Dancer, Heal Thyself—and Others, Too

Lesley University dance therapy students work with developmentally delayed adults at the Minute Man Arc center and with multihandicapped children at Perkins School for the Blind (below).

What it takes to become a dance therapist

Rebecca Conners was baking her bare feet in the California sun and listening to postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin speak when she had a transformative experience. “The body is like the universe,” said Halprin. “It has everything in it.” Conners, a rising college senior who was spending the summer at Halprin’s creative arts therapy workshop, says something suddenly clicked: She decided to pursue a career in dance/movement therapy.

For the student who isn’t interested in performing professionally but wants to keep dance an integral part of her job, movement therapy is a great (and steady) career option. Conners recently completed her master’s degree in expressive arts therapy and feels fortunate to be putting her dance background to good use. “All of those years of training serve me, whether it was ballet or later in high school doing musical theater, or in college doing modern,” she says.

Though a graduate degree is required to become a certified dance/movement therapist, students have many options at the undergraduate level to explore the field. Below, we’ve answered four questions your students—and you—might have about this career option.

1 Wait…so what is dance/movement therapy?

Dance/movement therapy is a form of psychotherapy that integrates dance and movement. Certified practitioners (DMTs) work with a range of populations and ages, in groups or one-on-one: children who have learning and developmental issues; seniors who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease; veterans with trauma or neurological problems. And they practice in a variety of settings—rehabilitation centers, schools, health care facilities or private practices. Using movement (in the form of games or exercises), DMTs help clients improve their self-esteem, create new ways to cope with problems, develop communication skills and identify behavior patterns.

2 How do I become a DMT?

You must complete graduate-level study approved by the American Dance Therapy Association (see for the list of accepted schools) and be certified by the Dance/Movement Therapy Certification Board.

3 What makes a dancer a good DMT?

Many DMTs are drawn to the field by personal experience with someone who has special needs or has benefited from expressive arts therapy, says Nancy Beardall, who coordinates the dance/movement therapy master’s program at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Conners, for example, volunteered with the Adopt a Grandparent program and participated in a dance/movement therapy workshop as an undergrad at the University of Virginia before deciding to pursue her master’s degree.

Versatility, empathy and the ability to improvise and be receptive to a client’s needs are crucial skills. “DMTs have to really have a sense of their own movement vocabulary and comfort with their body and the way they move,” adds Beardall. “Because this is how they’re going to be working with people.”

4 So what can I do as an undergrad?

The ADTA recommends 11 undergrad programs (see list below) that offer certificates, minors or coursework in dance/movement therapy, but dancers at any university can tailor their undergraduate coursework. Taking classes in dance, kinesiology, psychology and exercise science is a good place to start. Conners spent her final undergrad year taking psychology and anatomy courses to prepare for her master’s program at Lesley University.

There are also off-campus opportunities you can pursue. For example: At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which has a four-semester dance therapy certificate program, students get to volunteer at the local Hancock Center for Dance/Movement Therapy to observe DMTs firsthand. “That really gets people excited because they get to see the impact of it,” says Rena Kornblum, who coordinates the certificate program. DT

Hala Shah is a dancer, choreographer and freelance writer based in New York City.


11 Places to Study Dance Therapy as an Undergrad

Drexel University

Philadelphia, PA

Degrees offered: BS in dance; accelerated BS/MA in creative arts in therapy and dance/movement therapy

Endicott College

Beverly, MA

Degree offered: creative arts therapy minor

Goucher College

Towson, MD

Degree offered: BA in dance wih a dance/movement therapy emphasis

Lesley University

Cambridge, MA

Degrees offered: BS in expressive arts therapy; expressive arts therapy dual degree (five-year

BS/MA in expressive therapies, with an emphasis on mental health counseling). Expressive arts therapy undergrads can self-design their major, minor or specialization.

Manhattanville College

Purchase, NY

Degree offered: BA in dance and theater with a concentration in dance therapy and required minor in psychology

Queens College

Flushing, NY

Coursework: introduction to dance therapy; analysis of dance movement

Red Rocks Community College

Lakewood, CO

Degree offered: AA with emphasis in dance and coursework in holistic health

Russell Sage College

Troy, NY

Degree offered: BA in creative arts in therapy with a concentration in dance

University of the Arts

Philadelphia, PA

Coursework: Body Pathways curriculum, preparing students for careers in dance therapy, dance science and injury prevention

University of Miami

Coral Gables, FL

Degree offered: minor in dance with emphasis on teaching and methodology of dance and movement

University of Wisconsin–Madison

Madison, WI

Degree offered: dance/movement therapy certificate

Photo by Joshua Weidenhamer, courtesy of Minute Man Arc; by Emily Mower, courtesy of Lesley University

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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