How is Dance Therapeutic?
When you hear the word “dance,” your mind might automatically jump to ballerinas who can somehow both walk on air and walk on their toes, dazzling in specially designed stage lighting. Or maybe “dance” makes you think of a group of people in a music video, moving with such synchrony it looks like they could all be one many-limbed being. But what about dancing in the rain, twirling between the raindrops? Or moving to the beat of your favorite song? Dance is breathtakingly beautiful, and that beauty comes not from the sparkling costumes and fancy footwork, but from the effortlessness with which the dancers move their bodies. Often, professional dancers spend hours in class and in rehearsal, perfecting every moment of every step. You may be thinking, well, my child is not a professional dancer, so why does this matter? How can dance help them? Please read on to find out!
WHAT IS DANCE?
Dance, by definition, is moving rhythmically to music, typically following a sequence of steps. If you think about your and your child’s daily activities, I bet you will realize that that definition can be applied, too. Whether you literally have music playing in the background or not, your daily life likely has a rhythm and follows a similar pattern. Certainly that pattern was recently shaken up, and yet you were able to settle into a new routine. Perhaps a different song is playing now - maybe it’s slower or it’s faster; maybe it includes fewer musicians; maybe you have learned new steps to match this new rhythm - but, with time, you have fallen into the rhythm of your new normal. Not settled in yet? Don’t worry! Everyone has their own rhythm, and as you embrace the ideas of using elements of dance to help guide your day, I hope you and your child are able to find yours and revel in the beauty of your routine.
DANCE THERAPY vs THERAPEUTIC DANCE
More than half a century ago, a woman named Marian Chace was working at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in DC with soldiers with schizophrenia. She offered them dance and movement classes, and noted rapid improvements in behavior. The hospital’s psychiatrists took note and encouraged her to continue her work. Dance therapy is not technically a form of physical therapy. It is a way to re-connect the body and mind. Rather than focusing on individual skills, dance therapy combines a number of different elements to help individuals find peace and power within their bodies
The difference between dance therapy and therapeutic dance is that, to be qualified as dance therapy, the teacher must have gone through a dance therapy certification program, which actually focuses more on the mental health aspect than anything else. Therapeutic dance can be used by anyone interested in integrating body and mind. There is no one set class or routine, and in fact both dance therapy and therapeutic dance cover a wide variety of styles, including Modern, foxtrot, Argentine tango, jazz, merengue, salsa, tap, hustle, bollywood, belly dance, Middle Eastern folk dance, disco, etc. The main idea of using dance therapeutically is to integrate body and mind together, and it can be used to work on specific skills as applicable.
All of this sounds nice in theory, but what does it look like in real life? The beauty of dance is that it can adapt to meet the needs, physically, mentally, emotionally, of its participants. You may have seen our MOCO Moves Facebook or Instagram Live videos or Zoom classes, all of which feature three different versions: seated, standing with low-impact and keeping the body mainly in one spot, and standing with higher-impact and taking up more space with the body. Some days, a MOCO Moves class will focus on imaginative play, and other days it might focus on more complex movements to challenge and engage the mind.
At MOCO, we understand that individuals can benefit from dancing no matter what their current strength, mobility, and cognitive capabilities are, and we are thrilled to be able to offer a variety of options to fit a variety of needs. Each MOCO Moves class is specially structured to include movements to strengthen the lower body, the upper body, and the core in isolation as well as in total-body movement, while also improving endurance, flexibility, stability, coordination, timing, body awareness, communication, and mental health. Why do these skill areas matter? Because each of them are crucial to daily functioning. Curious about how dance can help a specific skill area? Check them all out below!
LOWER BODY STRENGTHENING
Ambulation, functional transitions, lower body dressing, preventing back pain, standing posture and endurance
Functional transitions refers to the ability to move from one position to another: namely, sitting to standing and standing to sitting, whether that means to/from a chair, a kneeling position, criss-cross applesauce, laying down, or anywhere in between. Weakness in the lower body might present as individuals reaching out with their arms to help them up. The upper body muscles are important, but the muscles of the legs are bigger and stronger...so we should let them do their job!
WHY DANCE HELPS:
Music stimulates the brain’s reward center, which improves the emotional wellbeing of our patients. Movement activates its sensory and motor circuits. Together, movement and music can create new motor pathways and possibly defy the odds. Much like people who stutter who don't do so when singing, the thought is that by reinforcing walking or reaching or moving to music, that the brain will reinforce the pathways, or simply create new ones. Dance also often involves movement of the legs in all directions, which supports strengthening of muscles which are not commonly used since we typically are moving in a forward direction in day-to-day life.
UPPER BODY STRENGTHENING
Communication, overhead reaching, upper body dressing, wheelchair negotiation
WHY DANCE HELPS:
Whether individuals participate in traditional ballet training, salsa dancing, cardio dance, or the many other varieties (even tap dance!), arm movements are often choreographed for different reasons, including theatrical expression, help with balance, or to create specific shapes. As with lower body movements, dance encourages movement of the upper body in all directions, including directions which may commonly be forgotten. Dance also alternates between symmetrical movements (ie reaching overhead with both arms) compared to asymmetrical (ie one arm reaching high and the other arm reaching side), which challenges the brain’s ability to plan motor tasks and allows for multitasking. This enables more complex motor tasks as well as providing a means of communication in a nonverbal manner.
Balance, coordination, flexibility, postural control, preventing back pain
Postural control refers to how the brain is able to communicate with the body to maintain upright posture. It is a key element to having good balance. Having proper postural control allows you to crawl, sit, stand, walk, run, and more by contracting the correct muscles to adapt to your environment. Sometimes, the connection from the brain to the muscles can get a little fuzzy, which can be demonstrated with signs like slouching, W-sitting, locking out joints to stabilize, keeping the arms still during running or walking, or falling from a seated position.
WHY DANCE HELPS:
Core strength is a crucial skill, and dance can impact it because even though dance can focus on isolated strengthening, dance often involves movements of the whole body, incorporating weight shifts to move through positions. This can help integrate reflexes and allow for increased coordination by providing a stable base. In a number of studies using dance techniques to work on balance and gait, post-intervention scores show a more stable gait and faster reaction times, which helps prevent potential falls.
Ability to keep up with age-matched peers, safe sitting and standing posture, task adherence
A full school day may feel like an overwhelming task to a child, whether that is due to physical demands such as being able to sit at a desk or engage in PE-class activities, emotional demands of focusing on teacher-preferred tasks, or any number of other obstacles.
WHY DANCE HELPS:
Recreational dance classes typically run from 30-60 minutes and are a great way to encourage endurance in a safe, attainable way. Most songs are about 3-4 minutes, and dance classes are often structured to perform different combinations focusing on different areas of the body or skills to specific songs. This means that although a dance class may be 30-60 minutes, participants who have lower muscular or cardiovascular endurance can feel successful because each combination is performed in manageable segments. You also may have noticed that MOCO Moves classes include three different options, and encourages individuals to move between the options as appropriate for their personal needs. While it may be difficult for a child to participate in traditional sports due to low standing tolerance, dance enables them to perform what they can standing, and still get all the benefits listed if they need to do a seated or slower moving version instead. Plus, engaging in a sustained activity requiring attention to detail and imitation has carryover benefits to similar skill areas in a school setting.
Balance, joint mobility, stress release, symmetrical strengthening, upright posture
Joint mobility refers to the ability of your joints (think shoulder joint, hip joint, knee joint, etc) to move through their full range of motion. Tightness which limits this motion, whether that is related to muscular tightness or bony structures, can impair your child’s ability to perform movements such as reaching overhead, kicking a ball, sitting with proper posture, etc.
WHY DANCE HELPS:
Dance works on full body movements in all planes, which helps with function by loosening tight joints, improving resting heart rate, leads to better balance and posture, faster reaction times, improved tactile and motor performance. Plus, by moving through all planes, dance provides an exploration of the full ranges of motion of all joints of the body, which in turn allows for simultaneous strengthening and lengthening of opposite sides of the body. Dance also provides patients with mental flexibility and ways to control impulsive behavior by setting parameters, which can be useful in a population which may have trouble controlling their impulses.
Balance, responding to unexpected obstacles, upright posture, weight shifting
WHY DANCE HELPS:
By integrating the entire body, dance students are able to explore the space with their bodies and play with different types of energy and effort - fast vs slow, sharp vs soft, angular vs smooth. Exploring these different elements can help promote the integration of reflexes, which ultimately will help the individual increase his or her balance capabilities. Exploring the space in this way is also a great way to develop the vestibular system (the system responsible for providing information about motion, head position, and spatial orientation). Including movement such as turning and stretching both especially contribute to this, which in turn helps improve balance. Plus, depending on the type of dance being taught, many dance activities require short duration single leg stance and various types of weight shifting. Even in those who are wheelchair bound, these weight shifts certainly promote balance and enable mobility.
Agility, ball/racket sports, crossing midline, following multi-step directions, strength
Crossing midline is an important developmental skill which indicates that both sides of the brain are communicating with each other. The ability to cross midline enables tasks such as writing, reading, dressing, and walking. Difficulty crossing midline can be seen in children who prefer to lift the same-side arm and leg when cued to lift opposite arm and leg. The ability to cross midline relies on a number of building block skills such as core stability, planning and sequencing, body awareness, and ability to use both sides of the body simultaneously.
WHY DANCE HELPS:
Dance class undoubtedly helps facilitate improvements in coordination because of its full-body movements in all planes. Additionally, though instruction is often given verbally, once a combination has been taught, it is often practiced without verbal cues. This works on individuals’ memory, sequencing, and ability to follow multi-step directions. Mirror neurons are neurons which fire both when individuals witness another person performing the movement, as well as when the individual performs the movement. This helps the brain rebuild or create new motor pathways. By being involved in a group dance class, the participants can feed off each other and the teacher to build new motor pathways for various skills, and this improves the ability to perform more complex motor tasks. Additionally, incoordination often stems from poor postural control related to core weakness. Improvements in postural control go hand-in-hand with improvements in coordination. Dance classes involve movements utilizing crossing midline in all parts of the body. Plus, again this has a great social benefit since by all participating in the same therapy and mirroring each other, it helps patients feel connected again to a world from which they may have withdrawn.
Body awareness, gait, responding to obstacles, throwing/catching skills
WHY DANCE HELPS:
A major element of using music in therapy is related to rhythmic auditory stimulation, which is when patients are asked to perform tasks to various rhythms. Synchronization with rhythmical stimuli permits the activation of both the conscious and the unconscious processes of the brain. Specific treatments may include the use of rhythmic stimulation to aid movement and walking, singing to address speaking and voice quality, listening to music to reduce pain and the use of music improvisations to address not only physical needs, but also emotional needs by enhancing a sense of wellbeing.
Coordination, math skills, proprioception, spatial awareness, visual perception
Proprioception is your brain’s ability to communicate to your body where it is in space, and how it is moving (such as fast vs slow). It is important to have this understanding to help interact with people and objects in the space around you, to have good balance, and even to perform math skills by facilitating spatial orientation.
WHY DANCE HELPS:
Dance promotes body awareness by calling attention to all the various body parts, and exploring ways of moving them in different types of effort. Being engaged in a dance class may allow your child to explore directions or qualities of movement which they may have never tried before. By having a greater awareness of what their body parts can do in the space around them, children will be better equipped to navigate their environments later by recalling which area of the body they felt working in dance class to help with a similar movement. Plus, having improved body awareness enables motor capabilities in situations where vision may be impaired, such as at nighttime, since the body does not have to rely fully on vision, which helps prevent falls.
Expressing feelings, imagining, informing, meeting social expectations
WHY DANCE HELPS:
Dance has been shown to promote creative expression, tolerance of physical touch, maintenance of eye contact, and social engagement. Communication is deeply interlinked with body language, so learning how to better connect with the body enables better communication. Dance can help connect specific movements with specific emotions and emotional responses, which can provide a nonverbal outlet for communication, specifically a safe space to move through various emotions. By better understanding body language and nonverbal communication, dance also increases empathy. From a motor standpoint, dance may enable arm movements such as pointing or reaching, which may be needed to communicate basic needs. Finally, dance classes may include improvisational elements, which help invoke imagination and creativity.
Acceptance, achievement, confidence, expression, happiness, overall health, social support
Acceptance includes self-acceptance as well as acceptance of working within new social groups and settings. This is important for self-confidence as well as the ability to adapt to new social settings, such as different school and recreation groups. Achievement is important to help individuals feel successful to encourage them to keep trying their best. Expression is important because whether communication happens verbally or nonverbally, the ability to express oneself is critical to mental health. For someone whose life has just been turned upside down, being able to find ability through dance could really be what they need.
WHY DANCE HELPS:
Dance enables individuals to work together and find the beauty in themselves and in each other’s movement, many participants in different studies noting feelings of self-confidence as a result. In one specific study, whether the participants had danced before their injury and were getting back to it, or trying something new, participating in dance allowed them to feel successful by being involved in a supportive environment. Creativity is definitely used in therapeutic dance and allows participants to feel more in control. It also allows them to feel more confident to explore their environment, which may result in new types of moving and strengthening. Expression is huge in dance, because dance is mostly non-verbal, so it allows all individuals to express themselves, including those who may feel trapped in their mind if they cannot verbalize.
It helps patients feel some degree of control by allowing them a nonverbal outlet to express what they are going through. Participants scored higher on a questionnaire that evaluated general health, subjective well-being, and tasks of daily living, when compared to nondancers. The social support of participating in dance classes allows individuals to dance with those who may experience similar functional impairments, and helps them find support in that way. Dance also provides a great stress relief, and many adults who dance recreationally state they feel this way. As a reminder, music stimulates the brain’s reward center. In combination with the improved physical and mental capabilities dancers will get from class participation, the feeling of well
being and accomplishment will keep them coming back for more.
Wow! I hope you learned something new from this post! You may have noticed that the individual benefits listed often tie directly into each other. The benefits were broken into categories to allow for more elaboration in certain areas, but due to the nature of dance as a full mind/body experience, in practice, all of these benefits can be found in just one dance class. I was lucky enough to be put into dance class when I was 4 years old, a shy little girl who would only speak to my immediate family. I fell in love with the art form and spent most of my hours growing up in dance class, gradually learning to communicate better as I grew stronger and more confident. I started teaching when I was 15, and I have (almost) never stopped! At 18 years old, a severe accident which landed me in daily physical, occupational, and speech therapy and threatened to take away my dancing dream only strengthened my resolve to make dance the foundation of my future career, no matter what.
The physical and mental strength and resilience I had learned from dance gave me the power and grit I needed to push through. Since I started teaching, I have gotten to teach people as young as 2 years old and as old as over 70! I have seen people start dancing at a young age as well as picking up a new hobby after retirement, and the power of dance is undeniable at any age. Bopping along to the tunes of PJ Masks, Disney princesses, or Trolls may not seem like it could offer all the benefits I mentioned, but all you have to do is open your eyes to see the evidence which points to the benefits of dance for all populations. I hope you will join me in a MOCO Moves class to start to see for yourself how the magic of dance and the magic of MOCO can work together to achieve amazing results.
-- Bria Comer, PTA
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