Insight Mind Body Talk: Dance Movement Therapy with Tara Rollins 

Mind Body Talk is a body-based mental health podcast. Whether you’ve tried everything to feel better and something is still missing or you’ve already discovered the wisdom of the body. This podcast will encourage and support you in healing old wounds, strengthening relationships, and developing your inner potential- all by accessing the mind body connection. 

Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk. 

Today we’re talking about Dance Movement Therapy. DMT integrates the creative process, movement, and verbal processing to help strengthen the mind body connection.  

Our guest is Tara Rollins. Tara is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Dance Movement Therapist at Insight Counseling and Wellness. Tara has experience working with children and families, adolescents, and adults, in nonprofit agencies, inpatient hospitals, residential treatment centers, community centers, schools, and outpatient clinics. She specializes in working with children who are on the autism spectrum or have experienced trauma due to abuse or being placed outside of their home. Tara also works with individuals experiencing anxiety, depression, ADHD, body image issues, body-based traumas and anger management issues. Tara’s work is based on the belief that all individuals have strengths that can be used to overcome life’s challenges. 

Tara, it’s so good to have you here. Tell us a little bit about Dance Movement Therapy? 

The American Dance Therapy Association defines Dance Movement Therapy as the psychotherapeutic use of moving as a way to help people expand their emotional, cognitive and physical integration, creating a connection between each system so the actions of one system can facilitate the workings of another.  

It’s an innovative, formal psychotherapy that uses connection of the body and the mind as its foundation and works to strengthen that connection. We work with the whole person integrating movement, their creative process, and verbal communication into sessions. It’s an eclectic blend of lots of different things.  

What is the difference between Dance Movement Therapy and regular talk therapy? 

Dance Movement Therapy is a body-based form of psychotherapy used for treating a diverse group of people, of all ages social, psychological, developmental, neurological, or physical challenges. We want to promote emotional, cognitive and physical wellbeing. We help clients integrate their mind, body, and emotions. Through this integration, find emotional growth and self-definition. We use movement and the creative process to help clients express emotions and experiences in a less direct, more unique way. Sessions include movement as well as verbalizations to process experiences and develop skills. We use movement as a tool for creative expression, insight and behavioral change in a supportive environment.  

That’s one component of Dance Movement Therapy, and the part is dance movement. In DMT sessions, we teach dance concepts, imagery, metaphor, symbolic themes, as well as dance elements of space, rhythm, time and intensity. Then we use those elements to help clients experience new emotional states that they never developed, lost, or are uncomfortable using. 

Creative dance techniques help open new avenues for expression, for insight, for transformation and we expand clients dance vocabulary and dance creativity which helps them to explore authentic emotions and develop a body language of expression. Which helps healing and processing experiences in a different way. 

When we bring in the body, we’re tapping into our sensory motor processing system through posture and movement. All sorts of things come alive that we can’t necessarily tap into when we’re seated trying to think our way through it. 

How did you find Dance Movement Therapy? 

My mom says that I was dancing before I was born. From my first dance class, I fell in love with dance. After high school, I wanted to help people but also wanted to find a way to keep dance as a part of my life because it was so important to me. 

I had a teacher who referred me to talk to the Dance Therapist at the Hancock Center for Dance and I was like, this is what I’m supposed do. It connected dance with the desire to help people. I studied psychology and dance in undergrad and went on to a graduate program specifically in Dance Movement Therapy. To become a dance therapist, you have to complete a master’s program that the American Dance Therapy Association accredits. In general, you study dance therapy theories and methodologies, as well as other areas of psychology and psychotherapy.  

How did Dance Movement Therapy become a formal psychotherapy intervention?  

Dance Movement Therapy started as a distinct profession the 1940s by a woman named Marian Chase. There are several other pioneers, such as Trudi Schoop, Mary Whitehouse, and Blanche Evans that continued on from her work, but Marianne Chase is the original dance therapist. 

She had been teaching dance with kids of all ages and was asked to lead dance groups at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC for the patients.  

Chase began to notice the positive therapeutic effects of the dance classes on the client’s health. The clients, or patients, were noticing that they were gaining physical and emotional benefits from taking the dance class. 

She continued working with the clients to develop the main theories and structures that are still used in a lot of dance therapy today. The dance therapy field is also influenced by neuroscience, dance in Europe and the United States, nonverbal communication, anthropology and psychology brought together. We’ve been dancing for thousands of years, but this was creating the psychological psychotherapy lens as a specific tool.  

Are there certain mental health diagnoses that Dance Movement Therapy treats more effectively than others? 

DMT is effective at treating most types of mental health diagnoses because, like other creative arts therapies, it is really flexible in finding interventions that work for each client. 

If a clinic, agency, organization, or even just a person, is open to the idea of this being helpful and trying it out, it can really be helpful. When verbal techniques are less accessible or less comfortable or more overwhelming, I think of my work with individuals on the autism spectrum. It can be particularly helpful for them. Also, when diagnosis affects the body a lot, for example, with people who’ve had early developmental trauma or trauma that happened before there was words.  

It can be particularly successful when it’s integrated into a comprehensive treatment model that includes other forms of psychotherapy, as well as medical professions, school teams, natural supports. 

How is Dance Movement Therapy used to heal body-based trauma?  

We’re continuing to learn that when someone experiences some type of trauma, the body is affected. It is essential that the body is included in therapeutic work to heal trauma. Dancing with therapy can help clients, who’ve experienced trauma, work towards a connection or reconnection with their body, gain a sense of control over their body and hyper arousal or disassociation and develop compassion and provide nourishment to the body self. 

We’ve also learned that when someone has repeated experiences, they internalize certain beliefs about themselves and about the world. Neurons that fire together, wire together, developing and strengthening neural pathways that affect every aspect of life. In DMT, we allow clients to have new positive experiences connecting to their body, which create new neural pathways that are self-affirming narratives to replace those older, negative neural pathways that were formed by trauma. 

We have lots of props in DMT, things like dancing with music, moving with scarves, using movement props, creating movement metaphors, providing repeated opportunities for clients to experience joy while moving their body and experiencing body sensations. We’re allowing them to have positive experiences in real time, connecting to their body, noticing those sensations. 

We allow clients to process experiences that are too difficult to address directly. We can touch on issues, by externalizing those feeling states, without having to directly address vulnerable emotional experiences. If someone’s feeling angry, they don’t have to talk about that anger, which could shift their state or trigger or hijack their brain into a survival response. They can mindfully and safely move in a way that expresses anger. Maybe moving in a capacity that feels like this force, this push is anger.  We need to allow the body to move in a way that it wants to process those feelings and those experiences.  

There’s this great body-centered therapist I follow on Instagram. I believe she’s in Australia. 

She has something that is stretchy and you move around, and no one can see you. Some people call them stretch sacks. Think about being in a skin or a womb, or you’re an animal or you’re coming out of an egg. 

I love the idea of how safe it feels that no one’s watching your facial expressions or your body. You’re inside this moveable stretchy bubble. It contains the experience, but also allows you to set down those parts of yourself that are self-conscious or judging what we’re doing. It looks really freeing. It also gives the sensory input of almost getting a hug from the stretch. And you can have fun with it as well. Noticing that not everything that’s connected with my body and physical sensations is negative. You can look at yourself in the mirror and laugh at how silly you look in a giant thing. It’s joy, exploration, feeling something in my body that doesn’t have to feel bad or overwhelming. 

The nervous system can only play when it feels safe. So we can tell you’re in a place with that you’re feeling safe and playful and you’re moving again and making new neuropathways that reinforce that play and movement are safe. 

Another thing that we do is talk about developmental stages. 

There can be gaps when people experience trauma at an early age where they can get stuck or are not able to develop certain skills that they need. Our body is the one thing that’s with us from the time we’re born till to die. When we’re young movement and play are our language. DMT and body work help people move through physical experiences to go back to that time in their life and process using the language that we had.  

We can’t sit down and talk about what happened when you were two, but we can put move like a two-year-old moves and all of a sudden, this wealth of knowledge and information comes up.  

It’s so interesting how you can be doing something, and your brain taps into things you forgot about, and memories become clearer. For example, I used to pogo stick a lot and I found one a couple years ago and jumped on it and got a flood of memories. It’s so interesting that our bodies and movement store those things for us. 

What do you think can be helpful for someone who is working on their inner child? 

One thing that can be helpful is having clients create a dance journey or dance story. It’s about an early childhood experience, family of origin issue, or trauma experience. People will create a dance, to process either the whole journey or a specific part. Many clients pick music that was popular or that they were listening to when they were a certain age. They play that music and move to that music and see what happens. It often brings up body memories.  

In dance therapy, we also talk about different movement qualities or rhythms that we develop. 

If you looked at Erik Erikson and developmental psychology and the stages of development, we create rhythms from that time. For example, the first rhythm we develop is the sucking rhythm. Sucking is the heartbeat the infant hears before they’re born. Sucking in breastfeeding and rocking is a soothing rhythm. In dance therapy, we talk about the idea of trying on the rhythm. Trying to move with this rocking, sucking rhythm helps us connect with that part of our life.  

Then, different rhythms develop over time naturally. 

If we went through an idea development, you would start with the sucking rhythm and then move to the higher, more complicated movement qualities. A lot of times when people experience trauma or get stuck, they miss that rhythm. We develop and practice different movement activities. For example, with sucking rhythm, we can rock. That is sometimes you can see people doing. When we’re self-soothing, what do we do? That’s an intuitive self-soothing quality that we learned before we’re even born with our mom’s heartbeat and her breath. 

If someone’s interested in trying Dance Movement Therapy, what can they expect in a session?  

The structure for individual, group, or family sessions varies a lot, depending on the Dance Movement Therapist leading the session and the person or population that you’re working with. There’s not a set structure or format for sessions.  

Individual sessions in particular, tend to develop based on what the client is needing, expressing, or feeling that day. We meet the client where they’re at. If you’re doing group, sometimes you need a little bit more structured, but there’s always a creative process and playfulness. We’re picking up on what’s happening in the group, what’s happening with the individual and going with that.  

Marian Chase created a structure that many people like to use. There, we have a warmup, a theme development, and a closure or cool down. I use those loosely because we like to go with what’s there and what’s happening.  

Warm up is what it sounds like. Start moving the body, noticing the breath, connecting with the body and starting to notice what your body is needing and wanting today? We might give some directives depending on the individual client. The idea is to help them connect with their body. Some people don’t need a lot, maybe just some music and then they’re off. 

Then we have theme development, which is where we work on practicing and developing skills, expanding on or exploring themes that might’ve come up in the warmup. Based on the energy of the group, is there some common movements or qualities or specific movements that are coming up. If it’s a group that has certain themes or skills that it’s working on, we might incorporate that into the theme development of the group. 

The last part is the closure or the cool-down. We’re cooling down, slowing the body, not introducing new information and helping clients to feel grounded before the session ends or reflecting on what happened. It’s a loose structure, really about meeting the client where they’re at and with what they need that day. 

What’s it like for a person who feels really hesitant at the beginning of DMT? Maybe they’re starting in a place where they’re not feeling connected to their body or that their body isn’t a safe place to be. Starting this new thing with a new person and they’re just supposed to move around. It makes me want to enter freeze just thinking about it.  

Even though we do use dance concepts, creative processes, and improvisation, you do not have to have any dance experience. The most important thing is that you’re listening to your body and you’re staying safe. 

I usually start small and start simple. It’s not a dance class. It can be connecting with your breath and noticing what your breath is doing.  Maybe a body scan, noticing what sensations I’m having in my body today. Maybe we have music, and we tap out a rhythm on our legs, or we clap together, or we tap our feet. If we’re a group, we look around and see the other people in the group, and notice what they’re doing. It’s about connecting with the body and the breath and exploring new ways to express yourself and connect with your body. 

There is no right or wrong way to move. We’re not teaching you dance skills. People do create dances and have what they’ve created witnessed by the therapist or the group members, but it’s always about what feels right to your body and challenging yourself to try different movements when it feels comfortable to you. 

The key takeaway of dance therapy is how do I learn to feel comfortable connecting with and noticing what’s happening in my own body. To find my own way of expressing myself. There is not a right or wrong way. That can be very healing.  

What are some ways a listener could bring Dance Movement Therapy into their life right now? 

Therapists, as well as people outside of the fields of therapy, can use dance and movement in unique ways. I often give clients exercises to try outside of our therapy sessions. One example is when a situation or an interaction doesn’t go the way you want, is particularly challenging, or creates a lot of anxiety, take time either to think about how I was holding my body. What was the tone of my voice? What was my face doing? How close was I standing to that person? Then, try adjusting one or more of these things the next time you’re in that situation. See if it helps make things go a little better for you.  

Anybody can do it day to day. What is my body doing when I’m going into fight or flight mode or aggressive mode? Did someone perceive me as being really angry and aggressive when I wasn’t. Your body will store those patterns. It’ll have the automatic response to thoughts and feelings. You won’t even notice, but the body will shift into a posture or pattern of movement, often because the brain is trying to predict the future based on past information. It will sometimes keep an old story or an old narrative or belief alive when that’s not even our actual reality anymore.   

We all have movement preferences but also need an expansive movement repertoire to be successful. For example: some people tend to move with a lot of quickness and struggle to slow down. This is really helpful when you need to get things done quickly, or you’re doing something super active, playing a sport, moving, etc. At other times, this preference might cause some challenges like when you’re trying to rock a baby to sleep or carry a fragile dish. I ask people to challenge themselves to do a daily activity with a different movement quality and see how that affects your success. I might say people move like you’re walking through honey. Move like you’re a video in slow motion.  

There are all of these different qualities and they’re on the spectrum. We don’t say there’s good and bad movements. We need all of them. We all naturally have preferences to certain patterns, certain qualities of movement. You might notice your partner or a friend who tends to move with a lot of quickness or like they’re moving through honey. Think about different professions and how different movement qualities would affect your success at them. Your interactions with people, how you move and hold your body affect that.  

With DMT techniques, you can shift and play and try on other qualities. Light versus heavy, direct versus indirect, quick versus slow, free flow versus controlled. Knowing these things opens another way of looking at the world, looking at your interactions. Again, it’s challenging because it’s different. And it’s okay to have preferences, but you’re giving yourself options.  

You’re expanding possibilities so that things don’t have to continue the same way if you don’t want them to. Whether it’s different tools to be creative and express yourself, or process through things. Maybe different ways to interact with people or different ways to connect with your breath, ultimately, we want to find ways to do things a little bit differently.  

You’re so passionate. You’re so wise, so knowledgeable. Thank you for sharing yourself with us today.