8 characteristics of a dance/movement therapist.


I’ve been working at my current dance/movement therapy position for a little over four months now.  After four months I feel as though I’ve gotten into the groove of the job.  Although I learn something new every day, especially about dance/movement therapy (DMT), I’ve gotten a handle on leading groups and completing necessary paperwork.  The other day in group it randomly struck me how courageous one has to be in order to be a dance/movement therapist–how it takes a lot of guts to lead a DMT group.  While mulling over my “AH-HA” moment, I got to thinking about other characteristics that make up a dance/movement therapist.  Below is my modest list of helpful dance/movement therapist characteristics.

1. Courage Let me tell you this first hand–it takes a lot of courage to be a dance/movement therapist.  It takes a lot of courage to shamelessly dance around to Christina Aguilara’s “Come on Over” with your clients, especially when people can look in your room through a window.   As a dance/movement therapist all I have is me, my knowledge and some good music to help facilitate therapeutic change.   Yes, there are props which I use on a daily basis,  such as yoga mats, exercise balls and scarves to name a few, but at the core my work is the relationship between me and my clients while in movement.  And that’s terrifying to think about.  You need courage to get up and say, “What would everyone like to do in DMT group today?” and see where the group goes from there.

2. Body awareness One precurser to becoming a dance/movement therapist is having some former dance experience or training.  Dancers usually have body awareness–it’s hard to do a pirouette without it.  However, dance/movement therapists take this skill one step further.  Not only do we have to be aware of our bodies, but we have to understand what our bodies are telling us.  Am I feeling anxious because I am anxious?  Or, am I feeling anxious because my client is?  How are my movement choices informing me as a facilitator of the group?  While leading a DMT group, there is a constant conversation between my mind and my body.  A dance/movement therapist’s body is a wealth of knowledge and not because it sounds cool to say, but because this is what is unique to our work.

3. Mindfulness  I know, I know, I talk about this a lot.  Being in the present moment is helpful to a dance/movement therapist for multiple reasons: it informs our intervention choices, it helps our clients in feeling seen, it assists with our body awareness and the constant interchange between mind/body, and it promotes self-care by insisting we can only be in one place at one time, that we can only do the task at hand.  It’s a powerful skill and, at times, really hard to do.

dance room 2

4. Improvisational skills There is a lot of discussion about mirroring in DMT literature and curriculum.  For a dance/movement therapist, mirroring means to try on a client’s movement to attune to that client and get a better understanding of where that client is emotionally and physically.  It’s also a way to understand a client on a body level.  Dance/movement therapists use mirroring as a means of meeting our clients where they’re at (you know, that old counseling colloquialism).  Yet, if you are constantly mirroring your client you don’t really go anywhere, there isn’t any forward progression.  Instead, you and your client are just doing the same movement… This is where improvisational skills come in.  What would happen to that movement if I did it with some bound flow or with some deceleration?  How could I do that movement while sitting on the floor?  Often times when I lead a DMT group I do mirror my clients and then begin to make the movement my own by manipulating it.  My improvisations are inspired by my clients’ movement and they serve as an invitation to my clients to manipulate their movement too.  When they see that I’ve changed the way I am moving they might too.  This may deepen their exploration of movement or how they experience their usual movement repertoire.   Although mirroring is a very useful tool, it’s helpful to go one step further to help our clients explore various movement choices.  

5. The understanding that you won’t ever be the same.  It may sound lame but it’s true.   After learning about dance/movement therapy, I was never the same.  My lens as a human being was completely changed.  This is also true of learning movement analysis (GL-CMA).   I’m sure this is due to the highly introspective nature of learning how to become a dance/movement therapist.  

6. The ability to get out of your own way. This is a skill I learned to do while studying in graduate school and something I continue to work on as a professional.  When I was an intern, I found it hard to lead DMT groups with a constant “self-judger” whispering in my ear.   I realized that if I was too worried about making the wrong move (and judging myself because of it) while leading a group I didn’t get very far with my clients therapeutically.  My focus was on myself and not on the group therapeutic process where it should be.  DUH, right?   But having the ability to get out of your own way is tough.  It’s hard to be caring and kind with yourself and realize that there really isn’t such a thing as a wrong move in DMT.  All things that happen in therapy are valid and informative.  All things that happen in the therapy room are important experiences, you just have to get out of your own head to let it happen.

dance room 1

7. Flexibility  Dance/movement therapy jobs are intense.  They are intense because they require constant body/mind processing, and because of the clients we serve and work with.  And if you have a position like me, DMT jobs are intense because they are BUSY.  Being flexible is one way I’ve found to combat stress due to the intensity of my job.  I’m flexible and I try to roll with the punches.   My supervisor forgot about an Individual Service Plan that needs to be completed?  No problem.  A client punched another client while walking in the hall and now we need to write an Incident Report.  No problem.  It’s all a part of the job.

I also believe it’s important to be flexible in the way we define DMT.  And of course, I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again- the format of DMT should not be a one size fits all.  We need to be flexible with the interventions and techniques we use while in DMT group and tailor our choices to our clients’ needs.  We need to be flexible with our work so that it best serves our clients.

8. Kindness This one seems kind of obvious and on a basic level it is.  In order to do this work, or any mental health profession, you’ve got to be kind.  However, I am promoting a kindness that transcends our every action and interaction in the world as a way to represent our community at large.  I am also talking about kindness to each other in the DMT community.  I’m not talking about, “Hi! Welcome! Become an ADTA member!” kindness, but rather bottom of the heart kindness that facilitates a genuine interest in the type of work that we do.  Our community is small and our work definitely needs exposure, but this sometimes translates as pressure on outsiders to pay attention to OUR work.  A small community may also mean that job opportunities are scarce making it easy for competitiveness to seep in.   Maybe this is an easy one for me to point out because I do in fact have a job.

I apologize for the many “identity” blog posts as of late.  I am new at this position and thus I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a dance/movement therapist.  Or more importantly, what it means to me to be a dance/movement therapist.   Of course the above list is merely a representation of what I perceive to be characteristics of a dance/movement therapist.  Not only have I been thinking about the characteristics of a dance/movement therapist, but the overall importance of the identity of a therapist to begin with.  No matter how many DMT interventions and theories I know and use in my work, doesn’t it all just melt down to who I am when interacting with my client?  Maybe this speaks to my humanistic approach and the my emphasis on attachment theory while I am with my clients.   Although I am sure my clients appreciate the fact I engage them in dance and movement while in therapy, I think what may matter even more is who I am as a person.


About emilyadannunzio

Board Certified-Dance/Movement Therapist. Movement Analyst (GL-CMA). Researcher. Dancer. Detroit, MI.
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4 Responses to 8 characteristics of a dance/movement therapist.

  1. Magele Valdo says:

    Loved the text! I am in training in DMT and thinking a lot about this new role. Thanks for sharing your ideas. I also shared my thoughts on my blog, but it is in Portuguese. If you want to go there … Kisses

    • Unfortunately I cannot read Portuguese….. Maybe I can figure out a way to translate it. Thanks for commenting and taking time to respond on your own blog. Taking on the role as a dance/movement therapist is beautiful. I wish you well in your training.

  2. Pingback: Reflecting on Dance.Movement.Therapy. | Dance.Movement.Therapy.

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