Dancers Using Dance Movement Therapy

Movement and Magic: The Limitless Impact of Dance Movement Therapy

Tomoyo Kawano distinctly remembers a participant in one of her dance/movement therapy sessions: an older woman with a diagnosis of mental health concerns as well as dementia. Doctors at the hospital this woman was being treated at had warned Kawano that this patient wouldn’t socialize, speak to others, or participate in events. And as Kawano watched her, this all seemed true. She noticed how this woman shuffled when she walked, head cast downward, with never even a hint of a smile. But Kawano, who directs and serves as core faculty in Antioch New England’s Master of Arts in Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) program, knew that behind this pain there was a person—and she hoped to reach her. 

So Kawano turned on some salsa music and began her session. What happened next was breathtaking. After a few seconds, remembers Kawano, the woman “suddenly lit up.” Whereas earlier, “her gaze was down, nonresponsive, but with music she started to salsa [dance], she was smiling and making eye contact.” It was a remarkable turnaround into a state of joy and aliveness. Says Kawano, “She was just in her element.” The other medical professionals at the hospital were amazed to find their taciturn patient being present in her body and expressive in her movements.

Kawano was less surprised. This experience was just one of countless examples of how DMT can heal in unexpected and beautiful ways. Kawano learned before this session that this patient had grown up in Cuba and spent a great deal of her life salsa dancing. Dancing to this music was something the patient was remembering with her body. 

DMT can be a powerful therapeutic modality for exactly this reason: it offers a different way of accessing emotion, memory, trauma, and healing. And this is why the DMT programs at multiple Antioch campuses are growing and thriving—from one of the older DMT Master’s programs in the country to a newly-launched low-residency DMT certification that is available to students across the US.

A Deeply Embodied Therapy

Dance Therapy ClassDance/movement therapy, which is currently being offered at both the New England and Seattle campuses, “incorporates dance into psychotherapeutic practice,” explains Kawano. “Dance is the medium used to create change and healing.” This is in contrast to the most prevalent model of psychotherapy today: talk therapy, in which patients process experience primarily through conversation with a therapist. 

People have been expressing and healing themselves through dance for thousands of years, but it was only in the last 60 years that it has become a key part of psychotherapy in the US. The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) was founded in 1966, and a decade later Antioch’s DMT program—then simply “movement therapy”—was founded by Penny Lewis, the program’s first director. It was one of the first DMT programs to be approved by the ADTA.

If anything, dance/movement therapy is more relevant than ever today. Kawano says that DMT “has a lot of potential for doing things in ways that are [culturally sensitive]…that go beyond verbal communication using non-verbal nuances.” 

New Ways of Training Therapists

To bring this therapy to more people, Antioch has recently launched a low-residency post-master’s certificate in DMT that is available to anyone across the US. This new program is in addition to the low-residency and on-campus Master of Arts programs in DMT. As Kawano says, “The goal is to bring access to this way of creating healing and change to as many people who have knowledge in this modality.”

The coordinator of the low-residency program and core faculty member, Chevon Stewart, notes how wonderfully accessible this option is by both following a low-residency format and being a post-degree certificate, which opens it to many different people with psychology or dance backgrounds. She further explains that it “provides an outlet, to have a space for DMT to be practiced on the West Coast, [as] there are no DMT programs [there] as of right now.”

Dance Movement Therapy is only one of a number of arts therapies that Antioch offers, including dance, drama, art, and play therapies. These are unified under the category of Creative Arts Therapy at Antioch, a department led by its chair and core faculty, Janice Hoshino. Hoshino says that “[as coordinator of many different programs] it has been my dream to build an umbrella of creative arts therapies” and expand these programs. She says that “bringing it all together provides a breath in creative therapies for all the people that we serve.”

The Body as a Tool for Communication

Stewart, the coordinator of the low-residency DMT certificate programs, says that she has seen the healing magic of DMT firsthand in her own clinical practice. She remembers working as part of a team of therapists helping a family. During a family therapy session each family member—and the therapists assigned to each of them—began to have an intense discussion. Stewart was working directly with a young child from the family, and as the conversation escalated, this child began leaving his seat and going under the table. 

Stewart decided that she should meet the child where he was both emotionally and physically, so she got down on the floor with him. They began to play, laugh, and talk about animals. This became a pattern for this boy: when things became too much above ground he often sought small secure places to escape to and express his feelings using toys. It then became a pattern for both of them during these therapy sessions. Stewart began to notice the ways his body reacted to conflict. As they spent more time under the table, he became more able to open up and process situations, arguments, and verbalize his feelings. 

Stewart explains that while “verbal therapy can be limiting…the creative arts therapies really can serve more of a broad-based population. It is not age-specific [and can go] from birth to geriatric.” DMT is unique in that this therapy fills in the gaps where verbal therapies cannot reach. 

A 2012 alum of the DMT program who now teaches at Antioch, Hang Yin Candy Lo, says about her experience, “I’ve always appreciated my time at Antioch. It equipped me to be a clinician upon graduation and allowed me to see humanity when fighting for social justice.” 

Expanding the Canon

In addition to expanding and innovating in its programs, Antioch and its faculty and staff have been hard at work broadening the canon and main course material to include more BIPOC dance theorists. Kawano’s goal is to promote more representation and inclusivity across the DMT curriculum, and moving forward to create “courses from an anti-oppressive, liberatory framework.” This shift is a continuing mission for all DMT programs at Antioch. 

Hoshino notes that many of the staff are reading the book How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, and together they are working their way through an accompanying workbook. Kawano says that “historically most of the  dance theorists studies were from the 40s and 50s [and were] white, hetero, cis women of privilege.” But there’s no reason that these older texts need to stay at the center of the DMT curriculum. She says that “by decentering them we can now highlight BIPOC theorists” furthering and expanding the collective knowledge of dance. 

Kawano, Stewart, and Hoshino are each moving towards having at least one-third of each course reading list be occupied by theorists of color such as Candy Lo and Maria Rivera. These shifts are all adding to the goal of what Kawano describes as “decolonizing the syllabus and engaging in anti-oppressive practices.” Not only does DMT reach its therapeutic possibilities across culture, verbal barriers, and age, but the staff at Antioch are spearheading the effort to turn the DMT programs into the most effective, far-reaching, and diverse programs in the field.