Category Archives: The Importance of Training in Psychotherapy for a Dance Movement Therapist

The Importance of Training in Psychotherapy for a Dance Movement Therapist

Dr. Megha Deuskar


The present paper aims to define the upcoming field of Dance Movement Therapy, as a form of expressive art and also as an experiential form of therapy. It also aims to differentiate Dance Movement Therapy from other related approaches such as therapeutic dance. The paper explains the process of Dance Therapy in terms of its potential to bring to consciousness, a host of psychological and emotional issues that lie deeply buried in the mind, and thus to release them. Finally, it highlights the importance of extensive training of Dance Movement Therapists in psychotherapy and the micro-skills of therapy and more specifically of being psychoanalytically informed while conducting DMT sessions.

Key words: Dance Movement therapy, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis.


Over the past three to four decades, the use of creative art forms as adjuncts to psychotherapy has gained immense popularity. Music, drama, painting and dance have been among the most fruitfully used approaches to access deep seated emotions and release distresses. The Academy of Dance Movement Therapy, UK, defines Dance Movement Therapy as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement and dance through which a person can engage creatively in a process to further their emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration” (ADMT, UK, 1977).

As in most experiential approaches to therapy such as the Gestalt approach, DMT believes firmly in the connectedness of body and mind. Hence, DMT therapists encourage clients to be aware of every sensation as it arises in the body, while they move, and of the various thoughts and feelings that are experienced through movement. This is because the body is considered a supremely wise and all knowing instrument, which stores emotions and sensations, even while they are being shut off by the thinking mind. DMT involves positioning the body and physical movement, ranging from simple stretching to vigorous and rhythmic dance. By connecting with the body, clients can freely experience suppressed emotions, which are then expressed and released. Dance is thus, a deeply cathartic process and in the long run allows clients to be more explicitly aware of their body.

Harpin (1999) has proposed the following basic assumptions about the use of Dance and Movement as a form of psychotherapy:

  1. Movement is an integrating process: Since the mind and body are not two mutually exclusive entities, but are highly intertwined with each other, a movement of the body can produce corresponding emotions and evoke feelings in the mind. Conversely, an emotion felt in the mind can reflect in body posture and movement. This is easily evident from the fact that depressed clients tend to feel lethargic, while people who experience joy, show a lot of energy and enthusiasm. In DMT, clients often report that simple stretching exercises or even gentle swaying can produce a distinct difference in feeling. Moreover, movement can allow clients to access symbolic and unconscious processes that are otherwise rather difficult to access (Stanton-Jones, 1992).
  2. Movement evokes emotions and cognitions that can be used to express other feelings and thoughts: Bonnie Meekums in her book Dance Movement Therapy (2002), describes several case studies of clients with whom she worked with DMT to help them access their deep pain and suffering. Meekums’ style being largely client centered, she allowed her clients to choose their own props and followed their lead in movement. She acts as a facilitator and also as a supportive, yet highly powerful and present therapist, while her clients dance. At particular points during the movement process, she points out her observations as to how they seem to be holding their body. Awareness of particular patterns, such as holding one part of the body too stiff or being disconnected from others, often leads clients to understand how such pathological patterns must have developed as coping mechanisms in childhood. When clients are given an opportunity to explore and express their grief and wounding from childhood, more varied feelings and cognitions emerge, which can then be dealt with.
  3. Movement, emotion and form, when expressed in relation to each other can lead to increased awareness and insight: Until recently psychotherapy was largely thought to be talk therapy, with little or no use of body movement. But very important advances in the research on neurology suggest that the process of accessing emotions is incomplete, without taking into consideration a whole plethora of feelings that are non-verbal or even pre-verbal. For instance, early mother-child interactions are mediated non-verbally (Schore, 1994) and leave indelible marks on the adult personality. DMT operates on the premise that certain patterns of movement contain a metaphoric significance. They help us to understand early attachment difficulties and also to correct such difficulties. Schore, for example points out that in early mother-child interactions, there can be needs to move towards, move against or move away from the mother, which are very sensory in nature. They are later felt as needs to “get close to someone”, “locking horns” or “needing some space” (Schore, 1994). Such feelings come up in dance and these metaphors serve as a bridge between emotion and cognition. With the help of a highly attuned therapist, such deep rooted attachment difficulties can also be corrected.
  4. Movement can deepen and expand clients’ sense of being and creativity: As clients learn to relate more fully to their bodies and to be attentive to signals from within, they gain a better sense of their own selves and of their personality. Therapists encourage them to move away from destructive patterns of relating to their bodies, and of denial. Finally, as clients try out new movements and feel the possibilities of new and healthy ways of being, they feel liberated, empowered and happy. They are more fully able to take charge of their lives and be creative.

How is DMT different from therapeutic dance?

Therapeutic dance forms are particular dance forms that are used for specific populations such as in schools, in prisons and with sexually abused women. They are usually practised by highly talented and skilled dance teachers and artists but who are not trained as psychotherapists. Bonnie Meekums outlines some such therapeutic dance forms (Meekums, 2002): Body mind centering (Cohen, 1980), Gabrielle Roth’s five rhythms (flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness) which she uses as a form of shamanism (Roth, 1990), and Circle Dance, which is based on folk dances (Meekums, 2000).

Several important differences between DMT and therapeutic dance have been pointed out by Meekums. For one, while DMT is essentially a form of psychotherapy, therapeutic dance is not. Therapeutic dance aims to stimulate creativity, sometimes to help achieve educational goals or to help develop interpersonal relationships. DMT on the other hand is meant to help clients to experience and heal psychological issues. Therapeutic dance forms are highly structured while DMT allows the free and unstructured use of movement to access psychological material. While the therapeutic dance teachers require training in their particular dance form, they do not require training in psychotherapeutic skills. The DMT therapist on the other hand has to have training in psychotherapy including clinical supervision, and as such operates within the professional limits of psychotherapy such as ‘no socialisation’ with the clients. They work with the inner imagery and symbolism of the clients, which the therapeutic dancers do not.

Despite these differences, there are obvious similarities between the two, leading to their distinction being very hazy for some. Both approaches make use of awareness of the body for self enhancement, and both involve the use of rhythm and props. DMT therapists may work with one client or with a group, while therapeutic dance is usually done in groups.

What are the basic tenets and processes of DMT?

In DMT, therapists work with clients in a safe space provided by their relationship with each other. The therapist, by being accepting and non-judgemental, allows the client to engage in a highly creative process. Meekums outlines four specific stages of the creative process:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination
  4. Evaluation

The Preparation stage consists of the initial interview wherein the therapist assesses the client’s problems and needs. A thorough case history taking, establishing safety for the client to share freely and also defining the boundaries of the therapeutic relationship, also called as the establishment of the working alliance, happens at this stage. A diagnostic formulation is usually prepared at this stage. Although preliminary, it serves as a guideline for the therapist to lead further sessions. In this stage, the client is verbal and therefore operating largely with the Left brain (the hemisphere responsible for conscious, verbal processing of thoughts).

In the actual dance movement sessions that follow, which is the stage of Incubation, clients are allowed to choose props and be fully attuned to their body. They are encouraged to let go of their inhibitions, and just experience all the sensations and feelings as they arise in the process of movement. Therapists may sometimes guide clients to make particular movements and exercises such as warm ups, breathing techniques, grounding techniques, the exploration of personal space, redirecting energy exercises, the mirroring exercise, symbolic work such as holding and letting go, and the shared group movement. Since clients do not know what material might come up for them, they are better able to “let their guard down”, in other words, they tend to resist less, than in other forms of therapy that involve talking. This incubation process is the most important part of DMT, which involves right brain hemisphere activity. Recent advances in neurology point to the fact that the right hemisphere of the brain is connected with deeply buried, unconscious emotional material. It is the seat of all symbolism and metaphor. Clients might experience powerful feelings like being “trapped”, “not fitting in”, “wanting to shake off something”, “wanting to reach out” etc., while performing movements. These feelings or imagery usually carry symbolic meaning, especially related to early wounds, which are cut-off from normal consciousness.

After a typical DMT session, therapists do a debriefing with their clients. This is the stage of illumination. Therapists may ask them to narrate their experience and ask pertinent questions such as “what are you scared to let go of?” or “what do you think makes you feel tossed about?”. While answering such questions, the clients come up with important realizations about their present emotional states as well as early hurts. This process involves a transfer of information from the right brain to the left brain. The insights derived from the creative, unconscious right brain are collected and processed verbally.

The last stage of DMT involves carrying of these insights in the day-to-day functioning, into the world. Having understood the source of emotional difficulties, clients use this knowledge to function effectively, act out less on the urges towards defeating and maladaptive patterns of behaviour, and live more creatively. This integration happens in the left hemisphere of the brain.

Therapists do formal assessments, history taking, risk assessment, actual use of techniques mentioned above, regular debriefing sessions and also undertake clinical supervision, while working with clients.

Why is it necessary to be therapeutically, and especially psychoanalytically, informed?

There are three important factors that make it necessary for DMT therapists to be knowledgeable as psychotherapists.

First, the therapeutic skills such as active listening, non-judgmental acceptance of the client and of one’s own self, validation, empathy and interpretation have to be sufficiently mastered, so as to provide the right atmosphere for the client to fully open up.

Second, the symbolism expressed by clients needs to be interpreted carefully. Early wounding related to oral, anal, or phallic conflicts may be expressed during the phase of incubation. The therapist being analytically informed, allows for better and accurate interpretation of these conflicts. Early defense mechanisms, resistances, confusions related to attachments and sometimes even precise memories, arise in the process of dance. These need to be understood and eventually released. Meekums describes the case of a young woman client who had developed the pattern of displacing her hurt of being constantly criticised by her father onto her legs, with the result that she hated them and often fell down and felt ugly about herself. Another client, while tossing a ball, suddenly chanced upon a realization that for long years in his childhood, he had felt tossed about between his fighting parents (Meekums, 2002).

Finally, as clients work through emotional trauma, the therapeutic relationship may sometimes go through intense turmoil. Clients might transfer their unmet needs, desires and fantasies onto the therapist. Therapists need to be attentive to such transferences and deal with them in a way that does not further wound the client, while at the same time not getting caught up in the clients’ pathology. Also, the therapist’s own counter transferences have to be dealt with, so that this does not stray the counseling process.


Dance movement therapy is a powerful psychotherapeutic technique that integrates the creative process with psychotherapy. It is unstructured, and aims to heal deep emotional wounds, unlike therapeutic dance. It requires intensive training on the part of the therapist, of psychotherapeutic skills and information.


ADMT UK (Association for Dance Movement Therapy UK) (1977). ‘Define dance movement therapy’, E-motion: ADMT UK Quarterly, 9 (1), 17.

Cohen, B.B. (1980). ‘Perceiving in action’, Interview by Lisa Nelson and Nancy Stark-Smith. Contact Quarterly, Winter, 20-28.

Harpin, D. (1999). Living artfully: Movement as an integrating process. In S.K. Levine & E.G. Levine (Eds.). Foundations of expressive arts therapy: Theoretical and clinical perspectives (pp. 133-149). London: Jessica Kingsley.

Meekums, B. (2000). Creative Group Therapy for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: Speaking the Unspeakable. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Meekums, B. (2002). Dance Movement Therapy: Creative therapies in practice. London: Sage.

Roth, G. (1990). Maps to Ecstasy: Teachings of an Urban Shaman. London: Mandala.

Schore, A. (1994). Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: the Neurobiology of Emotional Development. Hillsdale, NJ and Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Stanton-Jones, K. (1992). An Introduction to Dance Movement Therapy in Psychiatry. London: Routledge.

Dr. Megha Deuskar,

Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Fergusson College, Pune.