Dance therapy offers emotional outlet

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Sophie Slattery leads instructor Monya DeBoer around the dance floor during the special needs dance class.

Photos and stories by Caroline Brauer

Eleven-year-old Justice Bennett has had 31 surgeries, has 18 doctors and the children in her neighborhood won’t play with her. She has a genetic disorder called Noonan’s Syndrome that affects development in various parts of the body.

But none of that matters much when she pulls on her blue velvet leotard and steps into the dance studio. Here, for 45 minutes each week, she smiles and has fun. It doesn’t matter that she looks like a six year old or that she spends half the class dancing with oxygen tubes. She’s happy.

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Justice isn’t the only person to find comfort in dance. Many people have turned to dance therapy for physical and emotional assistance. However, not everyone associates dance and movement therapy with mental and emotional therapy.

“We are constantly educating the public and potential employers about the value of this work,” Susan Loman said in an e-mail interview. Loman specializes in children’s dance and movement therapy, is a certified dance therapist and teaches at Antioch University in New Hampshire.

Therapists work to receive certification from the American Dance Therapy Association, and dance and movement therapy offers advantages in communicating with less verbal patients, like children, that other forms of therapy don’t, Deveraux said.

Devereaux said the association uses certification as a way to protect consumers.

“Dance can be misconstrued as a routine,” she said. “But in fact, dance and movement therapists are board certified and regulated.”

Certified dance therapists receive extensive training in movement observation, therapeutic skills and counseling that separates them from noncertified dance therapists, Devereaux said.

Certified therapists and the association operate under an established code of ethics and guidelines. To become certified, dance and movement therapists must complete a graduate level training program consisting of 60 credit hours of study. Only six universities in the United States have association approved dance therapy programs. Participants must also have more than 700 hours of clinical internships with certified dance and movement therapists.

Loman said it can be frustrating at times to understand why some people are hesitant to accept dance and movement therapy.

“For us who are more physically oriented and creative, it is such common sense to integrate nonverbal communication and the use of our bodies,” she said. “For many people, it is frightening to think that there is another approach to therapy besides talking.”

According to Devereaux, one of the advantages of dance and movement therapy is the ability of dance and movement therapists to communicate with patients without talking.

“I think that dance therapy can address a wide range of population because there’s a commonality we all share in movement,” she said. “Even somebody who’s nonverbal or can’t speak the language can be expressive and relate through the body.”

Devereaux also said since it’s normal for children to run, jump and turn, dance and movement therapy can feel more natural to them than talking about their feelings. She said dance and movement therapy with children can look more like play, but people need to know it’s more than that.

“We’re looking at the use of movement as an expressive vehicle,” she said. “Just like a social worker or a psychologist or a counselor would through their disciplines, we do through movement.”

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The space and objects dance and movement therapists use to help children contribute to the appearance of play. Beyond child proofing the space for safety, objects like balls and pillows for throwing or scarves and stretchy materials are often provided. Having these items available is important because children are more active and use the balls and pillows as expressive outlets, Loman said.

Dance and movement therapy is about communicating with patients on their own developmental levels, Devereaux said.

“We might be getting on the floor with them (children) or playing out different images,” she said. “With an adult you wouldn’t be crawling on the floor like a lion.”

Devereaux said she hopes that people will at least look at the science and literature available on dance and movement therapy.

However, for Justice’s mother, Christina Bennett, the choice was simple. She’s excited about having a place for Justice to dance and wishes other parents would bring their children.

“It is so non judgmental,” she said. “It is just a wonderful place where their child can be filled with joy. There’s nothing scary. There’s nothing to worry about. They can just be who they want. And isn’t that what we all want for our children?”

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