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Behind the Curtain

Dance Therapy vs. Therapeutic Dance
By Erica Hornthal
Posted on 2/3/2020 3:39 PM

From time to time, NDEO features guest blog posts, written by our members about their experiences in the field of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a contribution by Erica Hornthal on the differences between dance therapy and therapeutic dance, and their applications in the studio. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please email Shannon Dooling-Cain at sdooling@ndeo.org.


Dance Therapy vs. Therapeutic Dance: Is there a Difference?

By Erica Hornthal, LCPC, BC-DMT



Dance has always been a natural form of expression and for many people a “therapy”.  That being said many institutions, behavioral health facilities, and even dance companies and studios are recognizing the inherent healing power that can come from dance.  As dance continues to gain popularity in the media more and more people are embracing dance as a way to meet physical and emotional needs. It is not uncommon to see the word “therapy”, but in most cases it is used to generally describe wellness or a sense of feeling better.  It is important to point out that “dance therapy” is not a phrase, but an actual profession. Both therapeutic dance and dance therapy are beneficial, needed, and in many cases, necessary. So what are the differences and how do they both create meaningful engagement and enhance quality of life for participants?

Recreation vs. Psychotherapy

Recreational activities are those done for enjoyment.  Most therapeutic dance is done for leisure or pleasure, even if it is providing a mental health or behavioral component.  Dance therapy, on the other hand, is a form of psychotherapy which relies on the relationship between client and therapist.  While it can be enjoyable, therapy is not always a joyful experience. Depending on the reasons why an individual is engaging in therapy, clients are free to express a range of emotions including, but not limited to anger, sadness, or fear.  Overall, movement is used to express and validate these emotions as they emerge in the therapeutic relationship. Dance therapy often comes with goals and a treatment plan to measure the client’s progress in the therapeutic relationship.  


Instruction vs. Facilitation

An instructor is a person who teaches something while a facilitator is a person who leads a discussion or process.  Therapeutic dance, often taught by an artist, teacher or therapist is more commonly referred to as instruction whereas dance therapy, led by a master’s level certified dance therapist, typically involves facilitation.  More often than not, therapeutic dance is teaching movement or dance steps, while dance therapy is using movement to process emotional or behavioral health. While both may assist in development of self-esteem, confidence, and awareness, the process by which that occurs can be vastly different.  While therapeutic dance focuses on movement goals, dance therapy typically focuses on psychosocial goals or behavioral intervention.     


Dance Style vs. Theoretical Framework

Therapeutic dance, whether it is for individuals living with Autism or diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, often focuses on a specific dance style or form.  Dance therapy, which may include certain dance forms, is guided by the therapist’s theoretical framework such as Cognitive-Behavioral, Person-Centered, or Psychoanalytic theories. The movement, more often than not, is coming from the client and the therapist is mirroring or joining the client in his/her movement.  A dance therapist, while experienced in movement and dance, may not have formal dance education training, therefore cannot be expected to “teach” skills or techniques as an instructor may in a therapeutic dance class.  


Product vs. Process

While therapeutic dance is not just about a product, it is more common to see dance skills or techniques taught.  Certain movements may be used to enhance balance, coordination, or to improve neural activity. In dance therapy, the focus is on the process or more specifically verbally processing, when possible, and finding symbolism through movement as it emerges in each session.  Therapeutic dance will more commonly result in a performance or demonstration of achievement, whereas dance therapy may continue until a client is no longer appropriate or reasons for entering therapy have been resolved. Performances may be appropriate for a dance therapy client if it is part of the treatment plan or a goal in the therapy.


Public vs. Private

While both therapeutic dance and dance therapy can have components confidential in nature, confidentiality is not a required aspect of therapeutic dance.  Dance therapy, however, is confidential in nature and is bound by ethical codes in order to protect client information. When entering into dance therapy, clients are often expected to fill out paperwork outlining confidentiality and treatment practices.  


Why is it important to make a distinction between dance therapy and therapeutic dance?

This article is not intended to create a divide between the two areas of practice, but rather to highlight the differences.  Dance therapy is a much more process oriented approach and is actually a form of talk therapy. The therapist is trained to listen to the body’s voice and help the client bridge the gap between mind and body.  Individuals are master’s level clinicians who have completed a 60-credit graduate degree and have fulfilled either requirements for registry or board-certification post graduation. This can take at least a total of 5 years, but often takes closer to 6 or 7 years before a person is able to practice privately.  Many dance/movement therapists are licensed mental health professionals and some can even bill health insurance for their services.  


Some examples of therapeutic dance are Dance for PD, Hubard Street Dance Chicago The Autism Project, and Tea Dance Social with Rhythm Break Cares.  Here are some ways that dance instructors can incorporate a more therapeutic approach to their curriculum.

  1. Identify a behavioral or emotional need in the classroom.

  2. Reach out to students who may feel excluded from a traditional class.

  3. Focus on movement as unique, creative, and expressive rather than a single technique or skill set to be achieved.  

As a dance instructor, studio owner, or artistic director, therapeutic dance may be a wonderful addition to your school or academy.  It is a way to provide inclusive programming and meet the needs of underserved populations who we know can benefit from the expressive and social aspects of dance.  It is imperative that the individual instructing the class has experience with the population being served as that will greatly impact the results.  


As a dance instructor, studio owner, or artistic director, if you notice that a student or company member is dealing with a mental health issue that is impacting his/her ability to learn, perform, or even enjoy dance, you may want to refer the individual to a dance/movement therapist.  Dance therapy can be a wonderful option and shows that you are invested in your student’s mental health.  


Please note that there is a lot of overlap between therapeutic dance and dance therapy.  The above differences are merely a starting point for how the two may differ and are not meant to serve as rules or regulations for either.  Dance therapy, although commonly used to describe therapeutic dance, is actually a profession and quite different from dance used as therapy.  It is not more important than or more legitimate by any means. It is merely different and it is necessary for people to be educated on various services that can enhance quality of life and improve functioning.  


For more information on dance/movement therapy, check out the American Dance Therapy Association.  


Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT  is a licensed professional clinical counselor and board certified dance/movement therapist. She received her MA in Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling from Columbia College Chicago and her BS in psychology from University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.  Erica is the CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy. As a psychotherapist in private practice, Erica specializes in working with older adults, families, and caregivers who are touched by dementia, movement, and cognitive disorders. She utilizes a somatic approach to engage her clients regardless of cognitive and physical ability.  Her work has been highlighted in the Chicago Tribune, Social Work Magazine, WBBM News Radio, as well as on Fox, WCIU, and WGN. Erica is also extremely passionate about educating on and advocating for the field of dance/movement therapy. When she is not with her clients, Erica can be found writing and working on her first book.  She is organizing the first Dance Therapy Advocates Summit to be held June 2020 in Chicago. For more information go to www.ericahornthal.com.
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