Dance Therapy


Founded on the principle that a vital connection exists between the way in which one moves and the personality, dance therapists believe that movement behavior can affect the intellectual, emotional and physical health of a person.  Although dance therapy may seem outwardly simple, it is a profound process by which the patients follow their impulses regarding stillness or movement in a non-judgmental way.

Therapists of dance therapy believe when an individual does not consciously decide what movements to perform, the body is initiating the movement, and allowing the unconscious to participate as well.  This therapy is thought to lead to a heightened respect for the body's own internal wisdom and is practiced to expand spiritual insight, artistic renewal, personal enrichment, for psychotherapy or as part of a community ritual.

History of Dance Therapy

In general, the rhythmic movements of dance have been a popular form of expression through the ages.  Nearly every civilization and culture has incorporated dance into people's lives, and for a variety of purposes.  The more primitive societies used dance as a ritual, such as a rite of passage.  Other cultures use dance as a cathartic healing tool for the body.  Rituals of dance have marked transitions in life, helping to integrate individuals into a larger society.  In early societies, scientists mainly agree that religion, music, dancing and medicine were often interconnected.

The pioneering dancer, teacher and dance therapist of the modern movement was Mary Whitehouse, who first developed dance therapy in the 1950s and 1960s.  Whitehouse trained with Martha Graham and Mary Wigman.  With Whitehouse's interest in the theories expounded by Carl Jung and Wigman's emphasis on creativity in the individual, authentic movement was born.  Whitehouse continued her experiments regarding approach to movement throughout her life.  She also called dance therapy "movement in depth" and "Tao of the body." 

Dance therapist Janet Adler was well known for her work with autistic children.  She studied with Whitehouse in 1969 and 1970 and also brought her interest in Freudian psychological therapy to the process.  Adler also had a deep interest in mysticism and shamanism, and in the late 1970s formalized her process and called it authentic movement.  In 1981, two years after Whitehouse passed away, Adler established the Mary Starks Whitehouse Institute in western Massachusetts as a place to teach and study this form of dance therapy.

How Dance Therapy is Practiced

One of the core elements of dance therapy which is shared by most of its practitioners is the relationship between the dancer and the witness.  The mover responds to his or her inner impulses with eyes closed or with thoughts inwardly focused, while the witness takes in the movement in a non-judgmental manner from the sidelines.  The movement is typically without musical accompaniment, and after a certain period of time a dialogue takes place between the mover and the witness. 

Several other core values are shared by most of the practitioners of authentic movement.  The first one is that the body contains wisdom and can be used as a source for healing, insight, and guidance.  Secondly, the mover's experience during the session (while paying attention to how the body moves) is of great importance.  The third part of this experience is that the authority for the mover's experience rests solely with that person and not with the witness or any other mover.

Offering an opportunity for deep rest and recuperation of both soul and body, authentic movement invites the inclusion of the full range of healthy human expression.  These can include somber, playful, solitary or shared expressions.  Those practicing authentic movement can be varied in age, dance or movement training, physical skill, psychotherapy, and spiritual insight. 

Other Names

While the term "authentic movement" is widely accepted to identify this form of therapy, it has also been called "contemplative dance" and "moving imagination."  There is currently no organization which oversees its practitioners, although some steps have been taken to facilitate communication between such therapists.

Uses for Dance Therapy

This contemporary type of movement enables people from a wide range of abilities and backgrounds to form a structure in which they can heal their bodies and souls.  Dance therapy can lead to enhanced awareness of one's whole self or being, and can help to provide insight to the fundamental issues and questions which are important to that individual's life.

The earliest therapists of dance therapy were dancers themselves who were encouraged by psychiatrists to use dance as a means of communicating with withdrawn patients.  It was believed that the personality is formed through relationships, and communication is required to form a relationship.  Therefore, those individuals who were unable to communicate were unable to form positive relationships.  Dance was a means of forming a bridge for those individuals to achieve the ability to form relationships.

Safe Environments for Dance Therapy

Rules regarding the safety and confidentiality of the mover are regularly refined and reinforced.  Patients must be held responsible for not injuring themselves or the possible fellow movers (for instance, by opening their eyes when necessary to avoid unwelcome contact).  Experiences are not shared outside the group.  This structure allows the mover to share intimacy, trust, and a broad freedom in movement.

Adverse Reactions

In order to avoid the possibility of adverse reactions, it is always a good idea to seek out therapists who have training and references regarding their therapy.  It is particularly important for those using dance therapy to feel intuitively comfortable with the therapist and that the goals for working together are shared.


  1. Bratman, S. The Alternative Medicine Ratings Guide: an expert panel rates the best treatments for over 80 conditions, Prima Health A Division of Prima Publishing (1998)
  2. Brown, L. Alternative Medicine, NTC/Contemporary Publishing (1999)
  3. Deepak Chopra, M.D. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Celestial Arts (2002)
  4. Nancy Allison. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines, The Rosen Publishing Group (1999)
  5. Servan-Schreiber, D. The Encyclopedia of New Medicine: Conventional & Alternative Medicine For All Ages, Rodale International Limited (2006)


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