When words aren’t enough
How the therapeutic power of dance may help those with mental illness.

Chun-Li, a 56-year-old woman, wears high heels and sways her hips from side-to-side as she walks across the activity room of a psychological service centre in Taiwan. 

“I see your legs and hips moving,” says her therapist, Tsung-Chin Lee. Lee, the founder and honorary president of Taiwan Dance Therapy Association and board member of Taiwan Association of Psychotherapy, jots down notes during each session. Lee discusses these notes with the psychiatrist who referred Chun-Li to her services after she had been hospitalized for severe mental illness (SMI). Right now, she sees her client embody the desire to look sexy and be seen. 

As their work together continues over the course of two years, Chun-Li grows more and more comfortable in the therapeutic space until she angrily and violently dances out the personal experiences and memories that cause her so much pain. These include finding out about her husband’s extramarital affair as a young wife, ongoing symptoms of major depression (physical fatigue, body aches, lost energy and appetite, and insomnia), and the absence of security she once felt under the instruction of her ballroom dance teacher 30 years prior.  

What is dance-movement therapy?

Dance-movement therapy (DMT) integrates “the creative and expressive characteristics of dance, as well as the knowledge and methods of psychotherapy” to intentionally connect the mind to the body. This uncovers all the unspoken thoughts and troublesome feelings the body traps. 

In her healing work with DMT, Chun-Li voiced her annoyances when she couldn’t connect to her body which probed conversations between her and Lee as to why this might be the case. What emotion or thought discouraged her from taking off her high heels and dancing barefoot to experience “groundedness”? Why had she become addicted to performing the Flying Dance, a traditional Chinese folk dance, in times of despair, so much so that she entered dissociative trances and developed psychosis? 

Chun-Li danced with delusions that made her believe she was, at times, a beloved, dignified mother or wife in some ancient fairyland, and the truth of who she really was ultimately emerged for her to accept: a lonely, heart-broken woman with psychotic depression. 

DMT as a recovery-focused intervention

In a 2021 study of 52 adults with SMI, published in The Arts of Psychotherapy, Talia Bendel-Rozow, a DMT therapist and psychiatric rehabilitation specialist, examined the use of DMT as a tool for mental health recovery. She developed and tested the novel Recovery-oriented dance movement therapy (RODMT) program. 

“It was designed to foster recovery goals, physically engage participants in their personal and group process, and use creative means to deliver recovery topics,” says Bendel-Rozow. “The program leans on theories in the fields of embodied psychotherapy and transformative learning.”

She compared 29 participants in the RODMT program to 23 participants in a standardized Illness Management and Recovery (IMR) program. IMR involves traditional approaches to SMI like relapse prevention strategies and coping skills education. It lacks the movement-based activities that increase “clients’ awareness of their mind-body connections, nonverbal expressions, and emotional elements of daily life experiences.” 

According to pre- and post-treatment data supported by the Patient Activation Measure (PAM), a 13-item questionnaire that the participants completed in order to assess the knowledge, skill, and confidence they have in managing their health and health care, Bendal-Rozow found no significant differences between the results of the RODMT and IMR groups: “That is, the IMR participation do not show more change in measures of recovery than do the RODMT participants.”

Free-form dancing, like Lee suggests in her report of Chun-Li, makes physical manifestations of the psychic world to allow better mental health treatment outcomes for those who may not be in tune with their internal experiences or lack the vocabulary needed to articulate them.

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