When it comes to therapy, we often envision sitting down with a therapist—maybe over Zoom, perhaps in a cozy office—to work through the challenges we’re facing. But what if you incorporated movement into the session? Enter dance/movement therapy (DMT), a practice that uses a more holistic approach to mental wellness that focuses on the integration of the physical being with the emotions. The practice can be used to help treat a variety of diagnoses, such as trauma, depression, autism, eating disorders and psychosis. We spoke with two therapists about what it is, who it’s for, the conditions that it can help manage and the benefits of participating in the practice.
What Is Dance Movement Therapy (& Can It Really Help with Anxiety and Depression)?
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Meet the Experts
- Jennifer Sterling is a dance/movement psychotherapist and the owner of NYC-based Bodyful Healing, a practice that offers dance/movement psychotherapy, coaching and courses to address trauma and depression. Sterling holds a M.S. in holistic nutrition from Hawthorn University and a master’s degree in dance therapy from Sarah Lawrence College.
- Erica Hornthal is a board-certified dance/movement therapist, influencer and author of the book, Body Aware: Rediscover Your Mind-Body Connection, Stop Feeling Stuck and Improve Your Mental Health with Simple Movement Practices. Hornthal is a licensed, clinical professional counselor and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy.
What Is Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT)?
According to the American Dance Therapy Association, dance/movement therapy can be defined “as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual, for the purpose of improving health and well-being.” Sterling likes to describe it more as therapy that takes the entire individual into account.
“We’ll talk, but we’ll also get curious about what’s happening in your body and the ways we can use your body as a resource for emotional expression, emotional regulation and healing,” she says.
Hornthal adds that DMT is “a somatic psychotherapy that focuses on all communication, including nonverbal, as well as body awareness, mindfulness and verbal processing as it emerges in the therapeutic relationship.”
DMT can be beneficial to anyone wanting to take a holistic approach to therapy, with Sterling noting that it can be effective for various ages and diagnoses, from depression to autism and dementia.
Dance vs. Dance/Movement Therapy: How Are They Different?
This isn’t your average dance class, where you come to learn the choreography for a tap or jazz sequence. Instead, DMT sessions focus on organic movement and movement patterns that support a person’s emotional regulation and behavior change. Sessions are always facilitated by a registered and/or board-certified therapist, shares Sterling. There are also regulations: Practitioners must abide by state counseling laws and a professional code of ethics.
“It considers the individual’s cognitive, emotional, spiritual and physical abilities and needs regarding mental and emotional wellbeing,” Hornthal elaborates. “DMTs are trained to work with a myriad of mental health diagnoses as well as provide therapeutic movement goals designed to support mental health. Therapeutic techniques include but are not limited to kinesthetic empathy, mirroring, attuning to the client’s psychosomatic symptoms, rhythmic body movement, improvisation, play and guided movement interventions designed to regulate the nervous system and widen the individual's emotional window of tolerance.”
Sterling goes on to add that there is an emphasis on mindfulness in DMT. “We pay attention to breathing and other involuntary movements and rhythms in the body, like the beat of our hearts. There may also be opportunities to use movement (big, small and in between) to express emotions. For example, how might you demonstrate anger with your hands, feet or whole body?”
What Conditions Can Dance/Movement Therapy Help With?
Hornthal and Sterling note that DMT can be effective in helping to manage a variety of conditions, including, but not limited to:
- Chronic pain
- Eating disorders
- Movement disorders
- Sensory processing disorders
- Mood disorders
“We work with the body using a spectrum of movement—from metabolic movement to tone, reflexes, motor planning, non-verbal communication and creative movement,” Sterling says. “Addressing each of these aspects allows dance/movement therapists to impact different systems in the body. We invite clients to speak and notice thoughts, like other forms of therapy, but we're also making the connection between the brain and the body which allows us to get to the root cause of behavior patterns and support the folks we work with in creating sustainable changes and/or move toward sustainable healing and recovery.”
Benefits of Dance/Movement Therapy
DMT marries physical and mental wellness by inviting practitioners to engage with physiological processes that might not be explored in other types of therapy, Sterling says. Doing DMT can help you understand how your body is responding to your environment, which can reveal the impact it has on your behavioral patterns. Sterling also notes that it has been shown to improve mood, support positive body image, increase feelings of vitality, coordination and mobility and reduce stress.
Hornthal adds that other benefits can include increased self-identity, awareness and confidence, enhanced resilience, compassion and better body awareness.
How to Access Dance/Movement Therapy
Like other types of therapy, DMT is offered in one-on-one settings but is also frequently done in groups. To find a registered, board-certified therapist, Sterling suggests looking through the directory on the American Dance Therapy website. There, you can filter results to find therapists by specialization, which range from eating disorders to autism and palliative care.