If you happen to research dance/movement therapy (DMT) and individuals with development disabilities (DD), you probably won’t find a whole lot. Sure, you might find two pages on individuals with “mental retardation” (now known as intellectual disabilities), in Levy’s (1988) “Dance/movement Therapy: A healing art,” or a few master’s theses on the topic. In general, however, this population, a population that dance/movement therapists work with daily, is underrepresented in DMT literature. So, what in fact does DMT look like when working with individuals with DD and what skills do we need to access to serve these individuals in a DMT setting?
First, it’s important to understand that developmental disability is not a DSM-V diagnosis but rather a “catch-all” phrase for an array of conditions, including intellectual disabilities, down syndrome, and cerebral palsy to name a few. It is important to understand the nature of DD because as dance/movement therapists we have to be mindful that the needs of individuals with DD are most likely as unique as their diagnoses. In addition, we may meet individuals who, in addition to DD, have mood and/or psychotic disorders. In other words, as professionals we are faced with an array of abilities when working with this population and will have to tailor our DMT groups to fit such needs.
I am always mindful of the Chacian approach in my work with adults with DD, however I take liberty in tailoring it to meet my clients’ abilities. It is important to remember that individuals with DD may not solely depend on verbal skills to communicate or understand abstract ideas that are often emphasized in the Chacian approach. As a professional dance/movement therapist who works full-time with adults with DD, my main focus in DMT groups is to create a holding environment. By this I mean I try to create an environment where my clients feel safe expressing themselves in movement. I access my skills in kinesthetic empathy and mirroring, as well as establish appropriate boundaries to create a holding environment. If I am successful, I’ll notice that my clients engage in authentic movement, appropriate social skills, and make choices that relate to the direction of group in the present moment, all of which are common therapy goals for my clients.
A usual DMT group starts the moment group members enter the room and sit down. As everyone settles in, I verbally and kinesthetically check-in with each client, as Chace might have, to gauge the energy level of the group as a whole. Then I literally ask, “What would everyone like to do in DMT group today? Would anyone like to choose music for the group?” I ask them such questions in hopes to give control to group members and empower them to determine what needs to happen during group time. From there, there is a constant flux of individuals getting up to dance and sitting to observe others move. My observations and personal experience during group help inform my intervention choices within group, always tailoring them towards the group’s common goals of increasing appropriate social interpersonal skills and group engagement. As the group end nears, I am mindful of bringing the group’s energy back to a base level or engage the group in a cool-down. During cool-down I attempt to engage my clients in a group verbal process, asking them concretely, “How was group?” Non-verbal clients may smile or nod in response to my question, while verbal clients may say, “Group was good.” If I witnessed a particularly important moment during group I verbalize this to them to highlight said moment.
My main focus of DMT with adults with DD is to empower them to make choices and engage them in creative, authentic movement. Instead of focusing on cognitive and/or physical limitations of my clients, I focus on what they can do. This might manifest as simply helping me load the CD player, or it may manifest as standing up to dance without the assistance of a cane. Individuals with DD are a group of individuals that are often told what to do and when to do it, whether this relates to personal hygiene, appropriate social behavior, or how to take public transportation. My approach to DMT is to create an environment that allows and accepts what it is my clients want to do for the allotted group time, and of course always incorporate movement. I’m a true believer that if you empower clients in DMT groups then they will, in some form or fashion, address their therapy goals.
As I am sure with all dance/movement therapists, I am constantly learning and growing as a result of my work with my clients. My clients remind me daily of the beauty in the array of ability we have as unique individuals. They remind me of the simple joy in being in the present moment, letting go, and dancing to music. Despite their lack of representation in DMT literature, they certainly love to dance. Trust me, I know—I dance with them daily.