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Beyond Words Dance/Movement Therapy

by Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT

Many of us know that dancing has psychological as well as social, cognitive, emotional and physical benefits. But, did you know that our body has its own language? That each organ, vessel, tissue and muscle have a voice and that we can use the mind-body connection to become fluent in the language of the body?

The language of the body is different from body language, which we know makes up about 80% of what we express. Body language is a nonverbal communication where feelings and emotions are expressed physically. This might take the form of an eye-roll to express disdain, a dropped jaw to express amazement, or raised shoulders to communicate confusion or misunderstanding; while the language of the body expresses the feelings and emotions that may be hidden, trapped or even silenced throughout the body. Where does our voice go when we have been forced to silence it? What happens to our desires and needs when they are shown not to matter? Do they disappear? No, they become part of our body’s internal communication.

Dance/movement therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to integrate mind, body and spirit of an individual. Movement is used as the means of assessment and intervention, along with verbal processing, to support and validate the individual’s mental and physical well-being. The field of dance/movement therapy has been around in the United States since the late 1940s and is practiced all over the world. Dance therapists are Master’s level clinicians with a degree in dance/movement therapy. Some are licensed privately as counselors, social workers, psychologists or creative arts therapists. Dance/movement therapists support an individual’s path to expressing emotions, finding a voice and being in one’s own body; going beyond words to confront life circumstances, diagnoses and mental health issues.

A client might have a physical ailment that is not described by a physical injury or issue. Instead, it seems to be a manifestation of psychological distress—a psychosomatic symptom. One basic example that most of us have experienced is a tension headache. Here is a physical symptom of an emotional trigger. Now, what about an individual who has been sexually abused? Oftentimes, there is an inability to verbally process what has occurred. Either the words are not accessible or the person cannot confront what has happened. Take a moment to sit with the fact that the body is talking. The body has so much to say if we only give it the opportunity.

In dance/movement therapy, we utilize the mind-body connection to allow the body to do the talking. The ability to be mindful and aware of what our body is saying is not an easy task and can even invoke fear or anxiety. It’s important to know that when words are not accessible or enough to communicate the severity of a situation, that the body can speak for itself. We are all using our bodies to communicate, relate and be in this world on a daily basis. Using the body to express what is already there can rejuvenate, uplift and open an individual to his/her full potential.

Know that whatever you may be going through, your body is carrying it. The ability to connect the body and mind allows for a more holistic approach to mental health, greater compassion, empathy and even safety. If movement is your release—your path to healing—then embrace all the movement your body does every day. Finding a way to connect to your body’s internal language can free your mind to express what has always been there and create space for what is to come.


Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT, is the founder and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy, which is dedicated to providing dance/movement therapy and clinical counseling to individuals, couples, families and groups. Erica received her MA in Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling from Columbia College Chicago. She is passionate about helping individuals of all ages increase their quality of life by emphasizing the mind-body connection to enable growth and healing.

One comment

  1. At the recent American Dance/Movement Therapy conference (2018), I presented on DMT in a yoga-focused world. Being a dance/movement therapist myself, I love how you separate the internal “language of the body” from the communicative dance of “body language.” Yogic philosophy talks about the role of awareness in how we link mind and body but does not point us to the origins of awareness. Dance/movement therapy enhances yoga because DMTs study infant/caregiver dances identified by Judith Kestenberg and colleagues (especially Susan Loman). Yoga, and other practices that come out of patriarchal linages seem to advocate for stillness as the path to internal awareness even in movement practices such as tai chi. Dance/Movement therapy invites internal awareness through relational dances that replicate mother/infant dances. We invite awareness of the language of bodies through a therapeutic relationship dance that honors any distressed body language, helping people move into space for listening to the language of the body whether the outer body is moving vigorously or still. Thanks again for this beautiful article.

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