Dance Therapy and Mental Health

Dance therapy 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.

Research is proving that dance therapy has a part to play in the treatment of psychological and mental health problems. To mention just a few of the research publications on this topic- Callaghan, K. (1993) Movement psychotherapy with adult survivors of political torture and organized violence. The Arts in Psychotherapy 20, pp.411-421

Harris, D.A (2006) Dance/Movement therapy with former child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Proceedings of the American Dance Therapy Association 41st Annual Conference, Long Beach.CA. (CD Rom )

Levy, F. (1992) Sexually Abused Children. In Dance Movement Therapy: A healing art. (pp.254-256) Reston, VA National Dance Association.Dance movement therapy research has also been conducted into many other areas of mental health such as ageing and dementia.

Dance exercise lifts mood more than exercise by itself. In a study at the Univeristy of London researchers assigned patients with anxiety disorders to spend time in one of four therapeutic settings – a modern-dance class, an exercise class, a music class or math class. Only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety thereby improving the patients’s mental health. Cardiac-Rehab patients in a recent Italian study who enrolled in waltzing classes found that dancing gave them not only more elastic arteries but that they were happier than participants who took up bicycle and treadmill training, clearly showing that dance is an effective therapy.

MRI scans reveal that watching someone dance activates the same neurons that would fire if you yourself were doing the movements. So when one dancer’s movements express joy or sadness,the feeling spreads, fostering empathy.”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.”
Gabrielle Kaufman, a Los Angeles dance therapist has this to say “Dance’s expressive aspects help people process feelings they may have trouble dealing with in conscious, verbal terms.”

A dance teacher usually but not always teaches a specific form of dance or movement. He or she is concerned with technique and the outward appearance of the dance whilst at the same time being aware of the psychological aspects. A dance therapist more usually employs free dance, improvisational or inspirational dance with the student/patient creating their own personal expression. At the same time the movement therapist is consciously working towards helping the person to better mental health through catharsis, and finding solutions and resolution to problems through dance and music.The therapy sessions may involve meditation and a spiritual aspect.

The mental health benefits have led to the creation of numerous forms of dance therapy,movement and exercise.
An early dance pioneer was Gurdjieff who was a man of many talents. He was a philosopher, mystic, author and composer of dances. Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol on the Russian-Turkish border in 1866 and died in Paris in 1949. He believed that his dance exercises helped the harmonious evolution of the dancers themselves and transmitted esoteric knowledge to future generations. Gurdjieff left around 250 ensemble dances termed “movements”. He placed his dances into 7 categories:- 1. rhythms, 2. ritual exercises, 3. medical gymnastics, 4. women’s dances, 5. men’s ethnic dances “dervish and Tibetan”, 6. sacred temple dances, 7. tableau.

The temple, ethnic and ritual dances he created are not indigenous to the regions which inspired them. Gurdjieff remained uninfluenced by classical ballet, or any western schools of dance, eurythmics or movement.The external form of every dance movement was “mathmatically” predetermined from start to finish. Silent or spoken prayer may accompany the dances. These sacred dances are passed on from teacher to pupil. Gurdjieff’s dances were never written down.

In the last twenty-five years the number of dance movement therapy approaches has burgeoned. All have the aspect of aiming to re-establish or maintain good mental health. Here it is only possible to mention a few of them.

During the 1960’s in Chile Professor Rolando Toro Arenada, a psychologist, medical anthropologist, poet and artist began experimenting with the effects of music on the mental health of mental patients. He was motivated by an impulse to humanize the rather barbaric methods employed in mental health at the time.

Biodanza which he created is a dance therapy form which has no steps or exercise routines to be learnt. All the movements should come from within created by how the person responds to the music. The resulting dance is a unique expression of that person so it’s impossible for anyone to say they cannot do it or to get it wrong.The dancer has created his or her own therapuetic dance. In order to facilitate the work of the most ancient part of the brain, there is strictly no talking during a Biodanza session. The psychology behind this is that talking stimulates the intellectual functions which is something that is unwanted in Biodanza.I have attended sessions with a bi-polar friend whose mental health certainly seemed to have been helped by the movement. Biodanza therapy excercises are often accompanied by South American music because of its life-affirming qualities.

Astroshamanism is a form of therapuetic trance dance. The energy of the zodiac signs and planets is harnessed during the dance movements. Each sign has its own frequency and through dance it is said that this frequency is expressed through the body and is integrated into the dancers life. These dance therapy exercises are believed to connect Heaven and Earth, Matter and Spirit.

Rio Abierto is another dance therapy method which developed in South America, this time in Argentina in 1966. It consists of a combination of movement, voice, music, rhythms, bodywork and meditation. All the dance movements and techniques lead to an opening of the body and heart thereby promoting feelings of personal and group healing which helps good mental health.

Teachers of Choreocosmos hold that intrinsic to this schooling in cosmic and sacred dance is an experience of music, meditation and prayer. The dancers move in forms of sacred geometry which influences the consciousness, the heart and the limbs.

Wu Tao or the Dancing Way is a therapeutic excercise program and healing tool that uses dance, music and meditation to balance and harmonize the flow of Qi (life force energy in the body).Five dances unblock the flow of energy in the body. The exercises bring about balance through movement. Each dance exercise creatively expresses one of the five elements of oriental medicine – air, water, wood, fire and earth. Wu Tao also has dietary, psychological and spiritual aspects incorporated into the teachings.Meditation is important.

Gabrielle Roth’s 5 Rhythms is a movement meditation practice which she developed in the 1960’s. This form of dance therapy draws on many indigenous and world traditions using aspects of shamanistic, ecstatic, mystical and eastern philosophy to maintain good psychological health. It also draws from Gestalt, human potential, and transpersonal psychology. This dance therapy is considered as a soul journey, based upon the idea that everything is energy, and moves in waves, patterns, and rhythms. The five rhythms are flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical, stillness.

All dance movement therapy approaches in the last analysis are trying to help us toward a true understanding of ourselves as individuals and of our place in the Great Scheme of Things.

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