focusing on her breath. Sara’s movement began to morph into a gentle massaging motion down her arms. Her shoulders relaxed as she let out a sigh of relief.
It was after this motion she was able to channel her anxiety, figure out the root cause, and make a plan to find calmness and center herself.
So, Are You Actually Dancing?
Yes and no. “The particular movements can range from very pedestrian or gestural to dance-like. The movement is usually coming from the client and is not necessarily imposed by the therapist,” Hornthal says.
The therapist might make movement suggestions to increase the client’s movement “vocabulary” or existing movement capabilities, but that’s not always the case. “The thought is that our psyche influences our physical being and vice versa and that if we can expand our relationship to how we move, we can alter our ability to cope with and manage our world and emotional environment,” Hornthal offers.
Who Should Do It?
Everyone can benefit, but DMT is a wonderful approach for individuals who are unable to verbally communicate or have difficulty expressing their feelings through words, Hornthal says. By increasing awareness in the body, this translates to verbal abilities.
“This can range from someone who is a very high functioning member of society to an individual who needs support and lacks the resources to manage activities of daily living,” she tells us. “It can be very beneficial for an individual who has psychosomatic symptoms; psychological disturbances manifested as physical ailments. Often times our client experience physical pain that is because of mental distress, not a physical ailment,” Hornthal adds.
And, you might notice positive effects quickly. “Benefits can usually be seen within one session, but to have lasting effects, therapy should be ongoing or at least persist until the issue has been resolved and treatment goals have been achieved,” she says.
Individual or group sessions are typically facilitated once a week at Chicago Dance Therapy. For more intense therapy or for those in a crisis, it’s best to do dance therapy 2-3 times per week, she says.