Dance Movement Therapy

Written by Daisy Thompson, LMSW, LCDC-I

“Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.” -Samuel Becket

According to the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) dance movement therapy (DMT) is a well-established psychotherapeutic intervention which is based on the empirically supported concept that body, mind, and spirit are interconnected, and that the psychotherapeutic use of movement and dance can further the emotional, cognitive, physical, and social integration of the individual. DMT has been positioned as an effective intervention for medical, developmental, physical, psychological, and social impairments.

In DMT, movement and dance play a central role within the therapeutic alliance, and can be practiced with individuals, couples, families, and groups in health and social care settings as well as private practice.  While academic research concerning DMT is relatively limited when compared to other evidence-based and evidence-informed interventions, among the existing literature there seems to be a general consensus that DMT can positively impact quality of life, improve well-being, mood, and affect, and enhance body-image.


While there are many different techniques within the broad spectrum of DMT interventions, the technique of mirroring is one of the most well-known, and is considered by practitioners and patients to enhance emotional understanding and empathy for others.  Through the use of mirror neuron circuitry, mirroring in DMT may enhance understanding of others’ emotional intentions.  Research suggests that imitation of another person’s movement, or mimicry, can inform emotional understanding through muscle feedback loops to the brain.  Research on the mirror neuron system (MNS) is complicated, however, it is suggested that there is an overlap in areas of the brain involved with perception and movement production, and both areas inform our understanding of movement intention.

Mirroring in DMT can take various forms, and may look like a therapist intentionally echoing the body of movements of the client for example, if the client is sitting straight and rigid with arms crossed in front of their chest, the therapist would sit erect with crossed-arms as well.  Similarly, in a group setting, it might look like dyads taking turns as leaders and followers.  A therapist might ask clients to compare the experience of being a leader to a follower, or to identify any similarities or differences experienced in the mirroring exercise to roles that are enacted in interpersonal relationships.  Clients often indicate that one role is more comfortable than another, and often matches-up with their interpersonal style for example, an individual who tends to be a leader in interpersonal relationships identifies most with leading movement in the mirroring activity, while an individual who tends to be a follower in interpersonal relationships often identifies most with the following aspect of the activity.

DMT and Eating Disorders

There is a common misconception that dance is reserved for individuals of a certain body-type or physical ability, however, quite literally, any body can dance. Another common misconception is that in order to participate in DMT, a person must have a background in dance training, when in reality, a person need not ever have set-foot in a dance studio to participate in DMT.  There are no criteria for involvement in DMT other than the consent and willingness to participate.

To illustrate the fallacy that only certain body-types or abilities can dance or participate in DMT, recent research concerning individuals who binge-eat and who are obese, benefited significantly from DMT interventions. Individuals who are obese and engage in binge-eating behaviors may also suffer from low self-esteem and distorted body image.  The specific individuals involved in the 36-week longitudinal study exhibited significant improvement in health-related quality of life, body consciousness, and mental representations related to body image.  Additionally, all achievements in the study were unrelated to weight-loss, as weight remained largely unaltered throughout the study.

Future Implications

Dance and movement have been utilized as therapeutic interventions for thousands of years. Since the beginning of human history, dance has been used to influence fertility, birthing, healing, and more.  Dance as a healing art has an extensive history; however dance as an established and research-supported practice dates back to the 1950’s.  Among existing literature, DMT has demonstrated positive benefits related to quality of life, self-esteem, mindfulness, relaxation effects, and coping with disease.

While there has been considerable progress made in the development of scholarly studies concerning DMT, there is still relatively little published empirical research when compared with other evidence-based and evidence-informed interventions.  Future research in the area of DMT should be adequately powered with a focus on high-quality, randomized trials using both qualitative and quantitative methods.


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Daisy Thompson received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and her Master of Science in Social Work from the University of Texas at Austin. Daisy is a full-time staff therapist at McCallum Place Austin.  Daisy is also a certified professional dance instructor and former professional dancer and NBA cheerleader.  Daisy passionately believes that any body can dance, and looks forward to her bi-weekly therapeutic dance groups she facilitates at McCallum Place Austin.