Dance Movement Psychotherapy

From Indian Bhangra to the Dragon Dance of China to Samba in Brazil, dance has been a form of expression for centuries. Cultures from all around the world have used it as a form of entertainment, performing arts and religious purposes. Dance was even used as an important method for passing down stories from one generation to the next, before the invention of written language (Dewald, 2006).

Ifound this fascinating considering the most popular trauma therapies involvetalking (Watkins, Sprang &Rothbaum, 2018) yet history has shown words came long after the use ofpetroglyphs, pictograms and dance to communicate. It was not until the pasthalf century that dance was characterised as a form of therapy.


MarianChace established Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) in 1942. Chace was a dancer andconsidered the founder of dance therapy in the US. After opening her own danceschool in the states, she noticed the positive effects it had on her students. Reportedfeelings of wellbeing began to attract the attention of the medical communityand soon paediatricians and psychiatrists started sending patients to her classes.It was then that the first ever non-verbal therapy ‘Dance for Communication’ wasoffered (Admin, 2020). In1966 she founded, alongside several other DMT pioneers such as Mary Whitehouseand Trudy Schoop, the American Dance Therapy Association. An organisation thatestablished dance into a profession and developed the training andcertification standards for the field (Helpet al., 2020). In the 1980s, therapists experimented withpsychotherapeutic applications of dance and movement, DMT was then categorisedas a form of psychotherapy. In the UK, Dance Movement Psychotherapy (DMP) wasspearheaded by Helen Payne who formed the Association for Dance MovementTherapy (1982). Today, DMP is influenced by theoretic frameworks such as thepsychodynamic theory, Gestalt theory and humanistic theory.


Thefundaments of DMP is that movement can be symbolic and can representunconscious processes, in essence, motion and emotion. Movement is more thanjust exercise; the actions can be interpreted more like a language of consciousand unconscious feelings ("WhatIs Dance Movement Therapy?", 2020). Dance is usually seen as aperformance telling a story but what if it can be used to tell personal stories?This is what dance therapists explore. Therapists will observe non-verbalbehaviours and body language and then evaluate and implement therapeuticinterventions including mirroring, rhythms, movement metaphor. Through thisexposure, a therapist will use movement to help a client gain stress reductionand mood management as well as improving self-esteem and tackling repressedtrauma. Therapy will usually consist of warm up, a release, time for themedevelopment, working on ‘centring’, and finally closure. (Jacobson, 2020). Sessions can be highlystructured or non-directive and can be individual or in groups. DMP tendsto be used for eating disorders (ED) as body image distortion and alexithymiaare two core aspects of ED, however, according to Mary Whitehouse DMP is widelyused in non- diagnosis situations which she called normal neurotics. Byexploring the non-verbal behaviours, DMP facilitates self-development, explorationand growth that can be helpful for those suffering emotional distress,relationship difficulties and occupational challenges.


TheNational Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has recommended DMP asan effective and research proven way to treat schizophrenia. It is also growingin popularity as an intervention (NHS) for other mental health problems such asdiagnosed depression, anxiety, substance abuse, PTSD and medically unexplained symptoms(psychosomatic symptoms).

Anarticle ("HuffPost is now apart of Verizon Media", 2020) on trauma therapy explored the benefits ofcreative arts therapies and personal experiences of BIPOC highlighted how dancetherapy has helped them overcome their battle with trauma. Somatic therapist,Karima Kripalani, explains how a transformed mental outlook and buildingresilience are key aims of non-verbal therapies. This was enlightening toresearch as she explained the goal is not to ‘get over’ the trauma but ‘increasea capacity to deal with unprocessed trauma’. Dance helps bring unprocessedemotions to the surface and become aware of their bodily sensations in order torelease the ‘tyranny of the past’ (Van der Kolk, 2015).

A study of DMP and mirroring (Koch, Mehl,Sobanski, Sieber & Fuchs, 2014) on young adults with autism found improvedwell-being, body awareness and social skills. However, this was a small samplestudy consequently results can’t be generalised until future research isconducted. Ameta-analysis on treatments of depression (Karkou, Aithal, Zubala & Meekums, 2019) found conclusive resultsthat show DMP is an effective treatment of depression in adults which haverelevance to clinical practice.

Researchinto efficacy and mechanisms of DMP is still at its infancy. However, thestudies which exist suggest dance therapy is a broadly effective approach forhealing trauma and has become a platform for further research.






Shaikh, A., & Dandekar, S. (2019). PerceivedBenefits and Barriers to Exercise among Physically Active and Non-ActiveElderly People. Disability, CBR & Inclusive Development30(2),73-83. doi: 10.5463/dcid.v30i2.839


Dewald, J. (2006). Europe, 1450 to 1789.Detroit: Scribner.

Watkins, L., Sprang, K., & Rothbaum, B.(2018). Treating PTSD: A Review of Evidence-Based PsychotherapyInterventions. Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience12.doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00258


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Jacobson, S. (2020). What is Dance MovementPsychotherapy? - Harley Therapy™ Blog. Retrieved 28 August 2020, from


Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keepsthe score. New York (New York): Penguin Books.


Karkou, V., Aithal, S., Zubala, A., & Meekums,B. (2019). Effectiveness of Dance Movement Therapy in the Treatment of AdultsWith Depression: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analyses. Frontiers InPsychology10. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00936


Koch, S., Mehl, L., Sobanski, E., Sieber, M.,& Fuchs, T. (2014). Fixing the mirrors: A feasibility study of the effectsof dance movement therapy on young adults with autism spectrum disorder. Autism19(3),338-350. doi: 10.1177/1362361314522353

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