The loss of dance and the dancer in dance/movement therapy.

Shmib Dance Co. Photo credit:

Shmib Dance Co. Photo credit:

Time and time again I emphasis that dance/movement therapists need to keep dancing.  Or should I say, time and time again I emphasize why it’s important for me, as a dance/movement therapist, to keep dancing for my professional practice.  I attempt to take at least one dance class a week, two if it’s a good week.  Self-care? Yes. Staying fit? Sure. Lately I’ve been reflecting on the importance of staying connected to my roots in dance and then I wonder to myself why this is something to ponder?  I’m a dance/movement therapist, shouldn’t I always be dancing?  Although I find that to be true, I am currently wondering about the role of dance and the dancer in dance/movement therapy (DMT).  I am wondering if there has been a loss of the these elements in the DMT profession.

The inspiration for this blog post actually occurred awhile back.  I was attending a Continuing Education (CE) workshop presented by fellow dance/movement therapists.  Before we delved into the topic of the workshop, the presenters asked us to introduce ourselves by stating our name, where we worked and what motivated us to become dance/movement therapists.  As I listened to what individuals were sharing I noticed a common theme- once people realized they were not going to pursue a career as a professional dancer they pursued a career in DMT instead.  As in, becoming a dance/movement therapist was an alternative to becoming a professional dancer.  There seemed to be a sense of loss when people shared this and I felt sad hearing it. Reflecting back on this moment now I’m left somewhat confused.  Most of the founding mothers of DMT were at one time professional dancers and performers.  I realize that there’s only 24 hours in a day, and that being a full-time dance/movement therapist and professional dancer would be tough. Maybe it’s less about dancing professionally, but maybe more about involving ourselves in the art of dance seriously. Regardless, the sharing I heard left the imprint of loss of the dancer self and how this seems counter intuitive to our work.

The loss of the dancer self is coupled by the loss of dance in the DMT profession.  As a profession we have gotten away from the art form of dance and the power within the creative process.  I’m only one individual with one point of view, but it seems that ever since the era of our DMT founders there has been a pendulum shift in the theory of DMT.  The roots of DMT begin with professional dancers using dance to heal people and as the practice has matured, we’ve become clinicians who dabble in dance and sprinkle in body based practices within a traditional counseling approach.  That’s a powerful statement and it makes my gut wrench, but I believe it.  I know there is a reason for the pendulum shift, like creating jobs and validating our profession.  I know that the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) once aligned with the National Board of Certified Counselors to ensure licensing and thus more jobs for dance/movement therapists.  I know we layer on traditional counseling techniques in our work to make the healing power of dance more concrete (and more researched). Who are we doing this for?

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I often have individuals e-mail me with questions about becoming a dance/movement therapist and about DMT in general.  I am often asked about my dance training and technique.  I respond by saying a strong background in dance is usually necessary for acceptance into one of the seven accredited graduate programs.  This, however, does not mean that one HAS to be a technically advanced in dance to pursue DMT.  Just because you stick a triple pirouette does not mean you’re going to be an awesome dance/movement therapist.  What I am advocating for, however, is for dance/movement therapists to be familiar with the history of dance, some dance technique, how to create dances, expressivity through movement, musicality, rhythm, to feel comfortable in their own bodies when moving and to be comfortable with dance improvisation.  Although I enjoy attending Authentic Movement workshops and taking ballet and modern classes, I am speaking of all forms of movement and dance.

Continuing to dance for our own sake as individuals is just as important as continuing to dance for the integrity of DMT.  Personally, I am deeply impacted by the dance classes I take- they help me be a better dance/movement therapist.  As you might imagine, I talk a lot about this subject with my coworkers and peers.  When discussing this topic with a fellow dance/movement therapist/DMT blogger, *Audrey Albert King, she makes a beautiful point about the importance of staying connected to our dance roots.  In continuing to harvest our dance skills she states, “…[we] can sharpen our attunement skills, cultivate a sustainable self-care practice, and build a like-minded community.”  She goes on to say that dance class can be, “an outlet for creative expression, an opportunity to move in a healthful and regenerative way amongst community, and [most] importantly connect us to our original art form and the inspiration for our field.”

I do have to say that in the last six months or so I’ve seen glimpses of the DMT theory pendulum swinging back to our roots in dance.  More and more “serious” dancers seem to be interested in our work.  I witness the Columbia College Chicago graduate student produced dance concerts each year and the dance pieces get better and better.  My fellow dance/movement therapy friends are dancing in Chicago based dance companies (I was once too).  The ADTA 2016 conference’s theme is “Regeneration: Moving Pathways to Integration.”  Maybe we are beginning to see the swing of the pendulum back to our roots in dance, our roots in the creative process, reclaiming what DMT once was.

Here are some words from DMT founder Trudi Schoop.  Although this is from a lecture she presented in 1978 (Motion and Emotion, AJDT vol. 22 issue 2) her words still ring true:

I sometimes wonder if we are not a little bit insecure about our young form of therapy and that we therefore tend to lean too heavily on the well-established professions, letting ourselves be pressured into looking with their eyes on our treatment. We are young, but whatever we will find out—and I believe that we will find out plenty—will come from the power of dance itself. We cannot rely on other theories. Theories can quickly become unyielding models, and dance defies the confinement of another discipline.

I deeply wish that we all could have a humanistic education—(besides that we should dance and dance and dance). I feel that we should be exposed to philosophy and especially psychology, to all the arts, to science and technology. They all tell us about where we have been, where we are now, and indicate in what direction we are heading.(emphasis hers)

In a myriad of body based therapies, I believe that DMT should return to its focus on the art of dance  Our understanding of the healing aspect of dance and the art of dance making is what makes our work powerful.  We understand the interplay between inner experience and outward expression, and how externalizing our experience through dance helps alleviate the struggle of the therapeutic process.  We know from trauma research that sometimes there are literally no words for our experiences.  By giving our experiences a concrete form outside of ourselves through art-making, we are separating ourselves from our experiences in the degree that we need so we can look at it objectively and then integrate it back into ourselves as we see fit.  Yes, as dance/movement therapists we help our clients tune-in to inner sensations, increase body awareness, and help our clients be mindful .  Doing these things through the art of dance is what makes us unique as dance/movement therapists.  I am certainly not unique myself in making these points, as we’ve known this information intuitively or through research since the beginning of DMT.  However, I am suggesting that somewhere along the way we’ve lost our connection to these ideas.  We’ve lost our connection to dancer and the dance in DMT.

*Thank you Audrey for your contributions to my post.  I appreciate our rich e-mail correspondence about all things DMT.

About emilyadannunzio

Board Certified-Dance/Movement Therapist. Movement Analyst (GL-CMA). Researcher. Dancer. Bartender. Detroit, MI.
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13 Responses to The loss of dance and the dancer in dance/movement therapy.

  1. asher says:

    Thanks so much for writing this. It’s a brave statement, and addresses one of the specific things that I keep contemplating as a hopeful DMT student.

    There’s such an important idea there — so many of us could be professional dancers, so many of us could enter more traditional Master’s or PhD programs (and have a much better chance at receiving teaching assistantships and other sources of debt-free funding!), but we choose this path because we believe in dance as a healing medium.

    To then find ourselves working in settings in which dance is treated almost as an afterthought flies in the face of the very factors that drive us to pursue DMT as a career in the first place.

    I believe that dance is an incredibly powerful therapeutic medium, and I hope that as advances in neuroscience allow us to more effectively measure changes in the brain and map them in more objective ways to mental health, we’ll be able to use its tools to build a base of empirical support that even the most stubborn opponents of the idea will have to accept.

    Until then, I hope that people like you will continue to defend the dance element of dance-movement therapy from within the profession.

    Thanks again. I don’t know if I’ve actually put my thoughts together coherently, here, but I hope this all makes sense.

  2. Thank You very much for your post. I’m a DMT and I use some dance’s technics and methods for my personal wellness and professional training. It’s important to feel my roots!

  3. Audrey Albert King says:

    Thank you Emily for the opportunity to mutually share thoughts and ideas with a critical eye. Our correspondence has been inspiring, incredibly thought provoking, and has enriched my perspective on all things DMT.

  4. Pamela says:

    I like your article, keep dancing, dance dance dance

  5. Thank you, Emily, for coming back to the dance in dance/movement therapy. You are not alone in this concern, as you know from your quotations from Trudi Schoop. I think that with busy lives and balancing work and family, the dance often gets dropped. But I definitely find in my work that when I’m not dancing, and when I am, it shows in my clinical work. I feel the difference. So, please, keep dancing, and reminding all of us of its importance.

  6. Jeannine says:

    Love it…thanks for being willing to speak out on this. Thanks for sharing Trudi’s words, too. “Dance defies the confinement of another discipline.” This sums it all up for me😊💗!

  7. Sheeja Shaju says:

    Emily thank you for this article…Its very well articulated and expressed! Loved your insight and honesty.

  8. As you know, I believe that dance is inherently healing and that technique is something that all too many DMTs ignore. I was shocked a few months ago when someone responded to a comment I made about the importance of being able to keep the beat—so shocked that I still have not gotten around to responding. The DMT (don’t recall her name) said she couldn’t see why being able to keep the beat was important. After all, and I almost have it remembered word for word, “our patients can’t keep the beat, why should we know how to keep the beat? I assume, and I am giving her the benefit of the doubt, that she was basing her statement on our use of kinesthetic empathy. Unfortunately, the writer’s limited vision did not take into account what indigenous peoples have know for millennia: shared rhythms and movements generate connection, expression, group cohesion, and community.
    When it comes to language, I prefer not to use the word beat. As one of the four main body based parameters that comprise the technique we teach in LivingDance~LivingMusic ™, I refer to “pulse.” It is an umbrella term that LivingDance~LivingMusic divides into two categories — (1) “The One” which does not have accents and does have equal intervals between each of the notes or steps and (2) Rhythm which has accents and may or may not have equal intervals between the notes or steps. The way people deal with these primary differences —the use of accents and the spaces between notes —provides vital diagnostic features related to affect, identity development, and locus of control. The all too many DMTs who cannot manage to work with both The One and Rhythm who embody loss for me. Dance by all definitions involves the ability to work with pulse and to use it as a source of creativity and connection both to self and others.
    I do not worry if people come to DMT because they believe they are not good enough to perform. (However, I have felt offend when performing dancers I know have said that to me). I worry, instead, about DMTs who do not understand how to use essentials of dance movement (e.g. pulse, muscle connectivity, breath, and the kinesthetic and somatosensory sense of the body boundary – what I call shape, for lack of a better word) as anchors, sources of expression, and catalysts for changes that can be applied to life outside of the studio.
    I am not only one of those people who got a Ph.D. in counseling, I am also the person who spearheaded the relationship with the National Board for Certified Counselors; yet, I have never let go of my identity as a DMT. I believe in the healing inherent in dance, and in the use of the art of dance to create connection, not perfection.

  9. Thank you, everyone, for reading and taking the time to contribute to a rich discussion.

  10. Elissa White says:

    Dear Emily — I am a firm believer that one should keep dancing. I always tell my students that they should continue to take dance classes during school and after school as this is the root of what we do. Thanks for this lovely article.

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