Dance as a means of restoring and maintaining mental health is a treatment method well known in parts of the world where people lead less fragmented lives than in industrialized countries. Dance Movement therapy gives the participants more than just a toned body. It can restore the equilibrium between mind, body and spirit.
Scientific research is proving that dance therapy has a part to play in the treatment of psychological and mental health problems. Let me mention just a few of the areas of research. Dance Movement Psychotherapy has been undertaken with adult survivors of political torture and organized violence as well as with former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, with sexually abused children and also in the areas of ageing and dementia. There are drug treatments available for some of these conditions but they do not necessarily cure; and long term drug treatment can have serious side effects for the patient.
Marian Chace was one of the founders of dance movement therapy. When teaching dance she noticed that some of her students were first and foremost interested in expressing their emotions and were less interested in technique. She encouraged this form of self-expression in her students who reported feelings of increased well-being as a result of their sessions with her. Word reached psychiatrists at a nearby hospital and in 1942 they invited Marian Chace to work with them and their patients in the field of dance and excercise. Chace’s methods attracted others and by the 1950’s dance movement therapy was taken seriously at the hospital.
Dance has been shown to lift mood more than exercise by itself. In a study at the University of London researchers assigned patients with anxiety disorders to spend time in one of four therapeutic settings – a modern-dance class, a regular exercise class, a music class, or a math class. Only the dance class was shown to significantly reduce anxiety. Cardiac-Rehabilitation patients in a recent Italian study who enrolled in waltzing classes not only ended up with healthier arteries but were happier than those who went to bicycle and treadmill training. The effects of dance are increased and enhanced by the use of music which is also a factor in mood enhancement.
MRI scans show that watching someone dance activates the same neurons that would fire if you yourself were doing the dancing. So when one dancer’s movements express joy or sadness, others often pick up on it as well, so spreading the feeling and fostering empathy. Gabrielle Kaufman, a Los Angeles dance therapist has this to say “Dance’s expressive aspects help people process feelings they have trouble dealing with in conscious, verbal terms.” “Dance allows people to experience themselves in ways they didn’t know they could” says Miriam Berger, a dance professor and dance therapist at New York University, “You can change your internal state through external movement.”
A dance teacher usually but not always teaches a specific form of dance, for example, ballet, tap, ballroom, folk, latin etc. He or she is concerned primarily with technique and the outward appearance of the dance whilst at the same time being aware of the psychological aspects. A dance therapist on the other hand more usually employs free dance, improvisational or inspirational dance with the student or patient encouraging them to create their own personal expression.There is no criticism in dance therapy classes – no right or wrong way. This unconditional acceptance is important to the participants. At the same time the therapist is consciously working towards helping the person to find within themselves catharsis, solutions and resolution to problems through dance. The dancers find the answers without words from within themselves. Dance therapy can have immediate and unexpected results. On occassion deeply buried blockages are resolved. Dance is a right brained activity and the left brain with its critical commentary is quietened down. This allows our subconscious and intuitive levels to function.
Personally I have found Gabrielle Roth’s “The Wave Ecstatic Dance for Body and Soul” with its Five Rhythms to be a very effective way to release my own intuitive dance. Her understanding of rhythm and energy is profound. One can dance alone or in a group. Personally I would caution anyone with mental health problems to undertake this form of dance only with a trained therapist. The sessions may involve a spiritual aspect. This is not usually anything to do with organized religion. It has to do with encouraging people to take a more holistic view of themselves and the planet on which we live. This more holistic approach to life and people is often a great help to those who have mental health problems.
The understanding of the power of dance has led to numerous forms of dance movement therapy.