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Dance therapy: Moving toward healing

Mention therapy, and most people will imagine a picture of a troubled individual lying on a sofa pouring out the details of their lives. Emotional conversations, long sessions of analysis and years of visits are also visions many would have, but therapy today takes on many forms including some that are considered alternative. One such therapy is dance therapy, but its application is no pseudoscience or crackpot method.

Dance therapy: What is it?

Dance therapy examines the link between the physical and mental, looking for connections between the two to help patients as they seek healing from emotional or behavioral issues. Instead of a couch, patients may find themselves in a dance studio or in a group setting, exploring rhythmic movements to music. The settings can be diverse, but the concept is the same: use music and motion to help express what is often inexpressible by words.

Dance therapy is a treatment recognized by the Department of Health and Human Services, the American Cancer Society and the Office of Alternative Medicine of the National Institute of Health. Specific claims of healing aren't often made, but there is some evidence: patients have experienced healing and relief through dance therapy, and a few experimental studies have been published. The American Dance Therapy Association notes the modality is often used to treat such maladies as developmental, medical, social, physical and psychological impairments.

A brief history of dance therapy

Dance therapy has been around for more than 50 years, the American Dance Therapy Association reports, and has been included in many government studies and commissions, such as President Carter's Commission on Mental Health in 1977. Historically, dance has been used by Native Americans in healing rituals and in many religious ceremonies that are centuries old, according to the American Cancer Society.

Current permutations of dance therapy can be traced back to Marian Chace in 1942. Chace was a dance instructor who was asked to work at a Washington, D.C., hospital after psychiatrists realized patients were reaping therapeutic benefits through her dance classes. By 1956, the American Dance Therapy Association was formed as a way to manage and set standards for the burgeoning field.

How is dance therapy unique?

As with any form of exercise, dancing can elevate the mood by releasing the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine. The physical aspects of dance include a reduction in muscle tension, improved overall mobility and better muscle coordination. All of these benefits can increase the general state of well-being.

Psychology Today reports dancing and movement to music creates not only a bonding effect between participants but also can assist those who cannot express their feelings emotionally. Through movement and dance, the patients often start to demonstrate feelings and emotions they aren't aware of in their logical mind. Learning to follow dance steps is also an esteem builder, which can assist in other areas of life as self-awareness, confidence and interaction with others.

Dance therapy as a career

For prospective students interested in a career as a dance therapist, there is no simple certification or quick class. To call yourself a dance therapist, a master's degree is required. There are graduate certification programs in such related disciplines as Expressive Arts Therapy. After receiving a master's degree and fulfilling the ADTA professional requirements, the title of Registered Dance/Movement Therapist can be used. There may be some specific requirements for undergraduate course work prior to the graduate degree, check with prospective programs for details.

Alternatively, students can attend an ADTA-approved graduate program, and once they meet all the professional requirements can then become Registered Dance/Movement Therapists (R-DMT). Advanced certification by the Dance/Movement Therapy Certification Board requires additional experience.

About the Author:

Megg Mueller is a journalist with almost two decades of experience. She has worked as a reporter and editor for the Reno Gazette-Journal and as an editor of health care and education manuals for Aspen Publishers, a subsidiary of Wolters Kluwer. She wrote a weekly column on the hotel industry during her tenure as assistant travel editor for USA TODAY.com. Mueller is the editor of a tourism-based website and also serves as a reporter for a weekly business newspaper.