The healing history of dance

Dance movement therapy is a relatively new healing practice, but its cultural roots date back a millennia. So, how can this history inform modern therapies?

Dr Kim Dunphy, University of Melbourne

Dr Kim Dunphy

Published 7 March 2020

Historically, people around the world have expressed themselves by moving together to common rhythms – marking significant events like harvests, hunts and wars.

Dance has been ubiquitous in these practices.

And dancing can have multiple meanings for the dancers, and those watching, that can encompass social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions.

But our ancestors also danced to promote their health and wellbeing.

The longevity of dance

Dance movement therapy was only formally recognised in the USA in the 1940s, but its roots go much further back in time.

In fact, it is possible given the longevity of Indigenous Australian culture, that dance for healing was practiced in Australia very early in human history.

It is also likely to have been used in celebrations and rituals for important life transitions such as birth, puberty, marriage and death. For example, dances used in mourning rituals by the Yolngu people of northern Australia have been well documented.

And these ceremonies involving dance, song and related art forms have been vital aspects of cultural life throughout the world across millennia.

One aspect of my research explores the relationship between the dance practices of Aboriginal people and understandings of dance as a contributor to wellbeing.

Dance, both old and new, is also being used specifically to promote health and wellbeing. Picture: Shutterstock

One art form, the junba dance-song tradition of the Ngarinyin, Wunambal, and Worrorra peoples of the Kimberley in northwest-Australia is noted for its wellbeing properties, across social, spiritual and ecological domains.

Dancing for healing

Along with other dance movement therapists from Australia and USA, I have been working on a project to explore the relationship between Indigenous dance practices and dance as a form of therapy.

To begin this, we undertook a cultural exchange project with Indigenous knowledge holders from the Northern Territory.

The aim is to advance understandings of the healing properties of dance and other art forms.

Understanding this link between dance movement therapy and customary dance practices may offer a culturally appropriate alternative to more standard talking therapies for people who have experienced intergenerational trauma like many Indigenous Australians.

Dance, both old and new, is also being used specifically to promote health and wellbeing.

The future of dance

The growing body of research tells us that dance movement therapy provides many benefits for people in different health and wellbeing circumstances.

Dance movement therapy provides many benefits for people in different health and wellbeing circumstances. Picture: Getty Images

We’ve seen Parkinson’s patients enjoying dance with partners, and in so doing, improving their balance and coordination.

Or people living with dementia who are unable to express themselves verbally but can enjoy communication through movement and dance.

So, as well as looking back to ancient knowledge, it’s important to look forward at the potential of dance movement therapy. Particularly to make use of some of the new and emerging technologies available today.

For some years, I have been working on the development of an iPad app, Movement Assessment and Reporting App, or MARA, that gathers, analyses and reports on data from participants in dance movement therapy programs.

The therapist uses MARA to assess participants’ progress against a wide range of outcome measures, and also provides case notes and other data to provide a full numerical assessment.

The information enables therapists to be more effective, as they understand more about their clients’ response to therapy programs.

MARA could also offer therapy participants an opportunity to consider their own progress.

App technology provides a range of options that allow participants to engage in self-reflection, through photos, videos, drawings, voice recordings or writing.

This means that people who may not be able to communicate verbally can still be supported to communicate about their experiences.

Dancing can have multiple meanings for the dancers encompassing social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions. Picture: Getty Images

Holistic potential

In one research project, a therapist encouraged dance therapy participant, Angela, to watch herself in short videos and photos recorded in MARA.

Angela watched herself dancing, relaxing and interacting with her peers during dance sessions, and then responded to the therapists’ prompts:

T: “Tell me what you think we have been learning about in the dance program?” A: “Movement, dancing. I learned about my spine.” T: “What do you enjoy?” A: “Hand movements; relaxation…I was having fun watching myself. I liked looking at pictures of myself. Good to see myself happy. That feels good. I’m enjoying it.

Technologies like this are new for creative arts therapies, but open up a world of possibilities to involve more people who may benefit from dance movement therapy.

Dance has a holistic potential to address not only physical issues, but creative, cognitive, social and emotional ones as well.

While studies of dance movement therapy are new, they are not new for humans – but part of our common history and cultures.

Banner: Getty Images

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Fine Arts & Music

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