No Longer “Dancing in the Dark”: An Introduction to Dance/Movement Therapy

by | Dec 21, 2019 | Dance/Movement

An Introduction to Dance Movement Therapy

I was thrilled to see Celeste Barber dancing her heart out on the latest season of Netflix’s The Let Down, a show about women’s identity, struggles, and triumphs in motherhood; I connected deeply with the release and ecstasy she felt as she freely moved her body, for herself, which as many mothers know is a rare occurrence after children. As excited as I was witnessing this familiar experience, I also wished there was a greater understanding or at least mention of dance/movement therapy.

Dancing can be cathartic and therapeutic, a great form of self care, and from the perspective of a dance/movement therapist, inherently healing. Many of us understand this aspect of dance, but the field of Dance/Movement Therapy goes much deeper.

Dance therapists understand the role of movement in our lives to help us:

  1. Experience and cope with our surrounding environment
  2. Discover and express our inner world
  3. Connect with others
  4. Organize our thoughts and feelings

Words provide us with one level of information, while our body relays a whole other, complex layer, made up of sensations, muscle tension, body posture, dynamic quality, and body memory.

So what is different about turning on some music and letting loose–“Dancing in the Dark” as Barber experiences–and engaging in Dance/Movement Therapy?

Let me shed some light by answering some common questions or beliefs about dance vs dance therapy…

Why can’t I just follow a YouTube video or take a dance class?

While these can be therapeutic, first and foremost, dance/movement therapy happens in relationship with a trained therapist. Compare it to journaling or venting to a friend, vs talking to a professional helper. Both are beneficial in expressing your feelings but the latter has a specific lens to look through in order to “shine light on” or make connections between feelings and situations you are experiencing. This outside, unbiased perspective eventually leads to more self-awareness and insight. Your therapist will likely also help you learn skills to handle future situations or regulate your feelings. 

A dance/movement therapist does exactly the same, but through movement observation and intervention. Just as a talk therapist might read between the lines of what is verbally shared, a dance/movement therapist incorporates their understanding of movement as communicative of feelings, behaviors, and relational patterns. A dance/movement therapist, trained in movement observation and familiar with your history, will allow for each session to be shaped and directed around your individual needs. Dance/movement therapists respond to in-the-moment verbal and nonverbal information in the room, as well as their own somatic cues or responses, to create the best interventions for you.

I’m not a dancer.

Everybody moves. We all experience the world through and with our bodies. Emotions have their start in the body as sensations, primary relationships are formed non-verbally, and trauma is held in the body, necessitating the reworking of automatic responses through movement itself.

Peter Levine (not a dance/movement therapist but with a deep understanding of the body’s role in trauma) provides a great description: in any threatening situation, we go into a state of fight, flight, or freeze (notice how these are all states of movement?); often, we become stuck in the freeze state, without the release that animals in the wild often exhibit through involuntary shaking; therefore we need to find our movement out of immobility to move past traumatic responses and heal, as well as to rebuild ownership over and reclaim our bodies. However, it is important to have a trained dance/movement therapist who can facilitate this process in a safe and therapeutic way, in order to prevent emotional flooding.

Finally, to participate in dance/movement therapy requires no dance skill–we believe that each person has their own individual, authentic “dance” that deserves discovery and expression.

I need to talk about my difficulties–how will movement help?

Dance/Movement Therapy is not just moving or dancing, but also don’t be quick to dismiss the power of expressive movement. It can often provide deeper understanding and fuller integration of the self because it adds the layer of how we exist in and experience the world.

And for anyone who has felt “stuck” in their therapy process, engaging in a creative arts therapy can help you become “unstuck” by accessing a different part of the brain and drawing connections through imagery and metaphor.

That said, this therapy isn’t a silent dance; discussion and reflection comprise part of the session and actually are what differentiates it from therapeutic dance–dancing for the sake of release, primarily focusing on the catharsis of movement as the only goal–while dance/movement therapy works toward the integration of physical, emotional, and cognitive aspects of the self. Movement and dancing are also vital aspects of building confidence and self esteem, accessing strengths, eliciting joy, and feeling empowered.

To learn more check out Turning Stone Counseling!