A New Therapeutic Norm: Dance/Movement Therapy with Individuals with Mental Illness

A Window into Dance/Movement Therapy Sessions with Individuals Diagnosed with Mental Illness

There’s power in looking silly and not caring that you do. –Amy Pohler

I currently work as a dance/movement therapist with adult psychiatric patients who have an array of diagnoses, such as mood disorders, personality disorders, psychosis and a myriad of others. Dance/movement therapy uses movement and dance to explore and further the cognitive, emotional, and physical aspects of the patient’s treatment. Therapeutic sessions may include individual and group sessions, ranging from grand scale dancing, to small and focused breath work. It is important when facilitating dance/movement therapy interventions, that the patient reclaims his or her body as an ally, not as an enemy, fostering a healthy relationship between the mind and body.

In a typical dance/movement therapy session the communal tables are collapsed and the chairs are set in a circle. This circle may be representative of a container or secure structure providing a safe and supportive environment. I always begin the group by asking, “What do we need today?” Sometimes the patients need the opportunity to slow down and take a breath. Other times, they need to voice their frustrations. Either way, I proceed with the question:

“How can we show that feeling through movement?” Without fail, I receive a resounding “Huh?” from the group. I reframe the question, offering the group one of their only opportunities all day to not only talk about their feelings, but to express them non-verbally. My response appears to intrigue patients and welcome exploration in an inviting and non-intrusive light. From here, verbal and nonverbal expression may be initiated. Patients may be very resistant to movement, as they run the risk of losing control or letting their guard down. Over time, this resistance may lessen as they become willing to communicate verbally and through movement. Patients may facilitate movements that are representative or symbolic of something specific. More often than not, they move without awareness of why they have chosen that movement in the first place. Facilitating the group, I may offer “What could this mean?” or “Does this remind us of anything?” For example, a common movement I see in sessions is a swimming motion, with arms alternating in a free style stroke. I may ask, “What does this remind us of?” A patient’s response may be, “Swimming!” I will then offer, “Should we all swim together? ”This encouragement often becomes the turning point in the group, in which individualized movement becomes group movement. As the patients begin to move together, one person might alter the movement slightly and the group will begin to pick it up without verbal prompting. Their movements have now transitioned from resistant and individualized to organic and supported.



To close the session, each patient has the opportunity to verbally process the group. Through this process, many patients often use the word “silly” to portray their experience. This word tends to be used negatively, as if being “silly” is not allowed, restricted to certain age groups, or representative of the all powerful statement, “I care what people think.” I often ask them about the silliness and have received responses such as, “I only dance with my child like that,” “Other people can see me,” or “I’ve never danced sober before.” All of these statements are powerful verbalizations of patients feelings, but also recognitions of the accomplishment of allowing themselves to play like children, dance without substance, and even just for a moment, view the body as an ally. Play and the opportunity to be silly within a safe and structured atmosphere becomes a vehicle for self-expression. By providing patients with this inviting and judgment-free group environment, the practice of dance/movement therapy creates an opportunity to go deeper and generate a new therapeutic norm.

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