Dancing the night away is an age-old remedy used to scare stress or heartache away. When something goes wrong, we get our best clothes on, head out and dance till we can’t feel our feet. Little did we know, we were healing much more than a broken heart. When we apply the emotional release and physical strength of dance to therapy, we create the psychotherapeutic dance movement therapy(DMT). DMT is a revolution on the rise that promotes self-awareness and self-esteem, enhances confidence and cognitive function, increases muscle strength, coordination and mobility, and benefits cardiovascular endurance. Diseases and conditions of all kinds are treated using DMT including: chronic pain, obesity, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, depression, PTSD, stroke recovery, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia. The main principle of DMT is that the body and mind are interconnected; a change in one leads to a change in another. For example, when we heal our minds from the grips of depression, our bodies also reap the benefits by returning to a healthy weight and getting active again. Healing through dance has always been around, however, now we are learning to hone its benefits for medical use. Scientists are discovering the extent of DMT’s benefits and in time, millions of people will be dancing their disease away.
On Monday, March 26 I had the opportunity to sit down with an instructor from the local dance academy, Studio Dans, and speak about the sport and how it has affected her life. Dance company director, Jenny Villanueva, has been dancing since she was eleven years old and even grew up with a former professional dancer as a mother. Having the sport in her family and being a teacher herself, I was interested in asking Jenny how dance increased her quality of life physically, mentally and emotionally. In each response, her passion and reverence for the sport was almost example enough of its affect. It was evident that dance has positively touched her as it’s done with so many others before. Her personal experience, however, was this: “It’s like therapy to me, because for 90 minutes I’m one-hundred percent focused on one thing and I think that’s so rare. I just find that having two hours of just pure focus, and it also being mentally challenging and physically tiring, is refreshing. It just offers a lot of clarity to me… Its cathartic. There’s something really magical about being in the studio, whether you’re by yourself or in a class. I don’t know if it’s the music or the focus but it allows space in your mind and again being in touch with your body, it’s almost like meditation too.” In speaking on how she has seen dance affect others she said, “you stay incredibly active, you stay in tune with your body, and you listen to your body better… and I guess confidence as well, you just feel more comfortable in your own skin. You also get used to being with different types of people. You have to learn how to be adaptable and flexible, not just physically. For the most part I’m sure they [ her students] feel flustered but they know how to better manage it.” Jenny’s comments prove that dancing does more than teach someone how to wear a top bun and put on tights; these students are developing important everyday skills that will assist them regardless of the future they choose. Expanding on that is the fact that it’s never too late to start dance and pick up these lessons. Like others, Studio Dans offers classes for people ranging from three years old all the way into adulthood. I personally started dancing when I was in middle school but did not become competitive until a few years later. Like Jenny, I appreciated the focus and clarity dance gave me; I felt like I could work through any problem as long as I had the studio. I would go in and throw my emotions into the movement, releasing stress, pain, anger, etc. Jenny and I also share enjoymet of the sport because of the physical challenge. As each day passes, your body gets stronger, and it is able to handle more. Not only were my muscle getting benefitting, but my endurance and coordination too. If applied to therapy, the possibilities for dance movement therapy are endless.
Now that we’ve discussed how dance benefits the average person, let’s apply it to those suffering from different conditions. Studies show that DMT, when applied, can help treat a wide range of diseases. Paired with traditional treatment, DMT is a strong option when treating depression and PTSD. Articles in the International Journal of Psychiatric Medicine support the use of physical activity as a treatment for depression and provide evidence showing an improvement to depressive symptoms when used as an adjunct to medication. Exercise has also shown to be an effective alternative treatment to anxiety disorders, like PTSD. Physical activity and exercise release endorphins into the body which are sometimes referred to as happy hormones. They elevate mood and can give people a sense of happiness; this is why those suffering from depression and anxiety may benefit from getting active. In a more cognitive sense, DMT strengthens the brain and its synapses so that signals can be sent back and forth between the brain and the body. In order for us to move our muscles, we need our neurons to send action potentials to one another which then release calcium in the muscle and causes contraction. The more we use our brain the stronger it becomes so dancing encourages strong cognition by forcing us to think about the steps and focusing on the technique. Even in freestyle dancing, the mind is at work, coordinating and moving different body parts. This continuous strengthens myelin sheaths which surround the axon and send potentials to other neurons. In diseases like dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, these sheaths are withered and worn, causing cell death; This which is why exercising helps combat their atrophy. Stroke recovery patients can also improve from DMT for the same reason. Due to some bilateral processes of the brain, when a stroke occurs, the opposite side of the body is affected. Usually the person becomes extremely weak on that side and experiences some level of inattention. In these cases, it isn’t that the muscle strength isn’t there anymore but rather that the brain has forgotten how to send signals down to the muscle to activate them. Physical activity wakes the muscles up and retrains the brain to fire signals. DMT also prevents the muscle from further decay and even works to regain strength which is useful to those suffering from Parkinson’s and chronic pain. Repetitive stimulation of the muscles breaks them down, then muscle cells recognize the damage and begin to build up stronger than before. Having a repetitive stimulus, like a dance class a few times a week, continues the process so that our muscles grow and strengthen over time. It is important to add variation to exercise as it trains different parts of the body. As you continue to exercise, your body will adapt and become more fit which is why changing things up is necessary. DMT is perfect to fit these parameters because there are so many different types of dance, each one varying in intensity and muscles groups used. Stroke and cardiovascular disease are held off by exercising for these reasons. The American Heart Association recommends that a person gets 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week with an additional two days of strengthening activity for a healthy heart. Getting up and getting active is important to maintain a strong heart and body. While getting active helps to build muscle, it also burns fat; Childhood and adult obesity improve from physical activity for exactly that reason. During exercise, our body first burns carbohydrates for energy; once these stores are depleted, fat burning can commence. Quick high intensity exercise over short periods of time burn carbohydrates quickly and as the length of the activity increases, so does the amount of oxidative energy conversion. For example, a lower intensity, long duration exercise will burn a higher amount of fat than a shorter, higher intensity exercise. Both, however, will burn calories, get your blood pumping and produce a healthy body. For all these reasons listed, DMT is a well-rounded and beneficial form of therapy for a plethora of conditions.
Generally, DMT instructors also share a history in physical therapy which better assists them in working with patients who may have PTSD and/or physical injuries. As mentioned previously by dance company director, Jenny Villanueva, dance can be like therapy. If you have a teacher who is trained and experienced, they can help you get in touch with a part of yourself you never have before. The mental demand and focus dance requires allows you to push your problems away and just move for a few hours. You also leave a little stronger and more physically adept than you originally were. Most dance movement therapy goers attend sessions for emotional release and obtain the physical benefit as a bonus. If dance movement therapy can blend the practices of therapy and dance, perhaps regular therapists can find a take-away in this upcoming form of treatment as well. Once this happens, patients may attend therapy for the physical benefit but experience emotional connection as their bonus. It is extremely important for therapists to understand how to connect with their patients so that they may treat the patient, not just the injury. Taking concepts from DMT, therapists can learn to form their treatments into a more holistic experience. Here at 360 Physical Therapy & Wellness, that is a pillar of our vision. We hope to treat a person with the most comprehensive experience we can provide. The wellness portion of the clinic educates patients on the importance of maintaining health outside of the physical. We make connections with our patients and try to treat each person as family. As more and more therapists understand the importance of personal connection in therapy, the healthcare industry will grow and prosper. Using DMT as an outline, we can work towards a better form of care for all patients.