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How is dance therapy therapeutical?

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

The benefits of dance therapy are diverse (psychological, cognitive, social, and physical) and work through scientifically explained magic long known to different cultures. Communities have used dance as a healing ritual since early human history but somewhere along the way, modern society forgot the power of this natural medicine. However, neuroscience is now increasingly interested in the neuroplasticity of dance.

Trying to move our bodies in new ways may break us free from old ways of feeling, perceiving, thinking, and being. Body, mind and soul are deeply connected so when we move our bodies we have the ability to change our brains and emotions. This is because our movements are linked to a complex set of neural pathways in our brains. So when we dance and expand our movement repertoire, we can rewire our brains, strengthening these pathways and improving their functions – this is called neuroplasticity.

Dance therapy has also caught the interest of scientists for its ability to enhance emotional understanding and empathy for others. When moving together, there's a shared energy that cultivates a reciprocal acknowledgement and acceptance of our self-worth and personal struggles. The science of mirror-neurons explains this: when we witness another person performing a movement, identical sets of neurons are activated in us as the ones engaged in the action or expression of emotion or behavior of the person moving. The existence of mirror-neurons also explains why, without the use of words, dance therapists are able to deeply resonate at emotional and physical levels with their patients. Although DMT doesn’t exclude verbal communication, by relying on a nonverbal body-to-body dialogue, it's able to by-pass any inadequacies of language to express emotions.

Mirroring ,attunement and kinaesthetic sensing are core DMT tools used to develop mutual understanding and trust with patients.  In using these techniques, the therapist matches the shape, form, rhythm, and quality of the patient’s movement expression, and observes the physical and emotional effects these have on himself/herself. This process of mirroring and attuning replicates what mothers and babies do as they first begin to know each other, and contributes to the baby feeling safe. Similarly, in the therapeutic context, it contributes for the client’s sense of safety in his/her relationship with the therapist.

The field of linguistics also offers an interesting perspective into the close relationship between movement and emotions. Movement, the first form of communication, doesn't lie - it's closely linked to how we feel and perceive the world. Just think about the word ‘Emotion’. Can you see ‘motion’ in it? It comes from the latin word ‘emovere’, which means “to move out” – inherent in emotions is a potential for movement, a directness toward a certain goal. For example, when we feel embarrassed or shy we may blush (a micromovement) or avoid someone’s gaze.

In fact, human development experts say that ‘movement is (the first) perception’. During the first stages of development in the uterus, our nerves are covered with a fatty insulating material. This insulation of nerves, called myelination, is done in order of importance for survival. The first nerves to myelinate are the motor nerves, not the sensory nerves. This is why a child of a more physically active mother often comes into the world with more experience in perceiving movement than the child that doesn’t have that experience.

Read more about what a dance therapy session may look like and who dance therapists can work with here.

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