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

Teacher Voices
Getty Images

I often teach ballet over Zoom in the evenings, shortly after sunset. Without the natural light coming from my living room window, I drag a table lamp next to my portable barre so that the computer's camera can see me clearly enough. I prop the laptop on a chair taken from the kitchen and then spend the next few hours running back and forth between the computer screen of Zoom tiles and my makeshift dance floor.

Much of this setup is the result of my attempts to recreate the most important aspects of an in-person dance studio: I have a barre, a floor and as much space as I can reasonably give myself within a small apartment. I do not, however, have a mirror, and neither do most of my students.

Keep reading... Show less
Allie Burke, courtesy Lo Cascio

If you'd hear it on the radio, you won't hear it in Anthony Lo Cascio's tap classes.

"If I play a song that my kids know, I'm kind of disappointed in myself," he says. "I either want to be on the cutting edge or playing the classics."

He finds that most of today's trendy tracks lack the depth needed for tap, and that there's a disconnect between kids and popular music. "They have trouble finding the beat compared to older genres," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Courtesy Lovely Leaps

After the birth of her daughter in 2018, engineer Lisa McCabe had reservations about returning to the workforce full-time. And while she wanted to stay home with the new baby, she wasn't ready to stop contributing financially to her family (after all, she'd had a successful career designing cables for government drones). So, when she got a call that September from an area preschool to lead its dance program, she saw an opportunity.

The invitation to teach wasn't completely out of the blue. McCabe had grown up dancing in Southern California and had a great reputation from serving as her church's dance teacher and team coach the previous three years (stopping only to take a break as a new mother). She agreed to teach ballet and jazz at the preschool on Fridays and from there created an age-appropriate class based on her own training in the Cecchetti and RAD methods. It was a success: In three months, class enrollment went from six to 24 students, and just one year later, McCabe's blossoming Lovely Leaps brand had contracts with eight preschools and three additional teachers.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.