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Dancing Away the Blues

There's evidence supporting your need to sway.

There is a bandstand at one end of the Plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico and every evening during the summer, local bands perform from early evening to after sunset. Many in the audience come to listen, sitting in portable chairs on the grass, but just as many crowd onto the paved area in front of the stage to dance. Their ages ranged from just learning to walk, to barely being able to walk. Many dance by themselves, and the evening we were there, we saw two women dancing alone accidentally touching arms as they swung by each other. They smiled, gave each other a high five and moved off alone in different directions.

“Everyone seems to so happy!” I whispered to my husband as our feet began to move to the rhythm of the music.

The seemingly therapeutic effect of moving unselfconsciously to well-played music on a warm summer evening has not gone unnoticed by those helping patients recover from depression.

Dance and Movement Therapy (“DMT”) are recognized as a useful addition to talk and medication therapies for depression. Indeed, for some mood disorders, dance and movement therapy is the only intervention recommended. DMT was developed about fifty years ago as part of an art therapy intervention, and there are training programs available around the country to teach practitioners how to combine music, movement, and talk into a therapeutic program. The dance/movement sessions are usually led by a movement therapist with a set program of discussion, movement exercises and /or actual dancing, with a final discussion after the dancing ends. Patient’s responses are documented in clinical records and with permission of the patient, shared with their other medical caregivers

According to a group of Finnish researchers, dance movement therapy offers not only an opportunity for physical activity, but also gives depressed individuals an opportunity to interact socially and emotionally with others. They tested the impact of DMT on depression among patients who were receiving antidepressants and volunteered to participate in a weekly dance/therapy session for twelve weeks. Their moods of the DMT participants improved significantly more than a control group of patients who were treated only with antidepressants. Another study similar in format found that depression scores among students in a music conservatory also decreased; they felt better, when they participated in a three month dance training program.

Interestingly, therapists state that one of the benefits of attending the movement/dance classes is cognitive. Focusing on attaching a series of movements to music seems to be a positive distraction from painful thoughts, and the sense of achievement that comes from memorizing and then performing complicated choreography elevates mood as well. Patients are encouraged to join dance classes in a community center or gym as a way of obtaining some exercise and social interaction. It appears that if they do so, they probably also benefit from learning a sequence of dance steps, and the positive feeling that comes from moving to music.

Several years ago, we had an opportunity to see the immediate effects of dancing on the moods of patients suffering from depression. The patients were involved in a weight loss study and met weekly as a group with a personal trainer to lead them in strength training and aerobic exercises. One week the instructor brought in a ‘boombox’ to play disco music, and the group danced for almost an hour and half.

Result? The participants' moods were elevated when they ended the class.

Many of the class participants told us that they loved dancing, but when they are depressed, they cannot bring themselves to go to a club or party where they might have this opportunity. Dance classes in health clubs and at community centers might be an alternative, and can be fun even for those with ‘two left feet’. But showing up at these classes requires a commitment that many who are depressed feel incapable of making. It is possible to read books or watch videos on how to use DMT by oneself, but it is not known whether it can be as effective as participating in a program led by a therapeutic movement specialist.

The therapeutic movement/dance classes cost less money than sessions with a psychotherapist, but are not inexpensive. And unfortunately the sessions are typuically not covered by Medicaid, Medicare and many private health insurers. Some private insurance companies cover programs only run in psychiatric facilities for in-patients, or those receiving intensive care in an outpatient facility. Indeed, many states don’t even have licensure requirement to ensure that the practitioner meets a national standard for training and experience. A ‘Drop-In ‘center where people with mental disorders might gather for support and social interaction will most likely not have such programs run by professional therapists, unless they volunteer their time.

However, adding informal dancing to facilities where those with mental disorders come for social services and to socialize might be quite beneficial. If the format is as relaxed as that on the Plaza of Santa Fe, and the music as compelling, even those with two left feet might begin to tap out a rhythm, move and smile.


A Dance movement therapy group for depressed adult patients in a psychiatric outpatient clinic: effects of the treatment. Päivi M. Pylvänäinen,1,2,* Joona S. Muotka,2 and Raimo Lappalainen2 Front Psychol. 2015; 6: 980

The effect of dance over depression. Akandere M, Demir B Coll Antropol. 2011;35(3):651-6.