by Barbara Trainin Blank
Let’s start with a metaphor from the movies. In the final scene of Zorba the Greek, the intellectual, uptight writer, Basil, asks the exuberant older man to teach him to dance—and thereby embrace life.
Expressing joy, religious fervor, and other emotions, dance is probably one of the oldest art forms—dependent as it is on nonverbal use of one’s own body to communicate.
Using dance therapeutically—to lift spirits or remove evil spirits—is ancient, as well. Dance has been an important part of self-expression, ceremonial and religious events, and health in most cultures throughout history. For example, medicine men and women of many Native American tribes used dance as part of their healing rituals.
“Dance therapy is as old as civilization,” says Julie Miller, executive director of the American Dance Therapy Association, which is dedicated to the growth and enhancement of the profession of dance/movement therapy (DMT) and advocates for the development and expansion of DMT services. “It really grew out of dancing for healing, as a community ritual. It’s a very old tradition.”
Dance/movement therapy—which is defined by ADTA as the psychotherapeutic use of movement in a process that furthers the emotional, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual—is based on the assumption that body and mind are interrelated. The roots of dance/movement therapy as a formal discipline and type of clinical intervention are much more recent. The therapy began at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., in the 1940s through the work of Marian Chace, a former dancer and dance teacher.
“Chace had studied with Mary Wigman and the Denishawn Company, which put an emphasis on ‘natural’ improvisational movement rather than the more stylized steps of ballet,” says Miller. “She began her work following World War I, when thousands of veterans returning with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental disorders were flooding psychiatric hospitals—before the advent of psychiatric medication.”
Chace would wheel her record player cart onto a ward of psychotic men, put on music, and begin to move. As the patients joined in, she would pick up on and mirror their movements, using the elements of dance dynamics as well as imagery to clarify the expressive aspects of the movement, Miller continues. “This shared expression of feelings allowed the patients to feel seen, and broke through some of the isolation caused by their psychoses. Because the ability to verbalize was often impaired by their illness, dance and body movement became the pathway for communication and expression.”
A few years later, another pioneering dancer/dance teacher, Mary Whitehouse, began to incorporate her experience with Jungian analysis into her dance classes. Working on the West Coast, Whitehouse developed a form of dance/movement therapy she called “authentic movement.” Other dancers established their own systems as well.
“Part of what makes dance/movement therapy such a powerful tool is that it’s preverbal,” says Miller.
Many people in the field of dance/movement therapy started out as dancers. A master’s degree is required. Beginning-level dance therapists who have at least 700 hours of supervised clinical training hold the title of Dance Therapist Registered (DTR). The title Academy of Dance Therapists (ADTR) is awarded to advanced-level dance therapists who have completed 3,640 hours of supervised clinical work in an agency, institution, or special school with additional supervision from an ADTR.
After receiving a BFA in dance, Jessica Young began to look at options in the field. “I wasn’t familiar with dance/movement therapy at the time,” says Young. “I found it fit my interests quite well.”
Before returning to an academic position at Columbia College in Chicago, her alma mater, Young was employed in two community mental health settings. In one, she worked with patients with mental illness and substance abuse. In the other, her patients were homeless individuals with chronic and severe mental illness.
“Their cognitive abilities and socialization were impaired,” she says. “It was remarkable how, in a group setting, the modality of dance/movement therapy worked. Their affect was brighter, and they were engaged. Sometimes, after the therapy, they would switch right back into a low affect.”
Gradually, though, through dance/movement therapy, the patients began to embody new ways to relate throughout the day, Young points out.
Ricki Grater, LCSW, has a dual degree in psychotherapy/social work and dance therapy from Hunter College and is also a yoga teacher. After working full time in an inpatient psychiatric unit for six years, she eventually went into private therapy practice.
She found that she missed dancing with her patients and eventually took a part-time position at Lenox Hill Hospital, where she could use dance therapy—traditional Chasean—with inpatients.
For nine years, Grater has also been running two “authentic movement” groups—minus music, in which the participants move to an inner impulse—for high-functioning women.
Grater believes her background in dance therapy is helpful in her general private practice. “Even if we just do traditional therapy, I understand the world of the body and spirit, and patients often choose me because of that,” she says. “If it’s relevant, I’ll include dance therapy or other action-oriented therapy. I do voice dialogue and psychodrama, yoga techniques, and meditation. Other patients come specifically for authentic movement.”
Jo Ann Stetzelberger started her career as a dancer with the Nikolais Dance Lab, an international pedagogy school, then realized that what she had learned as a dancer was “so transferable” into improvisation. She was interested in body-mind integration, specifically to reduce stress.
After a major injury took her out of dance, Stetzelberger took some of the body-awareness techniques she learned in relaxation and meditation classes and moved into psychology—incorporating dance/movement therapy.
“When I first started dance, I was very interested in dance therapy and looked into it,” she says.
Stetzelberger also has a private practice, including “very individualized” movement groups for adolescents. She also does outreach for a new art center in Austin, Texas. “Most of the population we get are at-risk foster children, primarily with attachment issues,” she says. “We start with the body-mind connection and with sensory awareness of early needs, from Erikson’s stages of trust. We work on how you build trust with other people and from there move into areas of resiliency and being in a group, contributing to the larger community.”
Dance/movement therapy is a predominantly female field, with male dancers tending to go into Ph.D. programs or choreography instead.
One man who chose dance therapy is Ted Ehrhardt, who teaches in the creative arts therapy master’s program at Pratt Institute in New York City. He learned Laban, an Austrian movement system of observing and recording movement, with the intent of becoming a yoga teacher.
“But while doing analysis, I saw that movement was expressive and could teach about the mind and body,” says Ehrhardt. “That led me to dance therapy,” despite an originally negative attitude toward dance.
Ehrhardt obtained a dual degree in social work and dance therapy and now works with an inpatient population of mentally ill individuals.
“I use choreography broadly,” he says. “I create dances with everyday movements put into sequences, to get to a metaphoric level, to use as insight into their lives. I prompt patients to express their feelings. Most of the patients are schizophrenic or depressed—or both—and dance therapy increases their insight. They may not have the skills to express themselves verbally. That’s where choreography comes into place. Dance therapy is one of several techniques—and it helps.”
If patients are profoundly depressed, it may be difficult to get started, Ehrhardt admits. That’s where music can help. “You can then persuade them to try a little. The session may not seem like a lot of movement, but it is for them.”
Sometimes, though, decreasing movement may be part of the treatment, as in bipolar patients in a manic phase.
Another man in the profession is Kris Lauren, on the faculty of Columbia College in Chicago. Lauren had wanted to be a dentist, but felt deterred by his Tourette’s Syndrome. He then realized he had the biology and psychology credits and needed only a physical exercise class for his degree, so he took dance.
“I fell in love with ballet and wanted to dance,” Lauren says. “I volunteered at a studio so I could take free classes, and a woman there suggested I become a dance therapist.”
Lauren attended the Neuropa graduate program in Boulder, Colorado, and found that dance therapy blended science with creativity. “Through dance, I could stimulate the right and left brain,” he says.
Returning to Chicago, Lauren got a job at a hospital and later went into private practice. He started his own dance company and also does private therapy.
Lauren has found that even some of his dance/movement therapy clients “just want to talk. I can’t expect them to move right away,” he says. “I look for metaphors in their words, and words that carry movements. For example, if they feel ‘stuck,’ I bring that into movement. People can lie their way of talking into patterns. Dance therapy gets them into new worlds they can’t manipulate.”
Talking therapy often leads to resistance and fear, Lauren notes. “I’ve worked with addictions. People can’t play the same game in dance therapy. I watch their breathing and energy patterns. The body itself is the canvas. Sometimes patients may need something tactile to hold onto, so I’ll throw a ball.”
Clinical reports suggest that dance therapy helps develop body image; improves self-concept and self-esteem; reduces stress, anxiety, and depression; decreases isolation, chronic pain, and body tension; and increases communication skills and feelings of well being. But beyond psychological applications, dance/movement therapy is used medically. In one recent study, breast cancer survivors were given a 12-week dance therapy and movement class. The women who had dance therapy showed better range of motion in their shoulders than those who didn’t.
Dance/movement therapy also provides the health benefits all exercise does. Physical activity is known to increase endorphins in the brain, which creates a feeling of well being. Total body movement enhances the functions of other body systems, such as the circulatory, respiratory, skeletal, and muscular systems. Regular aerobic exercise helps with glucose metabolism, cardiovascular fitness, and weight control.
“Since we are our bodies,” says Julie Miller, “the experience of dance/movement therapy occurs within the self as it moves, with no transitional ‘object’ to mediate it. This can be both profound and threatening, which is why, I think, DMT may have a harder time being accepted by the psychiatric community.”
Not for lack of trying. There are now more than 1,200 dance therapists in the United States and abroad. DMT is practiced in diverse settings, including mental health rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, educational centers, day-care facilities, and other programs that promote health.
There are new uses for dance/movement therapy all the time. It is offered as a health promotion service for healthy people, and as a complementary method of reducing stress in caregivers and people with chronic illness. Physically, dance therapy can provide exercise, improve mobility and muscle coordination, and reduce muscle tension. Emotionally, dance therapy is reported to improve self-awareness, self-confidence, and interpersonal interaction, and is an outlet for communicating feelings. Some say that dance may strengthen the immune system and even help prevent disease.
Dance/movement therapists assist people to develop a nonverbal language that gives information about what is going on in their bodies. The therapist observes a person’s movements to make an assessment and design a program to help the specific condition. The frequency and level of difficulty of the therapy is tailored to the needs of participants.
Zorba wasn’t a dance therapist, but with his freeing effect on Basil as they kicked up their heels together on the beach, he might as well have been.
Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance writer in Harrisburg, PA.