Art Works Blog

The Healing Power of Dance

Washington, DC

Sherry Goodill. Photo courtesy of Dr. Goodill.

It is an honor to contribute to the blog today, National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, and to tell you a little bit about dance, dance/movement therapy and children’s mental health needs. Today, SAMHSA---the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration---is bringing national attention to the needs of children and teens who have experienced trauma, communicating about trauma informed care and how to support resilience and recovery for these kids. SAMHSA has called on some of the creative arts therapy organizations, including the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) to partner with and help inform about how the arts support resiliency. In my own work as a dance/movement therapist, I’ve seen how this happens many times over.

Dance/Movement Therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of dance and movement processes to bring about healing and recovery for individuals of all ages and cultural groups. It is practiced by trained, masters’ level professionals: mental health clinicians who specialize in this creative arts therapy. Since 1966, the ADTA has advanced this mind/body integrated form of psychotherapy, with member services, educational standards, professional credentialing, continuing education and public action to advocate for the needs of those we serve in hospitals, after-school programs, mental health centers, schools, rehabilitation facilities, wellness programs, and other settings.

One of the benefits of dancing is an increased sense of vitality---an awakening and renewal of one’s life energy. Studies have shown that dance interventions by trained professionals can decrease depression, improve mood, and strengthen positive feelings about one’s self. Dance/movement therapy (or DMT) harnesses the many elements of dance that have therapeutic potential. DMT does not emphasize dance technique and it is not about the artistic product (a performance). Rather, it is very much about improvisation, the mobilization and exchange of energy, and the creative, expressive process. DMT clients learn to move in ways that are authentic to how they are feeling and experiencing life, in the context of a supportive therapeutic relationship.

We dance/movement therapists focus on rhythms and phrases, and on the quality of the movement: space, weight, and time. We rely on Laban Movement Analysis for assessing movement in relation to health and human development. We work with transforming fragmentation into connectedness, and giving the silenced a voice through the medium of dance. Dance forms and structures are modified for release of tension and for helping people become comfortable moving. While the dance/movement experience is the main focus of a DMT session, dance/movement therapists will also use verbalization and discussion in sessions, and sometimes DMT sessions can be noisy with music, rhythm instruments, foot stomping, hand-clapping, or laughter and all kinds of vocalizing.

Dance is movement, and movement is essentially a process of ongoing change. Moving with one’s whole body, with and against gravity, one learns to both yield and resist, to feel one’s strength and to feel one’s vulnerability, to try on new qualities of action and behavior. This is what it means to be fully human. DMT can improve body image. Paul Schilder, a developmental neuroscientist, once said that dance is a loosening up of the body schema. He was describing how when we dance, the movement activates a dynamic and constant feedback loop back and forth between our brains and our bodies, so that our experience of our felt and living selves is one of change.

It has been reported that children who have been traumatized can live on the alert, anxious and fearful. Dance-based methods for getting grounded, for sensing the body’s energy and position, and for developing breath support can help with learning to pay attention to one’s own needs, and for feeling more in control, and for regulating fearful or angry reactions.

As dancers know, dancing and moving rhythmically with other people creates a powerful sense of “with-ness.” This is a basic principle of DMT, as noted by dance therapy pioneer Marian Chace, and group cohesion is formed very quickly through what she called “shared rhythmic action.” Unlike most dance classes, group dance/movement therapy sessions will often start and end in a circle formation. In a circle, everyone can see everyone else; we connect visually with the people across the circle and kinesthetically with the people on either side. Everyone is of equal status: the circle encourages participation by everyone, and invites each person to contribute movement ideas.

Here are a couple of examples of DMT in action:

My colleague Ellen Schelly-Hill and I were invited to provide a DMT experience as part of a day-long Celebration of Hope in a high school where three students had committed suicide during the previous year. Each teen there had experienced loss and the entire community was grieving. In the group, each person remembered someone who they had lost and then embodied a gesture, posture, or movement pattern that they remembered that person doing. Everyone danced all of the “memorial” movement expressions, and we combined them into a group dance, then videoed and shared it with the whole community present that day. In this way, the memories were given shape, shared through the expression movement form, and the teens felt less alone with their feelings.

Children and teens who have experienced trauma can find strength, resilience, and the will to go on through facilitated dance/movement expression. At a psychiatric center in Delaware, in one DMT session I had with teens who had been sexually abused, the group members improvised their journey from “victim to survivor” moving along a linear pathway. They understood the metaphor, and how it is manifest in dance/movement language (like “getting stuck,” “falling and getting up again,” “standing firm,” “going around in circles,” etc.). One boy took a very short journey and then stopped after traveling only a few feet along. The others saw what he was saying without words: that he felt he had so far---too far---to go. I supported him while they gave him their observations: that in fact he had made a lot of progress and in their view had come much further. He tried taking the next few steps and then began to own the progress he had made, toward wholeness and his future.

Please visit the ADTA website for more information about dance/movement therapy. And tune in tonight for a LIVE webcast of a very special event tonight---featuring NEA Chair Rocco Landesman, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and author/actor Jamie Lee Curtis---in celebration of National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day.

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