Dance Movement Therapy: Exploring Benefits

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated March 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When you think of dance, you might not think that it can be used to treat mental health issues. However, dance movement therapy (DMT), also known as dance therapy, is a unique form of counseling that helps individuals, couples, and families address their symptoms with a compassionate and professional dance instructor. Learning more about this form of therapy can help you decide if it would suit you.

Experiencing mental health-related challenges?

What is dance movement therapy?

Dance therapy, also known as dance and movement therapy (DMT) or dance movement psychotherapy, is a therapy that uses dance and physical activity to help clients improve their mental health.

Dancing may help clients reduce stress, improve cognition, increase confidence, and become physically active. 
What can dance therapy treat?

A single dance intervention can offer many therapeutic benefits; you do not need a mental health diagnosis to attend sessions. Through body movement and the release of endorphins, dance therapy can help any individual improve mood and reduce stress. Dance therapy may facilitate lifespan development and treat any problems that impede healthy functioning. Additionally, dance may benefit social, physical, cognitive, and personal concerns, including the following. 

Dance therapy may treat the following physical symptoms: 

  • Chronic pain 
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure) 
  • Cancer

Before attending any movement therapy, please consult your primary care physician to ensure it is safe with your physical health condition. You may also find benefits for the following mental health symptoms: 

  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Self-esteem issues
  • A lack of hobbies 
  • Memory loss or difficulty
  • Communication problems
  • Distressing symptoms related to neurodiversity like autism spectrum disorders or ADHD 
  • Anger issues 
  • Social concerns 
  • Mental illness, like bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or another condition 

American Dance Therapy Association

The first noted discussion of dance used in therapy was by Carl Jung in 1916, according to studies. However, the psychotherapeutic use of dance therapy was developed officially in the 1960s by Mary Whitehouse. In 1966, the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) was founded, and it has become a more widespread practice. Today, the association provides licensing in dance therapy to therapists and counselors all over the US. 

Are dance therapies effective?

A 2019 study found that dance therapy was highly effective in treating symptoms of depression by offering a form of physical integration. Dance therapy is believed to enhance lifespan development. Other studies have pointed to the benefits of the practice for treating symptoms of schizophrenia in psychiatric patients. For those living with a chronic illness or dementia, this therapy can improve their quality of life and help them cope with symptoms. An article in the American Journal of Dance Therapy demonstrated that dance therapy effectively improves executive functioning skills in children. Another study published in the American Journal of Dance Therapy suggested that dance therapy may be effective in improving self-esteem in clients with eating disorders. Although more research may be helpful on this form of treatment, dance therapy can benefit various conditions and symptoms. It may be beneficial for those who enjoy physical education, movement, exercise, and expression. It may also serve as a violence prevention program.

Potential benefits

Dance therapy is a creative psychotherapeutic approach. There are various benefits of dancing in therapy, including the following: 

  • Enhanced self-esteem
  • Improved body image
  • Personal expression
  • Confident creativity
  • Facilitate lifespan development
  • Joy
  • Poise and posture 
  • Focus and discipline
  • Long-term fitness 

Enhanced self-esteem, expression, and creativity  

Dance therapy is a healing art that can allow clients to experience a specialized movement program that creates an emotional connection to music and movement. Throughout the dancing period, nonverbal language such as smiling, reflection, and emotional expressions are promoted. As a result, a healthy environment is created that allows clients to feel whatever they need to. Individuals can practice creativity and improvisation without specific rules on how to dance. 


Through exploration and imagination, dancing allows clients to move and feel physically in touch with their bodies. Imagination in dance can help clients feel they can control their environments. 


As many clients experience fun, happiness, and joy, dance therapy can relieve feelings of worry or depression. 

Poise and posture

Dancing may improve your posture and teach you to move gracefully with an enhanced sense of poise. According to the ADTA, shoulder positioning, posture, core lifting ability, back structure, and body extension are improved through dancing. 

Focus and discipline

Because dancing can often involve structure or stylized movement, you can learn to be disciplined and stay focused during a dance to achieve your dance goals. Through dancing, you can strive to improve each session, set goals, and work hard to achieve results. 

Long-term fitness

Dance is often referred to as a stress-free exercise promoting fitness and physical health. Pennsylvania State University states that dancing can improve endurance and provide a cardiovascular health workout.

Endorphins and dopamine are also often released during exercise. These brain chemicals are connected with an increase in joy and excitement. Reducing stress through exercise can also increase physical well-being, as chronic stress can cause physical illness and chronic pain

Mood boosts from music

Music can enhance mood, and it may feel more immersive when someone is dancing along with the beat of a song. Allowing yourself to feel immersed in the music can allow you to have an emotional surrender and focus on your physical sensations and emotions instead of your thoughts. In addition, studies have found that music can help those with dementia improve cognitive function and memory

Confidence through improvement

When you start dance therapy, you might feel awkward or unable to complete the steps. However, as you progress, you may notice a boosted morale and enhancement in your mental health. A person may physically demonstrate improvement over time. If you set achievable goals, you can feel confident once you achieve them. Your therapist may also offer compliments and encouragement to help you through the process. 


In traditional therapy, you may not make friends or interact with many others outside your therapist. Often, dance therapy is held in groups with multiple individuals experiencing a mental health or physical challenge. Through movement, you can make social connections and potentially meet new friends. This can help to inspire dynamic relationships and provide an outlet for creative expression. In addition, those who struggle with social anxiety may benefit from social activity in an environment where talking to others is not required. Dance therapy may also bolster communication skills.

Meditation and mindfulness

Dance can be a form of meditation and mindfulness for some. During the therapy session, you may be asked to focus on the sound of the music, the feeling of movement, and the beat of the songs. It might be referred to as “entering the zone.” As you dance, you can feel connected to other dancers or yourself.  

Dancing allows an individual to be present through the various actions included in the person’s movements. Doing so may help to develop self-awareness, promote emotional well-being, and reduce feelings of anxiety, fear, or depression, which is a benefit of general mindfulness practice as well. 

What to expect in your first session

If you go to a session, you may wonder what to expect. Therapy may begin with an observation and assessment by your group therapist or a certified dance movement therapist. Dance movement therapists work to ensure you are comfortable and ready to dance, so they ask about your motivation for attending the group session. You may develop goals for your time in therapy and learn about the various board-certified dance movements. 

The dancing sessions may then begin with you and the other group mates. The sessions might involve a warmup, a cooldown, breaks, structured dance lessons, or improv dancing. In many sessions, the dancers may control their movements freely while the instructors watch or choose unique songs to dance to.

What is the mission of dance therapists?

The dance therapist instructors aim to provide clients with the location, tools, and oversight to address mental or physical health challenges. They can help clients develop goals and feel confident in their ability to dance within the group. If the client struggles, the therapeutic challenge is to talk to them or guide them to help them get back on track. 

Experiencing mental health-related challenges?

Principles and methods

There are many principles of dance therapy. For example, dance therapists may believe that body language and movement can help a person physically demonstrate hidden feelings, traits, or thoughts. They also believe in the mind-body connection. For example, moving your body can benefit your mind and express aspects of the individual that may have been suppressed. 

One of the core principles of dance therapy is that nonverbal communication is as important as verbal language. Dance therapists might interpret a client’s physical expression as communication. Movements might be made subconsciously to symbolize what a client feels at the time. Dance therapists may believe that how you move can help you discover new aspects about yourself that you didn’t previously consider. 

Working with a qualified mental health professional

Another aspect is interventions. Interventions are used to understand a client’s needs, thoughts, or emotions. A few interventions the instructor or therapist might use include the following. 


With mirroring, the instructor mirrors the movements of the client. This process might help establish empathy and allow the client to feel like the therapist understands them. It can also help to improve communication skills.


Dance therapy may involve incorporating jumping rhythms and movements. Studies have found that vertical up-and-down movements can reduce symptoms of depressive and eating disorders. 

Movement motivational metaphors

A movement metaphor involves giving a reward metaphor for completing a goal. For example, the therapist might state, “if you keep dancing like this, you’re going to feel much better!” 

Do you need to be skilled to partake in dance therapies?

Many individuals may believe they must be immensely talented to enjoy dance therapy. However, anyone may benefit, regardless of their skill. This therapy is not about judging your skill or teaching you to dance professionally. It is a safe place for you to express yourself. Talk to a qualified movement therapist before your first session if you have any doubts. In addition, try not to compare yourself to other dancers. Your processes may be different. 

Counseling and support options

There are many forms of therapy, and dance therapy is not the only option available. If you’d prefer to sit and talk to a therapist through traditional talk therapy, that can also be an option. As it can be expensive, other options like online counseling can be beneficial. 

A recent New York Times article highlighted that therapists and clients believe online therapy is more effective and preferable to in-person options. They found relief in meeting a therapist from home during the Covid-19 pandemic. With more therapists than ever utilizing online platforms to provide support, clients can find guidance from home and choose a time slot flexible to their schedule. 

If you want to talk to an online therapist, you can get started within 24 to 48 hours after filling out a quick intake form through a platform like BetterHelp. BetterHelp offers over 30,000 therapists, and some therapists may be able to equip you with practice exercises or dancing instruction at home.  


Dance therapy allows individuals to mentally and physically benefit from therapy by partaking in dance movement. Guided by a qualified dance therapist, individuals achieve emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration through the therapeutic use of movement. Dance therapies can be interpretive or structured. Talk to a dance therapist before attending sessions to have your questions answered further. 

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