By Jessica Meinhart, MA, MA
Dance Movement Therapy is a form of artistic and expressive therapy. I personally took to dance for my own reflective and expressive form of art. I love to move, and dance allows me to express my emotions through music and movement. Painters express their emotions through a brush, canvas, and paint. Photographers use a variety of technologically advanced cameras and computers to enhance their expressiveness and presentation. Dancers use their bodies and often music to portray emotion. This is the form of art that attracted me and has created a unique specialty with dance movement and therapy to assist the recovery process in eating disorder treatment.
Here during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I wanted to talk about healthy movement. Exercise and movement can be used as a negative skill for losing weight or burning calories. It can be difficult to draw that line between training and disordered exercise behavior. Dance therapy, however, focuses on centering the body and increasing body awareness. The theory behind dance therapy, according to the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA), is about strengthening the mind body connection, and creating wholeness and balance. ADTA defines dance and movement therapy as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical, and social integration of the individual.”
Dance is expressive and communicative, and especially helpful in those situations where verbal expression is more difficult. Dance provides a non-verbal way of expressing words and ideas that you might be having difficulty with, or may not even know is inside you. It provides a way to explore and experiment in new ways. According to the ADTA, dance and movement therapy “is effective for individuals with developmental, medical, social, physical and psychological impairments.”
Research has supported a reduction in stress and an increase in positive body perception. If you want to get scientific, physical activity enhances the brain – no really! Those feel-good endorphins are increased by physical activity, and healthy movement enhances circulatory, respiratory, skeletal, and muscular systems. Regular and healthy aerobic exercise helps with glucose metabolism, cardiovascular fitness, and weight control.
Did you know there were so many physical benefits to healthy movement? According to the American Cancer Society, “physically, dance therapy can provide exercise, improve mobility and muscle coordination, and reduce muscle tension. Emotionally, dance therapy is reported to improve self-awareness, self-confidence, and interpersonal interaction, and is an outlet for communicating feelings.
Some promoters claim that dance therapy may strengthen the immune system through muscular action and physiological processes and can even help prevent disease.” Other areas of clinical study produced results in “improving self-concept and self-esteem; reducing stress, anxiety, and depression; decreasing isolation, chronic pain, and body tension; and increasing communication skills and feelings of well-being (www.cancer.org).” The difficulty, when struggling with an eating disorder, may come with the ability to regulate and moderate this healthy movement. The media has a tendency to portray invalid and un-relatable data in trying to help you know what kind and how much exercise is best for you. Should I exercise a certain amount each day? Each week? For how long? So many questions, and so many different answers given. The answer: It depends…It varies. You are unique, and so what you need might change depending on where you’re at. It’s a difficult balance for those struggling with eating disorders.
Utilizing dance and movement therapy in eating disorder treatment has been such an amazing experience. One of my passions, performing and athletics demonstrates another conflict of messages from society. Women have to balance being female and struggling to “fit” into the societal female ideal body image, as well as “fit” in with the identification of being an athlete and what that looks like. The concern with body image and the conflicting ideals are extremely difficult to deal with. Add an eating disorder to the mix and you have a confusing perception of body image. Movement and dance therapy, with it’s intentions to reach wholeness and body awareness can be so helpful to women with eating disorders. As Anne M Krantz, in her article in the American Journal of Dance Therapy, Growing Into Her Body: Dance/Movement Therapy for Women with Eating Disorders, “the symptoms of eating disorders serve to disconnect affect from the body, particularly as sexuality, trauma, and cultural influences contribute to conflicts in the woman’s developmental struggle toward self-identity. Reconnecting the body with feeling allows the client to experience affect and express her inner world, to recognize meaning in her behavior and relationships, and to develop healthy psychophysical unity.”
So dance, like nobody’s watching.