The Neurobiological Understanding of Dance Movement Therapy

The Neurobiological Understanding of Dance Movement Therapy

By Tracy Zhang  –  Artwork by Connie Ulm  –  June 19, 2021

Picture this scenario: you are in the car listening to the radio after a long day of work sitting in the office. Your favorite song comes on, and you start tapping your fingers to the beat, feeling the music flow through your veins. As the song escalates towards the climax, you find your arms, feet and legs grooving to the beat of the music as well. While the movements may seem like a natural response to the rhythm of music, several regions of the brain, such as the motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum are at play.


Dance movement therapy is a form of art therapy that incorporates the use of movement and emotions. It is rooted in the understanding that the body and mind are interconnected: the movement of the body can be used to understand a person’s mental and emotional state. Further explained by the American Dance Therapy Association, “movement promotes emotional, social, cognitive and physical integration of the individual”. Dance movement therapy can be conducted in sessions with individuals, families, couples and in groups. There are many benefits to dance movement therapy because it can be applied to help with a variety of issues. These issues vary  from physical and mental health issues as well as social and cognitive issues. The benefits include increased coordination and mobility, building positive body image and self esteem and improved communication skills (Good Therapy).  In addition, people with complex traumas, “severe events that tend to be chronic and undermine a child’s personality development and fundamental trust in relationships” (Kliethermes et al, 2014), often develop defense mechanisms preventing them from expressing their emotions verbally. Dance movement therapy provides people with an outlet to understand their own emotions and experience positive growth. Dance movement therapy also plays a role in certain neurological functionings such as arousal/rest, memory and the mirror neuron system. The neurobiology of dance movement therapy can help one understand and highlight this connection of the body and mind.


Dance movement therapy sessions do not have a standardized structure and each therapist has their own style of running their sessions. However, there are main principles and techniques most dance therapists incorporate into their sessions that were developed by the pioneers of Dance Movement Therapy which were Marian Chace, Mary Whitehouse, and Trudy Schoop. Therapy sessions are typically conducted in phases: warmup, theme development and closure (Nemetz, 2005). The purpose of warmup is to get the clients familiar and comfortable with each other and the therapist. The warm up includes initial contact techniques (mirroring the instructor, clarifying expressive movement and implementing verbal and nonverbal contact to extract movement responses), group development formation and group expression. For instance, a client with emotional distress may contract their body and hunch forward in a way that shows they are afraid. A therapist may then continue that movement with a relaxed action of expanding the body (Nemetz, 2005). Soon, the group becomes more cohesive as a unit and develops group trust through simple rhythmic movements and voice narration. This leads the session onto the theme development phase. In this phase, the therapist would lead the group through an exploration of the themes identified in the warm up using imagery, verbalization and movement. For instance, as the group does a simple side to side arm swing together, one client may display a different variation of this movement subconsciously with a deeper meaning behind it. As a result, the therapist explores this by either asking questions or intensifying that movement or making noises that she feels while perceiving that variation.  Lastly, the session ends with closure where the clients form a circle engage in repetitive group movements, allowing them to leave with a feeling of emotional support and connection (Nemetz, 2005). These group movements may include swinging their arms while holding hands or raising their hands high together.

Dance movement therapy is an effective form of therapy and its methods are understood through a neurological lens. Initial approaches to dance movement therapy are effective in guiding clients to better understand their body. These methods such as rhythm breathing bring awareness to the senses experienced by the body and induce a state of relaxation. The feeling of safety and balance will allow them to process larger and more complex emotions. This can be understood through one of the cranial nerves in our brain, the vagus nerve (Homann, 2010). The vagus nerve is located at the medulla (the lower portion of the brainstem) and travels down the spine connecting the heart, lungs, stomach, and intestines. The vagus nerve serves to carry signals from the organs to the brain and vice versa. It has various important autonomous roles in the body such as controlling blood flow, digestion, and repairing the immune system. It can be productive when a client engages socially with a person they are comfortable with.  The clients will have a relaxed body but, at the same time, be stimulated by deep emotion and introspection. Imagine having a sleepover, and you and your friend are having a late-night talk. During these talks,it is easy to express your emotions and several unrelated thoughts may be put into perspective. On the other hand, when a person is anxious, there is an increase in adrenaline and less blood flows to the brain. As a result, people have less access to their thoughts and are unable to learn as well (Homann, 2010).


A large part of a person’s identity is shaped by their memories and experiences. The human brain can process different types of memories whether they are short term or long term in three stages: encoding, storing and recalling. Long term memories can be separated into explicit and implicit. Explicit refers to memories that can be consciously recalled while implicit refers to memories that are unconsciously recalled. Implicit memories leave a lasting effect on one’s perception and feelings without the involvement of language.  A key player in implicit memory storage is the amygdala. The amygdala, located in the medial temporal lobe, processes emotional information and memories. When a person goes through a traumatic experience, sensory processing (the interpretation of information gathered by the different senses) occurs through the thalamus (Homann, 2010). The thalamus is responsible for relaying sensory and motor signals to the amygdala and right hippocampus where the sensations can be interpreted. The amygdala and right hippocampus are responsible for preserving our unconscious preverbal experiences. However, since these implicit memories cannot be accessed consciously, dance movement therapy utilizes the body and the senses to remember and communicate their perception of these implicit memories and allow for conscious recall.


Empathy is one’s ability to connect to others and try to understand what someone is feeling by feeling with them. It is an important part of developing the relationship between the client and the therapist in dance movement therapy. The mirror neuron system is thought to play a large role in understanding the mechanisms behind empathy. The mirror neuron system is located in the amygdala, prefrontal cortex (responsible for speech and logical reasoning) and insula. The signal is sent from the insula, responsible for autonomic functions, to the limbic system, which controls behaviors related to survival, where feelings associated with observed emotions are integrated.  Mirror neurons are activated when one is performing an action and also when an individual is observing the same action in another (Homann, 2010). It is thought that mirror neurons can help to communicate the experience of others to the viewer. For instance, when you see someone smiling, you also begin to smile. Because you begin to smile, you understand how happy that person may be. Methods based on mirroring such as movement synchrony and affective attunement, allow clients to better understand one another beyond movement and allow clients to create an emotional connection. The emotional connection with the therapist and other clients can help build a sense of community through shared emotional experiences and decreases experiences of emotional isolation.

Dance movement therapy has a variety of applications and can reach many different types of people. People have much to gain from dance movement therapy since society has become more fast paced and modernized, often preventing people from properly processing their emotions. It has also been implemented as a therapeutic and rehabilitative approach for people suffering from neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Autism Spectrum Disorder, spinal cord and brain injuries. In a study done by Westbrook and Mckibben (1989), patients with Parkinson’s disease engaged in dance movement therapy and a normal exercise group. It was found that dance movement therapy improved the movement initiation in patients, and there was a decrease in the amount of time it took patients to walk 32 feet (Westbrook, 1989). Patients were able to explore their emotional concerns with the support of their group by sharing their feelings and emotions and through movement strategies such as rhythmic stomping movements. Dance movement therapy improves the mind-body connection, offering a possible solution to individuals battling trauma or neurological diseases.


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