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What is Dance/Movement Therapy?

Dance/movement therapy (DMT) is a creative arts therapeutic modality that draws on the intrinsic characteristics of dance as an embodied art form. Dancing provides a multi-sensory experience that engages the “whole person”: body, mind, and spirit. In this article, we’ll explore the history and benefits of dance/movement therapy, understand its benefits, and discover different ways to get started.

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A Brief History of Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT)

During the 1950s, modern dancers began to apply dance for therapeutic purposes. Marian Chace is considered the first dance therapist in the US, who conceptualized movement as a form of psychotherapy for patients with psychosis and/or post-war trauma. Since then, dance/movement therapy has expanded to integrate many schools of thought, including mindful movement, neurobiology, poly-vagal theory, and more.

Traditionally, the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) has defined dance/movement therapy as the “psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual”. Body-mind synchrony, as well as synchrony with other group members, are the core goals of this approach. Compared to “dance exercise” which emphasizes the aerobic qualities of dance, dance/movement therapy highlights the expressive aspects of dance through which personal themes and tensions can be explored.

"Participants are encouraged to engage in the creative process, through which new meanings and personal growth may occur."

What Benefits Does Dance/Movement Therapy Have and Who's It For?

A dance class of senior women to represent the diversity of dance/movement therapy clients. The woman in the foreground is wearing a pink t-shirt and smiling.

DMT has been utilized to bring about a variety of well-being outcomes, ranging from psychological flourishing (e.g., increased positive affect, decreased depressive symptoms) to physiological health (e.g., increased vitality, stress-management skills).

DMT has been applied to a wide range of populations, ranging from children on the autism spectrum to adults living with mental health conditions, and older adults with neurodegenerative conditions (e.g., dementia, Parkinson’s disease). Additionally, DMT is an opportune approach for somatic symptoms of mental or physical health conditions—through body awareness, new ways of moving and being are made possible.

What is a Dance/Movement Therapy Session Like?

While every DMT session is unique as the therapist aims to attune to the current needs of the group, this five-part session structure created by Dr. Marcia Leventhal may be followed.

A graphic outlining the 5 steps of dance/movement therapy. It's outlined as followed: warm-up, release, theme, centering, and closure.

  1. Warm-up: To prepare the body to engage in movement, begin with a gentle warm-up. The therapist will acknowledge each participant and welcome them into the group, as well as offer a time for a verbal and/or non-verbal check-in.

  2. Release: As the session progresses, energy begins to increase, and participants may explore different movement dynamics (e.g., flow, strength, time) to release tension.

  3. Theme: The majority of the DMT session is devoted to exploring a theme, or themes, through movement activities. Themes may be emotion/feeling states, current circumstances, or important events (e.g., changing of the seasons, a celebration). Participants may explore these themes by co-creating movement gestures, phrases, and interacting with one another through movement. A variety of music styles (e.g., classical, funk, pop) are used to inspire a variety of movement qualities.

  4. Centering: Participants come back to the self and begin to bring the themes to a resolution as the session wraps up.

  5. Closure: The therapist may end the session by acknowledging each participant, bringing the energy level down, and providing space for participants to share a closing gesture or sentiment. This ritual sense of closure helps participants transition from the session into the rest of their day.

DMT may also utilize a variety of props (e.g. scarves) to explore movement in new ways. Participants are encouraged to engage in the creative process, through which new meanings and personal growth may occur. Outcomes include:

  • Increased body-awareness

  • Vitality

  • Empowerment

  • Joy

  • Social connection

  • Coping skills

Where do Sessions Take Place?

A group of children in colourful clothing dancing together to represent the diversity of dance/movement therapy clients.

Dance/movement therapy can take place in-person or virtually.

At MIYA Creative Care, we run in-person DMT groups in the community or in more clinical settings such as long-term care residences and hospitals. Virtual 1-on-1 sessions are also available, as well as groups for particular clients, such as older adults who join in from home.

How Can I Become a Dance/Movement Therapist?

As the field of DMT grows in Canada, progress is being made to define DMT in the Canadian context. Presently, no educational programs (undergraduate or graduate) exist in order for Canadians to be considered a certified dance/movement therapist, outside of the ADTA’s 3-year alternate route program, which is offered at the National Centre for Dance Therapy in Montreal, and through the Movement Arc in Vancouver. These programs provide individuals with DMT coursework, but not internship or clinical practice hours.

The Dance Movement Therapy Association of Canada (DMTAC) has recently published the Canadian definition of DMT, to allow the field to move forward expansively: “Dance movement therapy is a discipline in which Certified Dance Movement Therapists use dance purposefully within therapeutic relationships to support development, holistic health, and well-being.”

References for Additional Reading

Leventhal, M.B. (1987). The Five-Part Session. Dance therapy training course with Dr Marcia Leventhal in 1990.

Written by Eden Champagne


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