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Dance Therapy

Other common name(s): movement therapy

Scientific/medical name(s): none


Dance therapy is the therapeutic use of movement to improve the mental and physical well-being of a person. It focuses on the connection between the mind and body to promote health and healing. Dance therapy can be considered an expressive therapy.


Few scientific studies have been done to evaluate the effects of dance therapy on health, prevention, and recovery from illness. Clinical reports suggest dance therapy may be effective in improving self-esteem and reducing stress. As a form of exercise, dance therapy can be useful for both physical and emotional aspects of quality of life.

How is it promoted for use?

Dance therapy is offered as a health promotion service for healthy people and as a complementary method of reducing the stress of caregivers and people with cancer and other chronic illnesses. Physically, dance therapy can provide exercise, improve mobility and muscle coordination, and reduce muscle tension. Emotionally, dance therapy is reported to improve self-awareness, self-confidence, and interpersonal interaction, and is an outlet for communicating feelings. Some promoters claim that dance therapy may strengthen the immune system through muscular action and physiological processes and can even help prevent disease.

Dance therapy is based on the belief that the mind and body work together. Through dance, it is thought that people can identify and express their innermost emotions, bringing those feelings to the surface. Some people claim this can create a sense of renewal, unity, and completeness.

What does it involve?

Dance therapists help people develop a nonverbal language that offers information about what is going on in their bodies. The therapist observes a person's movements to make an assessment and then designs a program to help the specific condition. The frequency and level of difficulty of the therapy is usually tailored to meet the needs of the participants.

Dance therapy is used in a variety of settings with people who have social, emotional, cognitive, or physical concerns. It is often used as a part of the recovery process for people with chronic illness. Dance therapists work with both individuals and groups, including entire families.

What is the history behind it?

Dance has been an important part of self-expression, ceremonial and religious events, and health in most cultures throughout history. For example, medicine men and women of many Native American tribes used dance as part of their healing rituals. The use of dance as a complement to conventional Western medical therapy began in 1942 through the work of Marian Chace. She was asked to work at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. after psychiatrists saw therapeutic benefit in patients who attended her dance classes. Another woman who was a dancer and mime, Trudi Schoop, volunteered to work with patients at a state hospital in California at about that time. In 1956, the American Dance Therapy Association was founded to establish and maintain high standards in the field of dance therapy. There are now more than 1,200 dance therapists in the United States and abroad. In 1993, the Office of Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health provided a research grant to explore dance therapy for people with medical illnesses.

A master's degree is required to be a dance therapist. Beginning-level dance therapists who have at least 700 hours of supervised clinical training hold the title of “Dance Therapists Registered” (DTR). The title “Academy of Dance Therapists” (ADTR) is awarded to advanced-level dance therapists who have completed 3,640 hours of supervised clinical work in an agency, institution, or special school with additional supervision from an ADTR.

What is the evidence?

Although individual accounts provide most of the support for the value of dance therapy, a few experimental studies evaluating the effects of dance therapy on health have been published. In one recent study, a group of breast cancer survivors took part in a twelve-week dance therapy and movement class. The women who had dance therapy showed better range of motion in their shoulders than those who had not had the class. The patients’ perceptions of their bodies also improved after dance therapy. Clinical reports suggest that dance therapy helps in developing body image; improving self-concept and self-esteem; reducing stress, anxiety, and depression; decreasing isolation, chronic pain, and body tension; and increasing communication skills and feelings of well-being.

Some of the physical motions used in dance therapy can provide the same health benefits produced by other types of exercise. Physical activity is known to increase special neurotransmitter substances in the brain, called endorphins, which create a feeling of well-being. Total body movement also enhances the functions of other body systems, such as the circulatory, respiratory, skeletal, and muscular systems. Regular aerobic exercise helps with glucose metabolism, cardiovascular fitness, and weight control. Dance or movement therapy, when done regularly can confer the same benefits as other types of exercise. Moderate to vigorous exercise for thirty to forty-five minutes on most days of the week can reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. Dance therapy can help people stay physically fit and experience the pleasure of creating rhythmic motions with their bodies. Well-controlled research is needed, however, to confirm the effects of dance therapy on prevention of and recovery from other types of illness.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

People with cancer and chronic conditions such as arthritis and heart disease should talk with their doctor before starting any type of therapy that involves manipulation or movement of joints and muscles. Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer


Cassileth B. The Alternative Medicine Handbook: The Complete Reference Guide to Alternative and Complementary Therapies. New York, NY: W.W. Norton; 1998.

Castaneda C. Diabetes control with physical activity and exercise. Nutr Clin Care. 2003;6:89-96.

Cohen SO, Walco GA. Dance/movement therapy for children and adolescents with cancer. Cancer Pract. 1999;7:34-42.

Dance/movement therapy fact sheet. American Dance Therapy Association Web site. Accessed at www.adta.org/about/factsheet.cfm on May 23, 2008.

Hanna JL. The power of dance: health and healing. J Altern Complement Med. 1995;1:323-331.

Kushi LH, Byers T, Doyle C, et al. American Cancer Society 2006 Nutrition and Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. American Cancer Society guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for cancer prevention: reducing the risk of cancer with healthy food choices and physical activity. CA Cancer J Clin. 2006;56:254-281. Erratum in: CA Cancer J Clin. 2007;57:66.

National Institutes of Health. Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons: A Report to the National Institutes of Health on Alternative Medical Systems and Practices in the United States. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1994. NIH publication 94-066.

Sandel SL, Judge JO, Landry N, Faria L, Ouellette R, Majczak M. Dance and movement program improves quality-of-life measures in breast cancer survivors. Cancer Nurs. 2005;28:301-309.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.

Last Medical Review: 11/01/2008
Last Revised: 11/01/2008