Show Me the Way to My Soul: Dance/Movement Therapy for Individuals with Eating Disorders

We are all dancers. We use movement to express ourselves-our hungers, pains, angers, joys, confusions, fears-long before we use words and we understand the meanings of movements long before we understand those of words. —Franklin Stevens

Photo courtesy of Structure Films
Photo courtesy of Structure Films

All of us communicate non-verbally long before we learn to speak words; body language remains our most natural means of expressing ourselves. However, we often shut down our connection with our inner self during difficult times and, for someone with an Eating Disorder (ED), it tends to be a familiar occurrence.

Numbing feelings, focusing on body distortions, having obsessive thoughts, and rigidly adhering to concrete, black & white thinking are all hallmarks of individuals with ED. Jackie Heyen, now recovered from an ED, created musical lyrics to express the emptiness and lack of wholeness that she felt:

“Show me the way to my soul.  Find me the passion to lead to the soul. The soul leads to me.  Show me the way to my soul.  Believe enough for me and you until I can believe in me.”

Helping individuals with an ED experience, tolerate, and understand their feelings is critical to their recovery. Dance/movement therapy (DMT) provides an opportunity for individuals with an ED to reclaim these vital connections with their body and themselves.

Dance/movement therapy is a psychotherapeutic method that heightens awareness of the importance of authentic communication between body and mind. Dance/movement therapists weave together dialogues that incorporate an emphasis on non-verbal communication by helping their patients experience feelings, express these feelings through their body language and identify the connection between what they discover and how it parallels their lives (Kleinman, 2014).

Specific techniques that emanate from one’s intrapersonal experiences are used by dance/movement therapists to access the language of the body and facilitate expression of feelings and thoughts that underlie the eating disorder.

For Melanie, a woman struggling with Binge Eating Disorder, dance/movement therapy provided an opportunity to trust herself to explore inwardly, and awaken feelings and sensations buried just below the surface that were causing her great anxiety. Reflecting on her dance/movement therapy experience, she identified how her “emotional disconnect” led her to emotional eating as a way of controlling feelings of vulnerability.

Photo courtesy of Structure Films
Photo courtesy of Structure Films

As the two of us explored and weaved Melanie’s natural movements together, we discovered that Melanie repeatedly bypassed a section of her movement sequence. She felt this discovery viscerally before she recognized it intellectually. She was then able to identify that, rather than facing her feelings of profound sadness, she had moved into what she perceived as a position of comfort. This was a very familiar pattern and she realized that she had been turning toward food for comfort as a way of coping. We continued to explore the dance/movement therapy experience together by reflecting on Melanie’s movements as well as on the feelings and thoughts that were elicited from the non-verbal experience, that had meaning in her life.

After the session, in journaling about her experience, Melanie wrote, “I felt I was able to discover more about why my relationship with my eating disorder and lack of relationship with myself exists. I also learned how the paths I take and decisions I make have caused me to avoid uncomfortable situations”.

Melanie was on a new journey, one that would allow her to check in consistently with what was registering in her body so that she could trust herself to be whole.


* This article is dedicated to Jackie Heyen, who had the courage and strength to work toward recovery and is now living life fully.

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