The bones in 2-year-old Ellie’s feet were growing in a curved position instead of growing normally. Doctors said she would need a series of surgeries—which involved breaking and casting her feet—to correct the problem. Concerned, Ellie’s parents wanted to find a less invasive and less painful alternative. They decided to try dance therapy.
Ellie danced every day, with careful attention paid to the positions of her feet and her weight distribution as she moved. By kindergarten, her bones were growing normally; as a side effect, she was a good dancer. Dancing also taught Ellie to associate healing with fun and beauty, rather than the pain of surgery.
The American Dance Therapy Association defines dance/movement therapy (D/MT) as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, cognitive, social, and physical integration of the individual.” D/MT treats a range of needs, from physical, as in Ellie’s case, to psychological. Therapists are trained in psychology, basic anatomy and kinesiology, and dance. Many are also licensed psychotherapists. Christina Devereaux, spokesperson for the ADTA, stresses that dance/movement therapists are graduate-level trained, and that D/MT is a certified profession.
D/MT isn’t like a dance class with tutus and routines. Movement is often improvised, and a therapist may also guide movement for a particular purpose, such as increasing a child’s range of motion. The therapist may use imagery to help the child through different positions, saying something like, “Raise your arms up high like a big sun, then lower your hands down like it’s raining.”
A therapist may also use the technique of mirroring. She matches a child’s actions and energy level and guides both to a safe place. This technique helps in relationship-building, especially for autistic children. Susan Loman, the director of dance/movement therapy at Antioch University in New Hampshire, says, “Through body communication, therapist and child can co-create moment-to-moment movement dialogues.” The therapist and child develop a nonverbal relationship in which the therapist “intervenes through movement, and helps the child process challenging experiences,” she says. The child and therapist connect, building trust for future sessions.
Dance/movement therapy sessions may take place one-on-one, or in a group setting. There can be music, and props such as balls and scarves can be used. Physical rhythms—clapping and stomping—and vocalizations may come into play. After working with movement, a therapist may describe the child’s efforts aloud, giving the child the words to express herself.
Patients don’t need the stereotypical athletic, lean physique associated with dancers. Depending on a child’s needs and abilities, he can even remain seated for therapy, and just move part of his body.
Other Benefits of Dance/Movement Therapy
The ADTA says D/MT is based on the understanding that the body and mind are inter-related. Dance develops a child’s awareness of what she is doing, where she is in space, and where her mind is. Therapists see if a child is interacting or distracted, and they guide a child’s mind and body to work together. This focus helps to treat a range of conditions from ADD/ADHD to schizophrenia.
If children can’t or won’t articulate, movement provides an expressive outlet. Loman says, “Since infants and young children communicate through body language before verbal language develops, this language of movement is already known and understood by children.” Movement reveals patients’ moods and physical states, and therapists “read” that movement and use it during sessions. “Understanding that children have their own movement styles and preferences educates us in how to approach children individually,” says Loman.
D/MT is also beneficial as physical therapy. As in Ellie’s case, it can help with a child’s physical development. And because movement heightens body awareness, it also promotes a healthy body image. It helps tween and teen patients recover from eating disorders as they become comfortable with their bodies. Movement and athleticism also help prevent obesity. If children are overweight, dance therapy provides a safe way to exercise.
For children recovering from physical injuries, including brain trauma, D/MT helps patients develop or redevelop cognitive and motor skills. Instead of focusing on a child’s “can’ts,” its creativity enables patients to find new movement patterns and new ways to express themselves.
To learn more or to find a local certified dance/movement therapist, call 400/997-4040 or visit adta.org.
Rachel Baker is studying dance therapy, and she loves to dance.