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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Is dance therapy?
Animated, Summer 1998. Laurence Higgens offers a personal perspective
There are many areas of overlap between the work of dance movement therapists and dance artists working in community settings. Both engage with clients through the medium of dance and utilise its expressive and evocative potential as well as the opportunities it provides for discovery of new, often previously untapped, aspects of the person. Both bring dance skills and a passionate belief that dance can enrich and enliven the lives of those prepared to try the experience. Both often work with people who have had minimal prior experience of dance and who have various degrees of disability. To engage with and hold these clients requires considerable interpersonal skills in the practitioner. Many of the factors identified as intrinsically therapeutic by dance movement therapy pioneers come into play in community dance. These include the integrative benefits of rhythmic movement, the sense of belonging and participation which can accompany synchronous movement with others, the vitality aroused through dance, and the communicative and creative opportunities it provides. (1)

There are, however, many important differences between the two professions that go beyond the wide range of variations in style and theoretical orientation in individual practitioners in both professions. In what follows I will attempt to outline some of these differences from a dance movement therapy perspective.

The therapeutic relationship is a confidential, client-professional relationship with a focus on the well-being of the client. It is a multifaceted relationship involving a conscious 'here and now' alliance, as well as unconscious aspects, for example 'transferential' dimensions, which reactivate the dynamics of important past relationships. (2) The relationship between client and therapist, and between group members, is central to the process of therapy and undergoes constant reflective consideration throughout the course of therapy. The client is entitled to expect that the therapist has particular skills and qualifications. Art, drama, and music therapy are now state registered and therefore legally regulated professions. Dance movement therapy is at present regulated by a professional body, the Association for Dance Movement Therapy UK (ADMT)(3), who maintain a Register of Professional Practitioners and publish a Code of Professional Practice, for the protection of clients and to help maintain quality standards in the profession.

There is widespread agreement throughout the arts therapies that therapy skills are best acquired through participation in a postgraduate level training course and that this should equip the therapist with a knowledge base, a theoretical framework, and practical skills. The knowledge base provides an awareness of the research and study in related fields. Most dance movement therapists find developmental psychology, anatomy, psychiatry, and awareness of cultural issues provide a necessary foundation for their work. There are many different theoretical frameworks in use in dance movement therapy including; Psychoanalytic, Jungian, Systemic, and Humanistic models. These support the therapist in reaching an understanding of the client, and in knowing when, how, and why to intervene in the therapy process.

Knowledge and theory provide a map for the journey, but skills enable it to be embarked upon. Dance movement therapists are trained to engage with a wide range of people, from withdrawn, depressed and non-verbal psychiatric patients to hyperactive emotionally disturbed children. Dance movement therapists are skilled at observing posture and the qualitative aspects of movement patterns, understanding the implications of these for a client's attitudes and patterns of functioning, and utilising these in order to design therapeutic interventions. Dance movement therapists also require skills in facilitating verbal aspects of the work which are essential in helping clients integrate movement and emotional experiences within sessions and in making links between events in therapy and life patterns outside therapy.

Therapy is an intensely personal and subjective process, and even more so in dance movement therapy where the therapist often participates in the movement or mirrors client movement, using kinaesthetic awareness to connect with client feeling states. The great danger for both client and therapist is that the therapist's own emotional responses become confused with those of the client, to the detriment of the therapy process. Two essential aspects of dance movement therapy provide a safeguard here; clinical supervision and personal therapy.

In clinical supervision, regular meetings with a more experienced colleague allow examination of the client-therapist relationship and the therapist's role in the therapy duet. Supervision provides space for therapist and supervisor to think together about the significance of session material. Somatic and emotional responses in the therapist and associations triggered by the sessions often provide clues to less conscious communications from the client.

To recognise and utilise unconscious processes demands an experiential understanding of them which goes beyond the sort of knowledge derived from reading about them. This is best acquired through personal therapy. To help others to know themselves one must first know oneself, The therapist's self knowledge is a pre-requisite for separating feelings projected by clients from the therapists own responses. Therapy and supervision also support the therapist when personal issues are triggered by client sessions, and help prevent burnout.

Having completed training, acquired a supervisor, and engaged in personal therapy, the dance movement therapist is ready for professional work with clients. In formulating therapeutic aims and objectives the therapist attempts to balance the client's presenting problem, the views of other professionals involved, and the therapist's own assessment of the client. The capacity to build up a movement profile of clients during the initial sessions, and to make inferences from these, proves invaluable here. Movement assessment can also provide information which is useful to other clinical professionals involved with the client such as psychiatrists, occupational therapists, or teachers. Changes in movement profile accompany psychological changes and provide a way of monitoring progress during the course of the therapy.

Dance movement therapy is process rather than product oriented; the therapist is responsive to moment by moment client words and actions rather than working from a prepared programme. All client behaviour within the session is seen as a communication on both a conscious level as well as on an unconscious or symbolic level. Thus, what may be seen as 'problem' behaviour by an emotionally disturbed child in a classroom, becomes a communication of distress in the therapy room. Unconsciously the child creates a situation which will make the therapist feel some aspect of what the child is feeling in an important, possibly traumatic, situation outside the therapy. Such events are not restricted to children and give a valuable insight into the client's inner world. The therapist's capacity to survive such 'attacks', and to understand what they are about, can produce dramatic change in the client.

The views I have presented here give an indication of my own stance. I am aware that there are a range of different perspectives within the profession. Perhaps this will stimulate constructive debate which will help us all to articulate our own practice and to think more clearly about it as a result.

Laurence Higgens, ME, MCAT, Course Leader, Dance Movement Therapy Programme, Laban Centre London. Contact +44 (0)20 8692 4070 or email

1 Schmais, Claire, Healing Processes in Group Dance Therapy, American Journal of Dance Therapy, vol V111, 1985.
2 Clarkson, Petruska, The Therapeutic Relationship, Whurr Publishers Ltd, London, 1995.
3 Association for Dance Movement Therapy UK, c/o Arts Therapies Dept., Springfield Hospital, 61 Glenburnie Road, London SW17 7DJ.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001