Dance Movement Therapy

Dance movement therapy (DMT) uses movement and dance to improve mental and physical wellbeing. It is a type of therapy in the category known as creative arts therapy, which enables people to express themselves through their body.

Because movement and emotions are thought to be closely interrelated in DMT, there is a particular holistic focus on integrating these aspects of a person’s wellbeing. The exploration and integration of movement and emotion are thought to help people to develop a clearer and stronger sense of self.

DMT therapists undertake specialized training and can use a diverse range of models and techniques. DMT can help people to overcome challenges in individual or groups sessions across a wide range of health, education, social services or private practice settings. It provides a way of helping people express themselves and find solutions without relying on verbal communication.

Issues dance movement therapy can help with

DMT can help people with a variety of physical, behavioral and mental health challenges. Some examples of the kinds of problems people attend DMT for help with include:

DMT and other creative arts therapies are unique in helping people to express themselves and progress in ways not possible through more traditional talking therapies. DMT can be particularly helpful when:

  • People have difficulty expressing themselves verbally. For example, children may not yet have the verbal abilities required to express the complexity of their thoughts and emotions.
  • There is limited improvement from traditional talking therapies.
  • The problem bringing a person to therapy involves painful emotions and difficult experiences, such as in trauma. DMT provides a way of addressing these without having talking about them.

The choice to participate in DMT also comes down to personal fit and therapy preference. Some people find that the creative and expressive style of therapy resonates with them more than other types of therapy.

Effectiveness of dance movement therapy

Research suggests that DMT can be an effective treatment for a range of mental health challenges. For example:

  • A review of studies found that DMT was effective in treating anxiety. The review also reported that adults and adolescents appeared to benefit from DMT more than children. (1)
  • A more recent review of the research found that DMT was effective in helping improve well-being, mood and body image. (2)
  • A comprehensive Cochran review found that DMT shows promise as a treatment for depression, but that it requires further research. (3)

How dance movement therapy can help

DMT aims to improve wellbeing through the benefits of gentle physical activity through dance and psychological therapy. By holistically integrating the emotional, spiritual and thinking parts of ourselves, DMT helps us to develop new ways of coping with mental health challenges.

It helps people in the following ways: (1)

  • It enables nonverbal creative expression
  • It encourages increased awareness of the body, the self and improves self-esteem
  • It improves coordination and movement, and encourages the release of tension
  • It can be a pleasurable activity and provide an opportunity for relaxation
  • Group DMT provides an opportunity for social contact

DMT is not about working towards a public performance of dance, physiotherapy or occupational therapy. It does not require any dance ability; those without formal dance training may even find it easier to participate in initially. (4)

Frequency and length of dance movement therapy sessions

DMT therapists are quite diverse in their approach. As such, session frequency and length of therapy can vary widely.

DMT tends to provided in group therapy more often than in individual therapy.

What happens in a typical dance movement therapy session

DMT therapists vary widely in their theoretical orientation, aims and techniques (4). This means that a DMT session can look quite different depending on the therapist.

Your therapist may keep sessions structured or take a non-directive approach and encourage you to lead the session.

Elements that may be involved in some - but not all - DMT sessions include: (5)

  • In some models, dance and movement are used throughout the entire therapeutic process, for observation, assessment, communication and interaction, as well as treatment. (6)
  • You’re likely to start the session with a warm-up and end with a cool-down.
  • Often, the therapist will encourage you to explore new forms of movement to encourage growth.
  • In many cases, music is used to accompany dance.
  • The therapist may mirror some of your movements, to help them to understand your experience and communicate their understanding of it. The therapeutic relationship is central in DMT.
  • The therapist might help you to develop a better awareness of your body through movement or dance. They might ask you to make a gesture, change it in some way, or observe it mindfully.
  • You might create a sequence of movements or dance that is symbolic of your inner experience. This can be particularly helpful for working with difficult emotions.
  • At the close of a session, the therapist might ask you to talk about the experience, or help you to connect your nonverbal experience with words.

What to look for in a dance movement therapist

If you are looking for a DMT therapist to help you work through mental health concerns, consider the following factors:

Current license

Look for a mental health professional with a current license; this ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. When browsing through therapists on Zencare, you can rest assured that our therapists have already been vetted.

Specialized DMT training

Look for a therapist who is board certified or has completed specialized training offered by a recognized organization, such as the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) or International Association of Dance Movement Therapists.

Take a look at therapists’ biographies, as this is often where they note their experience and specializations.

Personal fit

Prioritize the potential for developing a strong working relationship with your therapist. This trusting relationship, called the “therapeutic alliance” can have a significant impact on the effect of therapy.

Spend some time thinking about what kind of DMT approach you would prefer. Would you prefer group or individual therapy? A therapist who is directive during sessions or a therapist who will respond to your lead?

Talk in advance

The best way to gauge how you might feel about your prospective therapist and their DMT style is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to do so. This gives you the opportunity to ask about your therapist’s:

  • Education and qualifications relating to their mental health profession
  • DMT training and certification, and membership of professional associations, such as the ADTA
  • Experience in treating people who share your particular mental health concerns
  • Whether they offer group or individual therapy
  • Whether they use a directive or non-directive approach
  • What kind of DMT approach they use and what that therapy will be like
  • What kind of DMT techniques they use in sessions
  • Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy

It’s a good idea to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.

Sources and references

  1. Effects of Dance/Movement Therapy: A Meta-analysis
  2. Effects of dance movement therapy and dance on health-related psychological outcomes: A meta-analysis
  3. Cochrane Library, “Dance movement therapy for depression (Review)” (PDF)
  4. Dance Movement Therapy: Theory and Practice (PDF)
  5. American Dance Therapy Association, “What does a dance/movement therapy session look like?
  6. American Dance Therapy Association FAQs