Therapeutic Dance and Dance Movement Therapy

Ariel Hortin demonstrates the Martha Graham contraction.

The BYU ARTS Partnership promotes the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional benefits of the arts to impact student learning, well-being, and relationships in the classroom. We honor the work of certified/licensed arts therapists and do not promote that educators act as therapists.

The following article was written by Ariel Hortin, a dance educator and mom of three from Vineyard, Utah. She is currently studying at Lesley University to become a movement/dance therapist and clinical mental health counselor and is an adjunct professor in the BYU Dance Department. Ariel strives to be a catalyst for joy and facilitator for change through the power of dance.

There are two different ways of looking at combining dance and therapy: dance as therapy and dance in therapy.

Dance as Therapy

Dance as therapy is often evidenced after feeling the rush of energy and endorphins from movement when people say, “Wow, that felt good,” or “That feels therapeutic for me today.” Elle Woods from the movie Legally Blonde said it best when she explained, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t kill their husbands! They just don’t.” It is really true. Any movement, from biking to boogying, not only provides better physical well-being but also develops  greater awareness for the mind-body connection. We encourage all to get out and move. Take a dance class. Find a way to move that speaks to you—movement will be an effective part of your physical and mental health.

Dance in Therapy

There is also dance in therapy. Giving voice and space to feelings that aren’t easily articulated is a unique benefit of dance movement therapy: this approach can help overcome the roadblock some clients face in traditional psychotherapy of not knowing what to say. Dance movement therapy enables teachers, counselors, and clinicians to witness authentic movement and help clients understand the feelings, problems, and needs that are being expressed as movement. Dance is used as an assessment tool and as an intervention. Dance movement therapy has been around longer than most people might think. It emerged as a professional field during the 1940’s, as many accomplished dancers began to realize the benefit of using dance and movement as a form of psychotherapy: “Marian Chace, one of the first dance movement therapy founding pioneers, began using dance as a therapeutic modality at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC.” (American Dance Therapy Association 2020)

When learning the difference between a dancer creating therapeutic experiences and a dance movement therapist, it is important to understand the difference in psychological training and proficiency. “Dance movement therapists are the only dancers trained to do therapy. They use dance and movement to foster health, communication, and expression, promote the integration of physical, cognitive, and social functioning, enhance self-awareness, and facilitate change. They are professionals with years of training and clinical supervision to responsibly handle any bio-psycho-social situation that may surface during the dance-making/creation process.” (Imus 2014, 4:30)

Dance movement therapists study with other expressive arts therapists, including music therapists, art therapists, and drama therapists. All of these genres of study have been validated and incorporated into clinical therapy for many years. Many traditional psychotherapists may not even know that they are incorporating art therapy principles in their regular sessions by using activities such as play therapy, sand trays, any type of music, role play, drawing, and mirroring.

Often, clients wonder why the words dance and movement both appear in the title of a dance movement therapist. The word dance often brings up preconceived notions about social expectations for movement and can create anxiety and fear in clients when they think I can’t dance! The word movement better describes the therapeutic process: any and all types of movement shared by the client is acceptable. When clients let go of socially prescribed dance expectations, they are better able to create movement that is authentic and meaningful. The ADTA, American Dance Therapy Association, retained the word dance in the title to honor the dancers that founded the profession. These dance movement therapy pioneers first synthesized their existing understanding of the body, mind, and art in their classrooms and companies before extending their knowledge to schools, homes, and hospitals. Today, dance movement therapists work “with people of all ages, from infancy through geriatrics, in settings varying from private practice to group therapy sessions.” (American Dance Therapy Association 2020)

One goal that dancers, teachers, and dance movement therapists share is to empower all people to use the healing powers of movement and the arts. A plethora of readily available dance and movement materials support teachers and educators in their work. Dance and movement research continues forward, enabling us to better understand the mind-body connection and its ability to facilitate change in every life. All are welcome to be a part of that work!


American Dance Therapy Association. Accessed September 02, 2020.

Directed by S. D. Imus. The Difference Between “Therapeutic” Dance and Dance/Movement Therapy. November 16, 2014. Accessed September 2, 2020. 

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