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Dance as Therapy: An Introduction

What really is dance?

To some, it is an art form composed of steps and rhythms accompanied by music. To others, dance is a transcendence of technique and vocabulary associated with it and becomes an expressive outlet – one that is used for creativity and the communication of feelings and experiences. Still others identify dance as a medium to escape from the stresses of daily life and to connect deeply with themselves and with others.

The relationships built when connecting with one’s own self and with others are particularly interesting to explore because these relationships are complex and versatile. To understand them, however, we need not merely a background in dance and movement, but also in science.

The scientific exploration of the term, Dance/movement therapy (DMT), can help explain how dance is a relationship-forming and a connection-building outlet. Since its inception in the 1940s, DMT has been widely used for therapeutic purposes in various settings, such as schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. The success of DMT is that it uses the body as the medium for healing, which sets it apart from other types of therapies such as psychotherapy and talk therapy.

For years, DMT has been used as a complementary therapy with very little scientific underpinning. Modern-day neuroscience, however, recognizes that DMT has the ability to engage the human brain through interventions [movement patterns] that affect an individual’s physical and psychological functioning.

Specifically, neuroscientists are interested in the concept of empathy, which is termed “mirroring,” that is fundamental to the success DMT. This is because mirroring is thought to parallel the functioning of specialized neurons in our brain, called “mirror neurons” housed in the pre-frontal motor area of the cerebral cortex.

Mirror neurons are activated, or "fire," when performing an action or expressing an emotion and when observing someone else perform that same action or express that same emotion. To fire, mirror neurons require physical and social recognition, and cognitive understanding - the combination of which yields empathy. The activation of the mirror neurons is a way to confirm that an empathetic communication took place.

We shall deconstruct the construct of empathy in the next post!

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