Dance and Movement Therapy for Depression

Dance therapy has been used to treat mental and physical disabilities and illnesses in the United States since the 1940s. It is recognized by many major organizations as a legitimate form of treatment despite the scarcity of scientific studies that explore its effects. At the very least, it is known that dance/movement therapy will "provide exercise, improve mobility and muscle coordination...reduce muscle tension...improve self-awareness, self-confidence, and interpersonal interaction, and [act as] an outlet for communicating feelings," according to the American Cancer Society.

What is Dance and Movement Therapy?

In this type of therapy, a dance therapist helps a group of people to express themselves in movement. Expressing feelings in this way is supposed to improve mood.

Dance/movement therapy, as a creative art therapy, is rooted in the expressive nature of dance itself. Dance is the most fundamental of the arts, involving a direct expression and experience of oneself through the body. It is a basic form of authentic communication, and as such it is an especially effective medium for therapy. Based in the belief that the body, the mind and the spirit are interconnected, dance/movement therapy is defined by the American Dance Therapy Association as "the psychotherapeutic use of movement as a process that furthers the emotional, cognitive, social and physical integration of the individual."


Dance therapy, as it is currently defined, began in the U.K. and spread to the United States in the 1940s.

Dance/movement therapy as an organized profession was born in psychiatric hospitals such as St. Elizabeth's in Washington, D.C., in the 1940s and Camarillo State Hospital in California in the 1920s. Students of the early pioneers of the field in those hospitals and other settings started the Dance Therapy Association in 1966. I was trained in that model, which was developed from the work of Marian Chace, a Denishawn dancer who started dance therapy at St. Elizabeth's Hospital and Chestnut Lodge.

Dance therapists noted progress and outcomes in the nursing logs in terms of expanded range of affect and motion, increased interpersonal communication skills, and group dynamics. Dance therapists no longer work primarily in psychiatric settings but now function in medical hospitals, wellness settings, workplaces, and spas. In these settings, they bring their unique healing combination of body, symbol, energetics, resiliency, and recovery. 


Dance therapy is founded on the idea that the mind and body are inseparable. At its most basic level, dance is a form of exercise, providing mobility, flexibility and strength. Exercise increases neurotransmitters in the brain called endorphins, which encourage happiness and contentedness, curing symptoms of depressive patients. Total body movements enhance the circulatory, respiratory, skeletal and muscular systems, according to the American Cancer Society. Furthermore, the ACS notes that dance therapy helps patients "develop a nonverbal language that offers information about what is going on in their bodies," improving their communication with themselves and others, decreasing isolation and providing a sense of hope for the future.


A qualified dance therapist will observe a patient's natural movement and decide upon an appropriate program for their particular needs. Therapy sessions may occur individually or in groups. The American Dance Therapy Association holds classes at nursing homes, daycare centers, hospitals and educational settings, among others. Dance therapy has reportedly assisted people with learning disabilities, eating disorders and autism, as written in Levy's book "Dance/Movement Therapy: A Healing Art." Dance therapy is said to help a patient develop organizational skills, help improve body image issues and expand cognitive abilities. Because dance therapy operates on the belief that the mind and body are linked, it seeks to heal emotional and physical illness simultaneously. Depressive patients are encouraged to find freedom from debilitating emotions in their movements.


The American Cancer Society notes that "few scientific studies have been done to evaluate the effects of dance therapy on health, prevention, and recovery from illness." Dance therapy should be pursued under the supervision of a primary care physician and should be part of a holistic health and wellness plan, regardless of a person's diagnosis.

Dance therapy is now practiced all over the world. This expressive therapy is recognized by the Health Care Financing Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Administration on Aging and the Office of Alternative Medicine of the National Institute of Health. All dance therapists working for the ADTA must have a master's degree and a minimum of 700 supervised hours of clinical training.

You do not like dancing?

The common misconception is that you need to be a skilled dancer to practice dance therapy. Absolutely wrong! It is not about learning new moves and getting on the dance floor to show off. It is all about getting alone with your body and mind. Even if you do not need dance therapy on a clinical level, you can practice self-growth dance techniques to help you reach a blissful state of freedom and emotional relief. Learn to let go completely and surrender to your body's needs. Authentic Movement and Contact Improvisation are two powerful, expressive dance techniques.

Authentic movement is a personal growth tool to help you tune into your body. Authentic Movement creates a space for the development of a process through spontaneous movement. As a practice, it integrates many traditions: therapy and meditation, individual and community process, ritual and improvisation. Everyone can benefit from Authentic Movement.

Contact improvisation is another self-growth dance technique in which physical contact with another human being provides exploration through movement improvisation. Contact Improvisation is one of the most well-known forms of postmodern dance. To physically touch another person in an expressive, uninhibited way can be a powerful way to release repressed feelings.

“I love the feeling of using something I really believe and know is good for me,” Given said when discussing her calling as a dance therapist. “It is very rewarding having a tool to share with others.”

Quick facts

  • As defined by the American Dance Therapy Association, "Dance/Movement Therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of movement as a process which furthers the emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual."
  • Dance/movement therapy emerged as a distinct profession in the 1940's.
  • The American Dance Therapy Association was formed in 1966. It maintains a code of ethics and has established standards for professional practice, education and training.
  • There are approximately 1203 dance/movement therapists in 46 states and 29 foreign countries.
  • Dance/movement therapy is an effective treatment for people with developmental, medical, social, physical and psychological impairments.
  • Dance/movement therapy is practiced in mental health rehabilitation, medical, educational, forensic, nursing homes, day care, disease prevention and health promotion programs.
  • Dance/movement therapy is used with people of all ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds in individual, couples, family, and group therapy formats.
  • Entry into the profession of dance/movement therapy is at the Master's level. The title "Dance Therapists Registered" (DTR) is granted to entry level dance/movement therapists who have a master's degree which includes 700 hundred hours of supervised clinical internship. The advanced level of registry, "Academy of Dance Therapists", (ADTR) is awarded only after DTR's have completed 3,640 hours of supervised clinical work in an agency, institution or special school, with additional supervision from an ADTR.

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