Have you ever moved to the rhythm of your favorite song and felt the weight of the world lift from your shoulders?
Perhaps it’s no surprise that researchers have found that dance therapy can improve our cognitive function, emotional wellbeing, and behavior, making it a valuable tool in psychological treatment (Strassel et al., 2011).
“Dance is a social, creative form of human activity impacting on wellbeing through emotional involvement in active or passive participation at all levels of mastery.”
Karkou et al., 2017, p. 13
This article explores the incredible benefits of dance therapy, introduces several techniques, and identifies what’s needed to become a dance therapist.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, giving you tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
Moving to music is widely recognized as a powerful tool for improving wellbeing. Dance has the potential to improve us physically, psychologically, and socially (Strassel et al., 2011; Karkou et al., 2017).
The American Dance Therapy Association (n.d., para. 1) defines dance/movement therapy “as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive and physical integration of the individual.”
In recent years, “an increasing number of research publications have shown evidence for positive effects of dance participation on individuals’ health and wellbeing across a large spectrum of age groups and societies” (Karkou et al., 2017, p. 13).
Why dance movement therapy?
Dance therapy, sometimes referred to as dance movement therapy, involves “teaching dance technique to clients to create a basic non-verbal vocabulary” (Karkou et al., 2017, p. 219).
The goal is for the client, or dancer, to experience the mind–body benefits listed above along with the cathartic nature of performance—a delicate balance between the private and public self (Karkou et al., 2017).
Dance therapy, unlike more spontaneous, noninterventional acts of dancing, “is practiced in rehabilitation, medical, educational, nursing homes, and daycare center settings as well as in disease prevention and health promotion programs” (Strassel et al., 2011, p. 50).
Dance therapists believe that healthy functioning relies on integrating mind, body, and spirit, which can be enhanced through dance (Loman, 2005).
Brief history of dance therapy
Dance has been a vital aspect of human culture for thousands of years, serving as a valuable social activity and a component of many healing traditions, including birth, sickness, and death (Strassel et al., 2011).
Working in the 1940s, the founders of dance therapy often began as dancers who transitioned into teaching.
Marian Chace was one such dancer in the 1930s. When she opened a studio to teach professionals, she found many clients attended even though they had no intention of becoming performers. She subsequently had considerable success with psychiatric patients, improving their communication and empathy and increasing the quality and quantity of their interactions (Loman, 2005).
It wasn’t until the 1960s that dance therapy became more widely accepted as a profession, along with the recognition of the potential psychotherapeutic benefits arising from its ability to engage and connect mind, body, and spirit (American Dance Therapy Association, n.d.; Loman, 2005).
What is yoga dance therapy?
Dance therapy has a long history of partnering with other disciplines beyond dance that encourage a connection between mind and body, such as martial arts (Barton, 2011; Karkou et al., 2017).
The ancient physical, mental, and spiritual practice of yoga has also been successfully combined with mindfulness and dance-based therapy programs to offer stress reduction and coping skills and improve prosocial behavior in people experiencing severe mental illness (Barton, 2011).
While limited research is available, yoga dance therapy appears to offer a valuable movement-based psychotherapeutic addition to treatment programs to improve intrapersonal experiences and relationships (Barton, 2011).
10+ Proven Psychological Benefits
Dance improves how we feel as a result of the following mechanisms and pathways in the human body and even changes the makeup of the brain (Karkou et al., 2017).
The increase of circulatory hormones believed responsible for the “runner’s high” may be linked to the feel-good effects experienced during dancing.
In times of stress, the body releases the hormone cortisol. Dance is believed to regulate the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, potentially protecting us against long-term stress.
Physical activity, including dancing, is linked to enhancement of the transmission of brain chemical neurotransmitters, potentially delaying fatigue, increasing concentration, and offering antidepressant benefits.
In addition to affecting the brain and improving physical abilities, there are many and varied psychological benefits associated with dance therapy, including (Karkou et al., 2017; Loman, 2005; Fernandez-Arguelles et al. 2015; Burkhardt & Brennan, 2012):
Strengthening group coherence
Increasing willingness to help others
Improving self-esteem and self-confidence and reducing anxiety
Overcoming emotional struggles such as breakups, eating disorders, loneliness, and fatigue
Positively affecting physical, cognitive, social, emotional, spiritual, and creative processes
Boosting self-esteem and improving human relationships
Reducing the risk of falling in older adults and therefore increasing their confidence and independence
Increasing reports of “feeling good,” including reports of euphoria, more energy, relaxation, and calm
Dance therapy for autism
Dance therapy has proven helpful across many different ages and social groups.
Indeed, children with autism respond well to dance interventions (Athanasiadou & Karkou, 2017).
Researchers reported significant improvements in the children’s ability to form relationships in response to dance-related techniques, such as increasing physical awareness, mirroring and attunement, and role-play (Athanasiadou & Karkou, 2017).
Similar benefits have been reported in other groups with related special needs, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and multiple sclerosis (Karkou et al., 2017).
How dancing can help with depression & trauma
“Depression is a disabling medical illness characterized by persistent and all-encompassing feelings of sadness, loss of interest, or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities, as well as problems in emotion regulation” (Karkou et al., 2017, p. 839).
The body movements associated with dance therapy have proven an effective treatment for depression, encouraging emotional expression and regulation (Karkou et al., 2017).
Childhood trauma can have far-reaching effects on the individual, and some studies even suggest that without support, the body can hold on to that pain and anxiety for many years.
Dance therapy’s mindfulness-informed body awareness and movement interventions can help trauma victims develop a stronger sense of self and learn to relate to their bodily symptoms differently (Karkou et al., 2017).
Dance therapists use various techniques to enable clients to better understand their own and others’ feelings and take part more fully in human relationships (Loman, 2005).
Mirroring is a popular tool used by dance therapists to establish nonverbal relationships. The therapist joins the client as they move, mirroring them to initiate trusting and meaningful contact.
Closely linked to mirroring, attunement involves movement empathy. “Muscular tensions felt in one person are felt in the other” (Loman, 2005, p. 72).
Therapists don’t need to duplicate the shapes and gestures of the client, but can instead move toward a less intense, soothing pattern to calm an upset adult or child.
Therapists observe and work through the client’s developmental phases using the power of movement.
The process can help the client progress through mental roadblocks, regressions, and delays in their development and personal relationships. “A developmental dance/movement orientation addresses an individual’s intrapsychic, interpersonal, and spiritual evolution” (Loman, 2005, p. 73).
Authentic movement is used to reach back to a client’s earlier experiences. The individual lies on or near the ground, attending to bodily sensations and recreating a situation similar to that of an infant immersed in a sensory world.
The relationship is between the mover (the client) and the witness (the therapist). “The heart of the practice is about the longing, as well as the fear, to see ourselves clearly” (Loman, 2005, p. 73).
4 Exercises & Activities for Your Sessions
Many exercises and activities available to the dance therapist help clients of all ages reconnect with their physical, mental, and spiritual selves.
Often, they are performed in either groups or pairs (Loman, 2005; Karkou et al., 2017; Lachetta, n.d.), and we share a selection of activities here.
Embodying a character
The therapist asks the client to choose a character from a book, movie, or play — perhaps a superhero, cartoon character, villain, or even an animal.
Next, they are tasked with embodying that character through dance and movement.
The therapist guides them through the movements and helps them explore different emotions and experiences associated with their character.
Group circle dance
The group forms a circle and begins dancing together to a specific rhythm or beat in a piece of music chosen by the therapist to encourage connection and collaboration.
They are asked to pay attention to their own and others’ movements as they dance.
After a few minutes, the therapist suggests they try synchronizing their movements across the group to create a sense of unity and togetherness, breaking down individuality and encouraging connection.
Tuned walking in pairs
Clients form teams, walking side by side while listening to music or sounds through headphones. Each pair may have a unique piece of music.
The therapist chooses the music or sounds based on a specific theme or mood, such as nature sounds or upbeat music.
As they walk, the partners try to synchronize their steps with the rhythm of the music or sounds.
They are asked to pay attention to the sensations in their body as they walk and try to stay in tune with their partner.
Partners face each other and take turns mirroring their movements.
The therapist guides the pair through different movements, such as slow, fluid, fast, and energetic, possibly adding music.
As they attempt to copy each other’s movements, they are asked to pay attention to how their body feels and the physical patterns made by their partners.
They should try to create a sense of flow and connection between each of their own movements and those of their partner.
Many of these exercises are so helpful in treatment because they build trust and connection between partners and within the group (Loman, 2005).
Becoming a Dance Therapist: Courses & Certifications
There are many options for studying dance therapy, from certification to bachelor’s to master’s degrees (online and in-person). So, it is vital to consider the syllabus, cost, location, and whether the timings work for you.
The following is a representative sample of what is available.
Introductory Studies in Dance/Movement Therapy Certificate: University of Wisconsin–Madison, Wisconsin, US
Students learn about the skills involved in expressing and understanding emotion through movement, the background and theory of dance therapy, and how to use movement analysis during treatment.
Novice dancers are introduced to how therapists can use movement in violence prevention, behavior management, and social skills development.
Master of Arts in Dance Movement Psychotherapy: Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
The course gives students a broad understanding of the principles and practices of dance movement therapy.
Through theoretical and movement observation studies, dance practice workshops, clinical work, and experiential learning, the learner integrates cognitive understanding and practical experience with a developing awareness of self and others.
Each student is also encouraged to develop their own dance/movement practice.
There are only a few online courses for dance therapy, most likely because of the subject’s physical nature. However, we have listed two of our favorite low-residency courses below.
Certificate in Dance/Movement Therapy: Antioch University–New England, New Hampshire, US
While not entirely online, this low-residency, three-year program offers the latest innovative information on the discipline of dance/movement therapy as a mind–body approach in treatment.
Students develop a solid theoretical framework through research papers and integrative learning projects that follow each course and acquire all the practice needed for applying to the American Dance Therapy Association.
If you are keen to pursue dance therapy as a career, head on over to our post How to Become a Therapist for more guidance and insight.
3 Fascinating Dance Therapy Books
Dance therapy is a fascinating field of study. The following three books offer valuable insights into this powerful treatment combining mind and body
1. The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Wellbeing – Vicky Karkou, Sue Oliver, and Sophia Lycouris
The book provides an extensive collection of highly valuable chapters exploring the research and theory behind dance therapy and its many uses.
Perhaps no other book provides such a well-rounded view of the potential of dance to improve mental wellbeing. In doing so, it considers perspectives from neuroscience, health, community, education, psychology, and sociology.
This text is a vital read for anyone interested in dance therapy, despite being originally written in 2005 and having only one chapter focused entirely on the subject.
Susan Loman, who wrote the chapter on dance movement therapy, fully expresses her love for dance and the desire to help others, providing a brief history of dance as a treatment and diving into the major theoretical interventions.
We have many resources available for therapists to explore the physical and mental aspects engaged in dancing, music, and movement.
Our free resources include the following:
Interpreting Body Language
With so much of our communication being nonverbal, it’s helpful to better understand the signals involved in body language. This worksheet encourages the reader to reflect on body language displays matching specific emotions.
Awareness and presence are vital for effective communication and can be enhanced through deep engagement with others using activities such as dance. The Being Present worksheet can be used as a guide for reflection during therapy.
Using Music to Express Feelings
Music is a powerful tool and experience for expressing emotions.
This exercise encourages a rich and deep understanding between client and therapist and a better awareness in the client of how they feel at different times.
Step one – Identify three songs that are important to you.
Step two – Ask yourself a series of questions for each one, including:
When you hear this song, how does it make you feel?
Which part of the song is most important to you?
Step three – Together, reflect on the answers to form a deeper connection.
How we move is often overlooked. With mindfulness, we can learn to feel more present and grounded.
Step one – Stand still, become aware of the ground and how the weight can be transferred from one foot to another.
Step two – Begin walking normally.
Step three – Notice the sensations around your feet: your shoes and how the heel and ball of the foot contact the ground.
Step four – Slowly move your attention up your leg and your body to your arms and head.
Step five – Focus on each area, consciously relaxing each part.
Step six – When you stop walking, notice how it feels to no longer be in motion.
A Take-Home Message
Dancing feels good. When we reminisce about moving to music, we most likely remember fun, engagement, and forming deep bonds with those around us.
Research shows us that it has a far-reaching and healing effect on our bodies and mind, helping us through trauma, anxiety, and stress.
It is also a powerful way to connect or reconnect with the self and others, dropping barriers and overcoming negative thoughts that have blocked our growth.
Dance is so freeing that it offers a powerful tool for escaping the pressures of daily life and leaves the dancer feeling engaged, energized, and motivated for what is ahead.
The benefits don’t end there. As part of therapy, dance can help overcome emotional struggles and boost self-esteem and self-confidence while enhancing physical, cognitive, social, emotional, spiritual, and creative processes (Karkou et al., 2017).
Dance therapy has the potential to help individuals of all ages become aware and connect with their whole selves — mind, body, and spirit. Moving to music can help people regain a sense of their body’s capacity for expressiveness and find an opportunity for joy in their lives.
It is an action-oriented and spontaneous intervention for creativity, growth, and healing that mental health practitioners can combine with many other therapeutic approaches.
Can you get a bachelor's or master's degree in dance therapy?
You can get a Master of Arts in dance/movement therapy, dance/movement therapy and counseling, or dance movement psychotherapy, to name a few options.
What does dance therapy do, and how does it work?
Performing movements to music–whether inside or outside therapy–brings about potentially positive structural brain changes and also makes us feel good (Karkou et al., 2017).
Research has recorded an increase in endorphins, better regulation of cortisol, and enhanced brain neurotransmitters (Karkou et al., 2017).
How is dance therapy different from regular dancing?
While regular dancing can happen anywhere there’s music, dance therapy typically takes place in a therapeutic setting with sessions designed to promote self-expression, healing, personal growth, and self-awareness (Karkou et al., 2017).
What is another name for dance therapy?
Dance movement therapy is another name for dance therapy.
American Dance Therapy Association. (n.d.) Home. Retrieved May 8, 2023, from https://www.adta.org/.
Athanasiadou, F., & Karkou, V. (2017). Establishing relationships with children with autism spectrum disorders through dance movement psychotherapy: A case study using artistic enquiry. In S. Daniel and C. Trevarthen (Eds.), Rhythms of relating in children’s therapies (pp. 272–292). Jessica Kingsley.
Barton, E. J. (2011). Movement and mindfulness: A formative evaluation of a dance/movement and yoga therapy program with participants experiencing severe mental illness. American Journal of Dance Therapy, 33(2), 157–181.
Burkhardt J., & Brennan C. (2012). The effects of recreational dance interventions on the health and well-being of children and young people: A systematic review. Arts & Health, 4, 148–161.
Fernandez-Arguelles, E., Rodriguez-Mansilla, J., Antunez, L., Garrido-Ardila, E., & Munoz, R. (2015). Effects of dancing on the risk of falling related factors of healthy older adults: A systematic review. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, 60,1–8.
Karkou, V., Oliver, S., & Lycouris, S. (Eds.). (2017). The Oxford handbook of dance and wellbeing. Oxford University Press.
Lachetta, G. V. (n.d.). Dance therapy exercises part 2. SessionLab. Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.sessionlab.com/methods/dance-therapy-exercises-part-2.
Loman, S. T. (2005). Dance/movement therapy. In C. A. Malchiodi (Ed.), Expressive therapies (pp. 68–89). Guilford Press.
Strassel, J. K., Cherkin, D. C., Steuten, L., Sherman, K. J., & Vrijhoef, H. J. (2011). A systematic review of the evidence for the effectiveness of dance therapy. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 17(3), 50–59.
About the author
Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.