A core tenet of movement therapy is that our ability to move in many ways is indicative of healthy functioning

Opinion: Have you noticed you tend to get a sore back, headache, or upset stomach when you feel particularly stressed? Or when grieving a loved one or the end of a relationship, your body feels too heavy to move? This is because our brains and bodies are intricately interconnected. Our physical and psychological selves are inseparable and have strong impacts on each other.

Commonly used idioms suggest we know this: we say we have a “gut instinct”, the bad news was “hard to swallow”, that documentary was “an eye opener” or someone is “a pain in the butt”.

Though historically Western medical models have tended to separate our mental and physical selves, more recent biopsychosocial models of health and wellbeing recognise we are interconnected: body, mind, spirit, and to each other and our environments.

Dance movement therapy offers an effective form of psychotherapy and an alternative to more traditional talk-based psychotherapies.

Dance movement therapists believe what we experience mentally is also experienced in our bodies, and vice versa. Using a range of tools (including talking, movement, embodied awareness and others), dance movement therapy works through inviting clients to experience different ways of moving and being in their bodies. As clients experience new physical experiences, so too will they experience psychological changes.

Like art therapy, music therapy, or drama therapy, dance movement therapy comes under the umbrella of creative or expressive arts therapy using traditional psychotherapy frameworks while offering the healing properties of dance and movement.

Because it incorporates non-verbal expression, it can be particularly useful for people who find it difficult to talk about their experiences and emotions, or for those with disabilities that mean language is a less accessible form of communication.

Uniquely, it uses the body and movement as an analysis tool and in therapeutic interventions. Dance movement therapists are trained to be aware of posture and movement, both of their clients and themselves.

A therapist may “try on” a client’s posture or movement to better understand what is going on for them. Recently, for example, a client of mine talked about a romantic relationship. Though they said they were comfortable where things stood, I observed them crossing their arms and closing inward with their upper body. Embodying this myself, I felt closed-off, and a sense of protectiveness arose in me. When raising this with my client, they acknowledged feeling a need for self-protection in the relationship. Sometimes, our bodies express things we haven’t yet recognised mentally or verbally.

In another example, I invited a client to try on a range of different movements that emphasised particular movement qualities (such as speed, strength and rhythms), and asked them to consider which felt comfortable or strange. Advancing towards another directly, slowly, felt fine for the client, while retreating with speed felt awkward. Working together through talk and movement we uncovered that retreating with speed, for this client, indicated a withdrawal to self and raised concerns about the other feeling rejected. Reflecting further, they believed this discomfort was a metaphorical indicator of the ways in which they prioritised others’ desires over their own needs on a daily basis, which encouraged them to create more boundaries and cultivate more balance in their life.

Dance movement therapy draws on a range of approaches from psychology and counselling, from early theories to more recent neuroscientific approaches, including (but not limited to) group analysis, psychoanalytic, psychodynamic, developmental approaches, and behavioural and cognitive therapies.

Like other psychotherapies, it is backed by research. A recent meta-analysis of 20 years of studies found the therapy offered significant improvement in quality of life, wellbeing, mood and body-image and led to positive clinical outcomes for anxiety, depression, eating disorders and somatoform disorder (a condition causing one to experience physical symptoms in response to psychological distress). Randomised control trials also show it is an effective treatment for depression, anxiety, phobic anxiety, positive symptom distress, and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Research shows it’s also of benefit to those with intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, developmental delay, chronic pain, and those who have experienced sexual violence. An exhaustive list of evidence-based support for dance movement therapy would be impossible here, but research shows it is comparable to interventions from verbal psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation, exercise, and some pharmaceuticals for mental health.

A core tenet in dance movement therapy is that our ability to move in many ways is indicative of healthy functioning. It can unsurprisingly have many physical as well as psychological benefits, as it offers an enjoyable way to increase muscular strength, coordination, mobility, and decrease muscular tension. And improvements in the body are likely to lead to improvements in the mind.

Dance has been used therapeutically throughout history in many cultures, for socialising, ritual, storytelling, spirituality and emotional expression – it only makes sense to use dance and movement as tools, reintegrating this innately human experience in our therapeutic practices towards holistic health and wellbeing.

Dr Rebecca Weber is a lecturer in Dance Studies at the University of Auckland, where she investigates intersections between dance, science, and somatics.

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