Dance therapy, sometimes referred to as dance/movement therapy or DMT, is a mental health treatment that uses dance and other forms of physical movement to improve someone’s emotional and psychological functioning. Dance therapy has been used to treat a wide variety of mental health disorders including depression, eating disorders, and PTSD, as well as non-clinical issues such as low self-esteem, body image concerns, or grief. Because dance is a form of exercise, the therapy may also result in physical benefits such as improved sleep and increased energy, in addition to its cognitive/emotional effects. Some research has found dance therapy to be effective at treating conditions such as depression, eating disorders, and anxiety, as well as certain aspects of Parkinson's disease and life challenges such as self-esteem; however, most researchers caution that few high-quality studies exist and that more are needed to determine the therapy’s real value.
Dance therapy may be conducted individually or in a group setting, and can be used to treat children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly. Dance therapy can be utilized for a wide variety of conditions and challenges, including anxiety, autism, dementia, depression, interpersonal issues such as family conflict or domestic violence, low self-esteem, and more. While it can be used on its own, dance therapy is often used as a complement to more traditional therapies; experts caution that certain conditions, such as eating disorders, should never be treated with dance therapy alone.
Dance therapy sessions often start with a warm-up or a verbal check-in, and often both. Therapist and client may decide on a “theme” to explore that session, based either on the client’s needs or on a program designed by the therapist. During the session itself, the therapist will guide the client through dance or other forms of movement that aim to express their internal emotional state. Clients are often encouraged to free-associate; in some cases, they may be asked to create specific visual metaphors to represent an internal challenge. Therapists may move with the client or simply observe; some therapists engage in what is known as “mirroring,” or matching a client’s movements, in order to illustrate empathy or validate the client’s self-expression. Clients may be asked to pay specific attention to certain bodily movements or to their breath, in an effort to encourage mindful awareness and keep the focus on the present moment. After a session is complete, the therapist and client will discuss and process what occurred.
The exact mechanism by which dance therapy improves mood and psychological functioning is not yet fully understood. However, the mind and the body are known to be closely connected, and movement of any kind has long been thought to bring therapeutic benefits. Dance therapy aims to strengthen the connection between the brain and the body by allowing for authentic, non-verbal expression of emotions in a safe, non-judgmental environment. Some people who struggle to express themselves verbally—due to anxiety, trauma, low self-esteem, or other challenges—may find physical expression to be easier and less threatening and thus may especially benefit from dance therapy. What’s more, people with eating disorders or body image issues often feel disconnected from or angry toward their bodies; dance therapy is thought to restore their connection with their physical self and foster a greater sense of appreciation for what the body is capable of. Dance can also serve as a form of exercise, which can itself bolster physical health in addition to mental health.
In the U.S., dance therapists are overseen by an organization known as the American Dance Therapy Association, or ADTA, which was founded in 1966. According to ADTA guidelines, dance therapists should have at least a Master’s degree, as well as a specific credential called the Registered Dance/Movement Therapist (R-DMT). Therapists who pursue further training beyond the R-DMT may also have a credential known as the Board Certified Dance/Movement Therapist (BC-DMT). After ensuring a therapist is properly trained and certified, interested clients are advised to ask whether they have experience treating their particular challenge. They may also wish to discuss any physical limitations that may complicate therapy and work with therapists who are prepared to address them.