Knowledge Database

An introduction to Dance/Movement Therapy

Angela Levine - Volunteer, Beit Issie Shapiro


'Come Dancing’, a production of the British Broadcasting Association and its American counterpart ‘Dancing with the Stars’ are just two current illustrations of the wide spread popularity of dancing; an exercise and social activity that appears to have the  power to make people feel better.

Yet, as a speaker representing the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) observed, there is a big difference between ‘feeling better’ while dancing for pleasure, and therapeutic dance sessions where trained dance and movement therapists address a person’s mental and physical health concerns (Imus, 2015).


Dance/movement therapy has been defined by the ADTA as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement as a process that furthers the emotional, cognitive, physical, and social integration of the individual.” Unlike most other therapies, it does not have to rely on verbal interaction. This makes it suitable for people who struggle to find words to express themselves. For dance therapists movement is the intervention – “a means to bring out buried emotions and allow for the processing and release of internal, worries and fears” (, 2018).


The origins of the dance/movement therapy movement can be traced to the early 1920s and to women dancers who broke with convention, replacing the rigid practice of Classical ballet with the natural movements of their bodies.  Prominent among them was the dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). In her biography she wrote that she sought a form of dance “that might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement.” (Duncan,  2013).


Dance and movement as therapy was spearheaded in the US by Marion Chace (1896 - 1970), a dancer and choreographer. She opened a dance studio in Washington DC. In the 1940s. There, she noticed that some of her students enjoyed dancing freely as an outlet for their emotions. This observation was the impetus for her to explore the therapeutic possibilities of dance and movement. Volunteering at a local psychiatric hospital, Chace introduced a program called ‘Dance for Communication’. Doctors and nurses noticed that the condition of patients who were attending her sessions improved. As a result, she was invited to become a permanent paid member of the staff. (Chaiklin, Lohn &  Sandel, 1993).
Chace started to hold workshops and training sessions. In 1966 she co-founded the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA), becoming its first president. Its members are now drawn from all parts of the U.S. as well as from 39 countries worldwide. (Requirements to qualify as a dance/movement therapist are posted on the web site of this association: ADTA)


Today, dance/movement therapists can be found working with groups or individuals in hospitals, schools, mental health and addiction centers, day care facilities and retirement homes.


While the content of a dance therapy session is not pre-planned, many therapists structure their sessions according to a three-part plan devised by Chace: warm-up, theme development and closure. (Solsvig, 2010).


For a group warm-up participants are asked to stand in a circle, an arrangement that creates a sense of equality and security. To the steady beat of music, they are encouraged to move their bodies freely. Meanwhile, the therapist is observing and assessing the members of the group, noting the signals they give out and the strength and nature of their movements; and whether or not they appear to be physically and emotionally grounded to reality. 


In the Theme Development they are asked to define and enlarge on the movements they made during the warm-up. The therapist then identifies themes, like anger and sadness that are emerging facilitating the expression of each person’s needs and inner feelings through their movements. In this way, according to Chace, patients can work on their problems through symbolic expression, without having to analyze or interpret them (Shingala, 2016).   

To offer further support, she developed a concept known as empathetic reflection whereby the therapist uses her own body to mirror an individual’s actions. This is her way of saying in a non-verbal manner:  “I understand you, I hear you, and it's okay” (Levy, 1988).


Closure – brings the participants to a calm and contented place from which to leave the session.  A circle is re-formed and the group performs simple rhythmic movements to music in unison, Chace described this communal effort as bringing about “a feeling of well-being, relaxation, and good fellowship.” (Chaiklin, 1993). The meeting closes with the therapist acknowledging each person in turn, perhaps by briefly discussing how he/she feels, or what happened during the intervention.  They may say goodbye to each other by “a movement, a gesture, or just a smile.” (Koch, 2016).


While many therapists today follow Chacian methodology in their work, others draw inspiration from other sources, such as a style of therapy initiated by another American dancer-cum-therapist: Mary Starks Whitehouse (1911 -1979) (Farah, 2016). The type of dance/movement therapy she introduced was based on the theories of Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Gustav Jung (1875-1961). In 1916 Jung wrote that the movement of the body could through symbolic imagery reveal the unconscious. He called it Active Imagination. (Chodorow, 2013). Authentic movement was the name that Whitehouse gave to her mode of dance/movement therapy. Sessions take place in a large, unoccupied space. Two people are involved: the witness - the therapist, and the mover - the patient. The witness, an attentive and compassionate presence, sits quietly at one side of the room. The mover stands, and is asked to close his eyes, focusing completely on how his body feels, and his inner state of mind. He then translates any internal impulses into spontaneous movement, so that “rejected and forgotten images, feelings and energies can then come to the surface….    leading towards integration and wholeness.” (Stromsted, 2008). Movement continues until the mover wants to stop, or after a pre-arranged time.  He then opens his eyes and joins the therapist. Or else, may prefer to write down his experiences, before entering into a dialogue with the witness, his therapist.   While dance/movement therapists are familiar with these and other types of interventions, the approach they select is geared to the specific needs of an individual or group.


Many scholarly texts written in the last decade detail dance/therapy interventions for different categories of patients.  They illustrate just how significantly the scope of dance/movement therapy has widened since the 1940s when Chace worked with people suffering from mental illnesses. One systematic review, for instance, Kiepe, Söckigt & Keil (2012) describes the positive effects of dance/movement therapy on patients with breast cancer, brain damage, eating disorders and alcoholism. Another, points to its success in improving a patient’s mood, body image and self-esteem, the reduction of stress and anxiety associated with chronic diseases, and its affirmative impact on the development of learning disabled children (Strassel, Cherkin, Steuten , Sherman & Vrijhoef, 2011).
In many of these articles the focus is on statistical information regarding the number and type of patient involved, the frequency and length of sessions, and the success or otherwise of the therapy. Only in rare instances are details given about the actual character and progress of an intervention.


One of the best places to find this information is on-line, where the ADTA have sponsored a series of videoed talks by senior dance/movement therapists - American Dance Therapy Association - YouTube

An especially inspiring example is presented under the title “Adventure Under the Sea:  A Dance/Movement Therapy Moment" (Hunter, 2016).
Here, Ms. Amy Hunter, a therapist from Philadelphia, describes the super-imaginative way she approached the problems of a group of anti-social 4th and 5th grade boys. Victims of abuse, neglect or traumatic loss, they were at first most reluctant to come to her sessions. At the first meeting they sat in a circle sharing their stories and feelings.  One boy said he felt a sense of worthlessness, and others agreed. However, mainly they mocked or argued with one another, sabotaging any possibility of forming relationships. Anger was the first emotion that they identified as having in common. “It vibrated round the circle like lightening,” said Ms. Hunter, eliciting violent movements like kicking and punching. In the sessions that followed she encouraged them to elaborate on these movements. ”Pushing themselves beyond their own expectations, they began to experience a new sense of vitality”.

Next, they engaged in synchronized rhythmic movements, which brought unity to the group. The boys soon began talking freely to each other about their feelings and fantasies.  Themes of storms and turbulence emerged, metaphors for their own troubled lives. To mobilize these images, the therapist invited them to grasp the edges of a giant parachute which they rippled and shook. Metaphorically, the parachute served both as a safety layer from the turbulence they all feared, and as a ‘container,’ a sort of safety belt, for their emotions. Before long, the boys began to speak of exploring and conquering their fears. Encouraged by their comrades, each, in turn, dived under the parachute, describing their imaginary adventures on their return, how they had fought and conquered dangerous sea creatures, or unearthed buried treasure – “a metaphor for possibilities and hope.” Or brought back to their ‘ship’ a chest full of gold coins- described by Ms. Hunt as “armfuls of their accomplishments”- which they displayed to their new friends who applauded and cheered.    

 In the final sessions, the boys discussed their memories of this experience using words like confidence, strength, and pride in their achievements.  One of the group responded: “Yes. That’s how heroes feel.” (Hunter, 2016)



Bibliography (2018). Dance therapy. Retrieved January 15, 2018, from


Chaiklin, S., Lohn, A., & Sandel, S. (1993). Foundations of dance / movement therapy: The life and work of Marian Chace. Columbia, MD: The Marian Chace Memorial Fund of the American Dance Therapy Association.


Chodorow, J. (2013). The Body as Symbol: Dance/Movement in Analysis. The Jung Page. Retrieved January 18, 2018, from


Duncan, I. (2013). My Life. New York: Liveright.


Farah, M. H. S. (2016). Jung’s Active Imagination in Whitehouse’s Dance: notions of body and movement. Psicologia USP27(3), 542-552.


Hunter, A. (2016, August 15) Adventure Under the Sea: A Dance/Movement Therapy Moment.  [Video File]. Retrieved from


Imus, S. (2015) The difference between ‘Therapeutic Dancing’ and dance movement therapy. Retrieved January 2, 2018, from


Kiepe MS, Stockigt B, & Keil T. (2012). Effects of dance therapy and ballroom dances on physical and mental illnesses: A systematic review. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 39(5), 404-411.


Koch, N. (2016, Jul 25).  An Introduction to Dance/Movement Therapy. [Video File]. Retrieved from


Levy, F. J. (1988). Dance/Movement Therapy: A Healing Art. Waldorf, MD: AAHPERD Publications.


Shingala, R. (2016). Marian Chace: Dance Therapy Pioneer – Biography, Theory and Methodology, Indian Magazine of Dance/Movement Therapy. Retrieved January 3, 2018, from


Solsvig, L. (2010). Dance Movement Therapy and the Responsive Classroom: A Theoretical Synthesis. (Master's thesis). Retrieved January 5, 2018, from



Strassel, J. K., Cherkin, D. C., Steuten, L., Sherman, K. J., & Vrijhoef, H. J. (2011). A systematic review of the evidence for the effectiveness of dance therapy. Alternative therapies in health and medicine17(3), 50.


Stromsted, T. (2008). Authentic Movement: The Dancing Body in Psychotherapy, “Psychiatry and the Body”, San Francisco Medicine: Journal of the San Francisco Medical Society, 81(5), June 2008.


  • Disabilities:

    All disabilities

  • Topics:

    Therapeutic Methods

  • Keywords:


  • Audience:

    General public, Professionals

  • For additional information:


Get in Touch