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Dance Therapy

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Dance therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses movement to further the social, cognitive, emotional, and physical development of the individual. Dance therapists work with people who have many kinds of emotional problems, intellectual deficits, and life-threatening illnesses. They are employed in psychiatric hospitals, day care centers, mental health centers, prisons, special schools, and private practice. They work with people of all ages in both group and individual therapy. Some also engage in research.

Dance therapists try to help people develop communication skills, a positive self-image, and emotional stability.


Dance therapy began as a profession in the 1940s with the work of Marian Chace. A modern dancer, she began teaching dance after ending her career with the Denishawn Dance Company in 1930. In her classes, she noticed that some of her students were more interested in the emotions they expressed while dancing (loneliness, shyness, fear, etc.) than the mechanics of the moves. She began encouraging them by emphasizing more freedom of movement rather than technique.

In time, doctors in the community started sending her patients. They included antisocial children, people with movement problems, and those with psychiatric illnesses. Eventually, Chace became part of the staff of the Red Cross at St. Elizabeth's Hospital. She was the first dance therapist employed in a formal position by the federal government. Chace worked with the emotionally troubled patients at St. Elizabeth's and tried to get them to reach out to others through dance. Some of them were schizophrenics and others were former servicemen suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Success for these patients meant being able to participate with their class in moving to rhythmic music. "This rhythmic action in unison with others results in a feeling of well-being, relaxation, and good fellowship," Chace said once.

Chace eventually studied at the Washington School of Psychiatry and began making treatment decisions about her patients along with other members of the St. Elizabeth's medical team. Her work attracted many followers and the first dance therapy interns began learning and teaching dance therapy at St. Elizabeth's in the 1950s.

Other dancers also began using dance therapy in the 1940s to help people feel more comfortable with themselves and their bodies. These dancers included Trudi Schoop and Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse later became a Jungian analyst and an influential member of the dance therapy community. She developed a process called "movement in-depth," an extension of her understanding of dance, movement, and depth psychology. She helped found the contemporary movement practice called "authentic movement." In this type of movement, founded on the principles of Jungian analysis, patients dance out their feelings about an internal image, often one that can help them understand their past or their current life struggles. One of Whitehead's students, Janet Alder furthered Whitehead's work in authentic movement by establishing the Mary Starks Whitehouse Institute in 1981.

In 1966, dance therapy became formally organized and recognized when the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) was formed.


Dance therapy can be helpful to a wide range of patients--from psychiatric patients to those with cancer to lonely elderly people. Dance therapy is often an easy way for a person to express emotions, even when his or her experience is so traumatic he or she can't talk about it. It is frequently used with rape victims and survivors of sexual abuse and incest. It can also help people with physical deficits improve their self-esteem and learn balance and coordination.

Dance therapists also work with people who have chronic illnesses and life-threatening diseases to help them deal with pain, fear of death, and changes in their body image. Many people with such illnesses find dance therapy classes to be a way to relax, get away from their pain and emotional difficulties for a while, and express feelings about taboo subjects (such as impending death).

Dance therapy is suitable even for people who are not accomplished dancers, and may even be good for those who are clumsy on the dance floor. The emphasis in dance therapy is on free movement, not restrictive steps, and expressing one's true emotions. Children who cannot master difficult dances or can't sit still for traditional psychotherapy often benefit from free-flowing dance therapy. Even older people who cannot move well or are confined to wheelchairs can participate in dance therapy. All they need to do is move in some way to the rhythm of the music.

Dance therapy can be useful in a one-on-one situation, where the therapist works with only one patient to provide a safe place to express emotions. Group classes can help provide emotional support, enhanced communication skills, and appropriate physical boundaries (a skill that is vital for sexual abuse victims).


There are currently more than 1,200 dance therapists in 46 states in the United Sates and in 29 foreign countries. Like other mental health professionals, they use a wide range of techniques to help their patients. Some of the major "schools of thought" in dance therapy include the Freudian approach, Jungian technique, and object relations orientation. Many therapists, however, do not ascribe to just one school, but use techniques from various types of dance therapy.

The authentic movement technique is derived from the Jungian method of analysis in which people work with recurring images in their thoughts or dreams to derive meaning in their life. Instead of asking the patient to dance out certain emotions, the therapist instructs the patient to move when he or she feels "the inner impulse." The moves are directed by the patient and the therapist is a noncritical witness to the movement. The moves are supposed to emerge from a deep level within the patient.

In Freudian technique, dance therapists work with patients to uncover feelings hidden deep in the subconscious by expressing those feelings through dance.

In object relations technique, the therapist often helps the patient examine problems in his or her life by considering the primary initial relationship with the parents. Emotions are expressed in a concrete, physical way. For instance, a patient would work out his fears of abandonment by repeatedly coming close to and dancing at a distance from the therapist.

Dance therapists sometimes use other types of therapy along with dance, such as art or drama.



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