What is Dance/Movement Therapy? How connecting movement to emotions can improve physical and mental health

What is Dance/Movement Therapy? How connecting movement to emotions can improve physical and mental health
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  • Dance/Movement Therapy helps connect movement and emotion to boost physical and mental health.
  • People don't need a background or special abilities in dance to benefit from Dance/Movement Therapy.
  • Dance/Movement Therapy may be beneficial for treating depression, eating disorders, ADHD, and more.

Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT) is more than a choreographed dance routine: According to the American Dance Therapy Association, it is the psychotherapeutic use of movement and dance to support intellectual, emotional, and motor functions of the body. As a creative arts therapy, DMT looks at the connection between movement and emotion to improve a person's physical and mental health.

DMT may be recommended for people with a hard time communicating what's troubling them, or as an alternative for those who don't find traditional talk therapy effective, says Orit Krug, MS, BC-DMT, LCAT, a Dance/Movement Therapist. It is a form of psychotherapy that utilizes nonverbal cues, movement, dance, and talking.

Learn who DMT benefits and how it can enhance your physical and mental health.

What is Dance/Movement Therapy?

DMT emerged in the 1940s, led by Marian Chace, one of the founders of modern dance and dance therapy. She worked at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where dance and movement became a language for "shell-shocked" veterans - what we now call PTSD - to begin communicating and expressing as an integral part of their mental health treatment.

Krug describes DMT as going on a physical and mental journey to unearth past trauma and repressed emotions.

DMT is conducted by a registered or board-certified Dance/Movement Therapist with a master's degree in the field who analyzes subtle and expressive behavior to better understand and work with a client. Dance/Movement Therapists develop treatment plans, maintain a clinical record of progress, and may work alongside other healthcare professionals.

According to the American Dance Therapy Association, DMT occurs in various places, including nursing homes, medical facilities, psychiatric centers, schools, and private practice.

DMT employs different techniques to help a person connect to their body. Here are a few common methods:
  • Mirroring: This is the most popular method for DMT, and it can be done either with a group or with only the instructor. One person performs a spontaneous movement while other people imitate the movement. "It's like the people mirroring the movement are saying 'We see you, I understand what you're saying, and I'm reflecting it back' just like a verbal conversation. It helps people be seen on a human level," says Krug.
  • Chacian: This is method focuses on rhythmic body movement and symbolism to promote communication and expression, says Julia Iafrate, DO, an Assistant Professor of Rehabilitation and Regenerative Medicine and Director of Dance Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. It often starts in a circle with the therapist giving verbal and nonverbal cues to get a sense of the group's emotional state. The group then engages in simple, repetitive movements, while the therapist verbally addresses those feelings, connecting them to the body's movements.
  • Authentic Movement: This technique involves having clients explore their subconscious emotions and thoughts by acting them out through improvised dancing. The client keeps their eyes closed to minimize distractions and to better connect the mind to the body. The person running the therapy session observes the process of the mover in a non-judgmental way.

Who can benefit from Dance/Movement Therapy?

People don't need to have a background or special abilities in dance to benefit from DMT. It's not a dance or exercise class, and you won't be judged during a session. Rather, DMT is a therapeutic method that may be used in conjunction with other forms of therapy to help clients access their authentic feelings and better understand their own body, mind, and behavior

DMT is suitable for all ages, including:

  • Children. Depending on the age, children may not have the words to talk about a problem which increases the appeal of DMT for self-expression.
  • Teenagers and adults. These age groups can become defensive after trauma. Dance therapy can help cut through that defensiveness.
  • Older adults and seniors. This age group is commonly associated with declining health, including memory loss. DMT helps engage the body and disengage the mind, which helps with focusing on the present.

Conditions treated by Dance/Movement Therapy

DMT may also be therapeutically beneficial for various chronic physical and mental health conditions. Here's what the research shows:

  • Depression. A 2019 review found people who practiced DMT reported lower levels of depression and anxiety and an increase in physical skills such as walking, turning, and balance. The positive effects of DMT were continuous in subjects over 22 weeks.
  • Eating disorders. A small 2020 study in women with eating disorders found Dance/Movement Therapy helped improve body image and was most effective when combined with traditional eating disorder treatments, such as talk therapy.
  • Autism. A 2018 review reported improvements in social, cognitive, and physical abilities in both children and adults with autism after several sessions of DMT. Researchers also found a decrease in compulsive and repetitive behaviors.
  • Chronic pain. A 2018 study in patients with fibromyalgia reported less chronic pain after participating in a 12-to-24-week dance intervention program.
  • Parkinson's disease. According to the Parkinson's Foundation, DMT aids with balance, coordination, and mobility. It also helps with depression, digestive issues, anxiety, and fatigue associated with Parkinson's.
  • ADHD. A 2018 study found DMT resulted in improved test scores for young children with ADHD.

Benefits of Dance/Movement Therapy

The effects of DMT are supported by research. Moving your body is thought to evoke emotional awareness and regulate your emotional state.

What the research says: A small 2016 study found that performing particular dance movements helped people express anger, happiness, and sadness. A more recent 2019 study also reported an increase in quality-of-life and a boost in cognitive skills in people who underwent DMT.

DMT boosts cognitive abilities by:

  • Encouraging creativity
  • Improving body image
  • Relieving stress
  • Managing mood
DMT also helps refine gross motor skills - raising arms side to side, jumping, coordination, and balance - as a form of exercise, according to the Disability Resource Community.
What the research says: In a small 2016 study, women over the age of 60 who underwent three months of DMT showed improvements in their balance.

The physical benefits of DMT include:

  • Improved balance between muscles and fat, or overall body composition
  • Improved muscular and overall strength
  • Improved balance and coordination
  • Decrease cardiovascular risks

Insider's takeaway

DMT is a nonverbal form of treatment that helps a person make a connection with their body and mind. It's an appropriate therapy for people of all ages and may particularly benefit people with chronic diseases. DMT can also boost a person's mental and physical alertness.

DMT is sometimes covered by private insurance, but this may vary. If DMT piques your interest, the American Dance Therapy Association is the best resource for more in-depth information.

DMT has been found to help people express anger, happiness, and sadness, as well as increase quality-of-life and boost cognitive skills. Overall, Iafrate says DMT can be a good option for anyone who is having trouble verbalizing their emotions. It may allow their body to tell the story that their mind and mouth aren't able to yet. "We're good at using words to cover up how we're feeling, we choose what words we want to say," Krug says. However, when people work out their feelings through bodily movement, they can "subconsciously express themselves as an alternative to traditional talk therapy."
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