Throughout the ages, cultures have relied on dance to convey emotion, tell stories, communicate with each other and the supernatural and to treat illness. Individuals embraced its rhythms as a therapeutic experience, and healers employed its movements as an intrinsic accompaniment to the ritual of healing. The power of dance to communicate, express, and restore underlies the ability of dance therapy to heal to this day.
Modern dance therapy, also called dance/movement therapy, finds its origins with modern dance pioneers like Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. They transformed dance from stylized forms like ballet into a self-expressive, spontaneous form, where individuality was encouraged. In the 1940s, after turning to a career as a dance instructor, Marian Chace noticed that for some of her students dance was an emotional outlet for feelings they needed to express, not just a series of movements. She encouraged her students to concentrate on experiencing these emotions through movement, rather than focusing on the actual technique of the dance routine. Chace said of her work, this rhythmic action in unison with others results in a feeling of well-being, relaxation, and good fellowship.
Chace went on to study at the Washington School of Psychiatry and to teach her theory of dance therapy. She believed that the communication of the dance fulfilled a basic human need, and her work provided insights into the relationship of movements and their therapeutic effect, how speech or narrative can assist in both group and individual settings, how rhythmic movement helps with organizing and clarifying processes, and how dance serves to unify a group.
The field of dance therapy was expanding. Around WWII, the work of psychoanalytic pioneers like Freud and Jung made their mark on the Dance Therapy movement. One of them was Mary Starks Whitehouse, who would become a Jungian analyst. She developed a process called
movement-in-depth based on her knowledge of dance, movement and depth psychology. This form of dance therapy is known today as
authentic movement, a process where patients dance their feelings about an internal image that provides insight into issues in their past or current life.
Chase assisted in the formation of the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) in 1966 and served as its first president. The ADTA gave formal recognition to the field of dance therapy. According to the
ADTA dance therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of movement as a process which furthers the emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual.
Dance therapists believe that the body, mind, and emotions, are interrelated and that the state of the body has a positive or negative affect on our attitude and feelings. Illness, injury, emotional and physical trauma can cause us to become out of balance and our way of expression and functioning in the world changes as well. Dance therapy seeks to open up these restrictions by allowing the patient to uncover and express them in movement, integrating and accepting them as part of the whole. It also provides a means of communication beyond the self, enabling the individual to go beyond any isolation to connect, share and express common ground with others.
Dance therapy provides can be helpful for a wide range of patients and problems. It is useful for those with restricted movement of movement, whether from arthritis, aging, degenerative disease, or other causes. For the chronically ill or dying, it can aid in dealing with issues of death, pain and changes in body image. Children, who dont have the patience or attention span for other forms of therapy, can benefit from the openness that comes with expressive dance. Adults whose emotions have been buried or who are not in touch with their feelings, as well as victims of abuse who are otherwise unable to articulate their problem, may find insight and release through dance. Even those confined to wheelchairs can move their upper body in response to musical rhythms.
Dance therapy can assist in interpersonal relationship within the family and can serve as communicator for those with speech and learning disabilities and autism. It is also a means of relaxation and stress reduction. Dances expressive element may also add an aesthetic and spiritual dimension to the experience. An evolving area of dance therapy is its in disease prevention and health promotion programs for the chronically ill.
In her article Healing in motion: dance therapy meets diverse needs, Horowitz identifies the following as goals of dance therapy:
1. to foster a physically and emotionally safe, non-judgmental environment that is respectful of individual limitations and achievements
2. to facilitate individual expression and communication with other people
3. to increase body awareness, spontaneity, creativity and a healthy self-image
4. to promote and integrate emotional stability (including anger management and stress reduction)
5. to support personal growth through insight, energy, and an expanded movement repertoire
Watching a patients movements during therapy provides tremendous insight into the dynamics of the individual or the group. According to Dr. Fran Levy, author of Dance and Other Expressive Art Therapies: When Words Are Not Enough, body movement reflects inner emotional states and
changes in movement behavior can lead to changes in the psyche, thus promoting health and growth.
In 1993, the Office of Alternative Medicine, now the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, awarded the American Dance Therapy Association one of the first grants to explore dance movement therapy in patients with medical illnesses.