How Can Dance be Beneficial and Healing?

Contributor: Grace Son

How Can Dance be Beneficial and Healing?

The Four Fundamental Elements of Dance Movement Therapy

Around the world, dance is increasingly being used as a tool to heal the body and mind. In a workshop with Christine de Brenni, who recently submitted her thesis for her Masters in Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) at the University of Auckland, she explores the healing aspect and processes of dance itself and within dance movement therapy. This includes music, rhythm, connection to nature/physical world, and partner dancing. 

Dancing with Rhythm

De Brenni explains that rhythm is shared by all people and is universal to the species. Even the foetus first sensual experiences are derived from the rhythms of internal function. It is undeniable that rhythm is inherent in the nature of humans – our emotions, breath, internal functions, circulatory state, brain waves, and muscle action. All operate on a rhythm and can be seen as the most profound catalyst in DMT. De Brenni states that rhythm is crucial in giving order to our lives and reconnecting us, especially in times of stress and trauma. It connects one to self, to others, and the environment; and when an individual is troubled, these rhythms can often get disrupted. 

So how can dancing with rhythm be beneficial and healing? Dancing with rhythm helps to organise the expression of thought and feelings into meaningful dance action (Levy, 2005). Studies have shown that children that have experienced abuse or trauma often experience tension through their bodies and facial expressions. Through moving rhythmically, people can release tension both physically and psychologically, and thus derive therapeutic benefit (Boswell, 2005). 

Dancing with Music 

Music sets up a certain vibration which unquestionably results in a physical reaction. De Brenni explains that there is an interconnection between music and rhythm as  “we tap into rhythm with the music”. She says that in a DMT session, musical rhythm is used as the initial stimulus to awaken innate neuromuscular responses to music. 

Numerous studies have shown that music can have a positive effect on healing. De Brenni highlighted the fantastic effect of enhancing muscle coordination as people move and dance within time with the music. However, music is mostly considered a prop in DMT (Frizell, 2008, as cited in de Brenni, 2021). De Brenni says that music is a neglected but intrinsic aspect of DMT that requires further research, particularly its role in facilitating healing or underpinning benefits.

Dancing with Connection to Nature and the Physical World

Through dancing in connection with nature we can be constrained and moved by external rhythms, which can be both compressing and expanding or enhancing for our lives. However, this connection with the exterior rhythms of the natural world is often lost because DMT is conducted mostly inside a studio (de Brenni, 2021). She states that the wonders of moving in a natural world and the potential use of outdoor water environments or ‘blue space’ in the promotion of human health and wellbeing should be explored in DMT.

So how can dancing in connection with nature be beneficial or healing? There have been countless studies that show that being in nature or even viewing scenery can have a profound impact on your emotions, such as reducing anger, fear, and stress. Exposure to nature not only has an emotional impact, but also contributes to your physical wellbeing. For example, it can reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension (University of Minnesota, 2016). John, an interviewee of de Brenni’s study, explained how surfing is like dancing on water. He experiences extreme feelings of wellbeing and satisfaction by being in contact with nature.

The idea that health and wellbeing are related to the land, has long been integrated in the Māori worldview (Te Ao Māori). Traditional Māori health acknowledges the human connection with whānau and the physical world. This worldview identifies an integrated life concept that recognizes the interconnectedness of all aspects of being, environmental, ancestral, familial, and spiritual (de Brenni, 2021). 

Dancing with a Partner

Lastly, de Brenni introduced us to the concept of partner dancing as a key healing element in DMT. John (an interviewee) explained that partner dancing is an important aspect of dance – like tango – where the leader listens to music, steers and takes control of the movement, while the follower must adapt, cooperate and trust their partner in the process. It is very difficult to do because you have to consider the other person’s movement and move together. 

De Brenni explained that there are many programmes developed and facilitated for couples where one person is living with dementia and the other is the carer, and how partner dancing can help renew and maintain the relationship between such couples. A study at The University of Illinois involved a Latin ballroom dance programme for older adults leading sedentary lifestyles. Results showed improvements in memory, attention, and focus.  Another programme, studying elderly people with mild cognitive impairment, showed that after 10 months of dancing participants experienced an improvement in thinking and memory (Swayden, 2020). 

How Dance & Arts Therapy NZ Supports Our Clients

Our Dance 4 Us and STARS programmes promote group cohesion, cooperation and coordination. A carer or a client’s nominated support person often partners with their client (or family member) in certain exercises, moving together to develop their bond and trust in each other.  Dance Movement Therapists explore themes around nature and the outdoors, looking at ways to improve clients’ wellbeing, self-esteem, social and communication skills (both verbal and non-verbal). We support people with disabilities that are working through a range of physical and emotional traumas to ensure they feel connected in the community. Give us a call on (09) 636 3029 or visit for further information on our programmes across Aotearoa.

Grace is in the midst of her Bachelor of Law/Bachlor of Commerce conjoint at The University of Auckland, majoring in Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Information Systems. Grace highly values helping out and giving back to the community, and she supports DTNZ's vision to do just that.