Dance therapy has recently been recognized in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, autism, and posttraumatic stress. And dance—whether you can move and groove with the best or not-- offers more than just good medicine; it unites the heart and soul of humanity on a global level. Before reading the rest of this blog, take a break and enjoy this short film by Matthew Harding called “Where in the Hell is Matt?”

While Matthew Harding has reportedly been everywhere in the world the film implies, his work has managed to transport me directly to all the times and places in the world I have boogied and all the people-- in tandem and in crowds—I’ve danced with over this lifetime. My brain “on dance” is a perennial peak experience of being Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, and one of Amy Winehouse’s back-up dancers. While I don’t recognize the person staring back at me in the mirror on some mornings lately, when I am moving to the music I am gratefully twenty-something again.

Dance has always been intuitively used by humans as a healing force, a source of soul, and perhaps even a spiritual experience; it has been formalized in a modern day context as dance or dance/movement therapy. Dance therapy is based on the theory that mind and body are interrelated and that the body can be influenced to impact emotional and physical wellness in many ways. Dance therapists use movement and dance in psychotherapy for a variety of emotional, cognitive, social, behavioral, and physical conditions. Autism, eating disorders, stroke, dementia, and various emotional conditions such as posttraumatic stress are just a few of the subjects of dance therapy research over the past several decades.

Recently, the potential of dance in wellness gained recognition in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. A study at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis demonstrated that people with Parkinson's disease who took tango classes did better than those who participated in non-dance exercise programs in improving their balance and movement abilities. Although dance and movement exercises may be helpful for people with Parkinson’s, the tango essentially uses specific movements that address balance, stepping backward and foreword, and variety in speed of motion. Other theories about its success point to an increase in endorphins and bypassing a part of the brain involved in Parkinson’s disease. Simply put, people with Parkinson’s disease tend to walk more confidently and perform daily tasks involving movement with more ease and proficiency, for at least the short term.

Dance is part of the spectrum of healing arts and creative arts therapies that continue to extend our knowledge about how the arts improve wellness, particularly from a neuroscience perspective [see Brainy Art]. While research emerges to support its benefits, it’s our primal response to move to rhythm and music that is at the heart of dance as a source for well being. And as Matthew Harding’s film conveys, to dance is to commune with others around the planet, virtually or in real time, in ways in which no words of explanation are necessary.

[Special thanks to art therapist Nicole Brandstrup for pointing me to this film]

© 2008 Cathy Malchiodi

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