Antioch students and faculty participating in a social justice workshop. Photo by Melinda Garland, courtesy Antioch

Everything You Need to Know About Becoming A Dance Therapist

You don't need to be a performer to make a positive impact through dance. Dance/movement therapists use movement to approach a patient's health holistically, working with populations as diverse as teenagers dealing with anxiety, veterans suffering from trauma and elderly patients with dementia or Alzheimer's. What makes for a good dance therapist? "They've seen the power of movement in their own life. And they have empathy for other people and for what's going on in the world," says Nancy Beardall, dance/movement therapy coordinator at Lesley University.


What is Dance Therapy?

The American Dance Therapy Association defines dance/movement therapy as "the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual." Practically, what this means depends on what kind of setting the therapist is working in, says Beardall. Dance therapists can work in private practice, nursing homes, schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers and other environments, where they combine the work of a traditional therapist with a deep knowledge of the body and how movement is connected to our overall health.

How Do You Become a Dance Therapist?

Four women dancing in a classroom.

Antioch students and faculty. Photo by Melinda Garland, courtesy Antioch

There are two ways to get accredited in the U.S.

1. Earn a master's degree from one of the seven ADTA-approved programs lasting two to three years:

• Antioch University

• Columbia College Chicago

• Drexel University

• Lesley University

• Naropa University

• Pratt Institute

• Sarah Lawrence College

Programs are about 60 credits and include two internships, plus lots of experiential learning.

2. Students with a master's degree in a related subject can participate in Alternate Route, a self-guided program that allows students to combine coursework, fieldwork and an internship to earn accreditation.

What About Undergrads?

These schools offer preparatory dance/movement therapy programs and courses for undergraduates:

• Columbia College Chicago

• Drexel University

• Endicott College

• Goucher College

• Lesley University

• Manhattanville College

• Nazareth College

• Queens College

• Seton Hill University

Studying dance therapy in undergrad is by no means a requirement for pursuing it in in graduate school; Beardall says the majority of her students majored in dance and minored in psychology, or vice versa. (Some psychology prerequisites are required for ADTA master's programs.)

What Should You Know Before Becoming a DMT?

Hornthal holds the hands of two elderly women, as they seem to dance or do a movement exercise.

Erica Hornthal works with a variety of patients at her DMT practice. Photo courtesy Hornthal

Tomoyo Kawano, director of Antioch University's dance/movement therapy and counseling program, emphasizes that DMTs may find themselves having to advocate for movement as a viable psychotherapeutic treatment. "They need to have that conviction," she says. "It's important to explore if that's something they want to pursue for the rest of their lives."

How can students be sure that dance/movement therapy is right for them? Erica Hornthal, founder of Chicago Dance Therapy, suggests undergraduates talk to a DMT or try to shadow one. Students can also attend ADTA conferences, and watch the organization's video series at adta.org/adta-talks.

How Much Dancing Is Involved?

The amount of actual dancing depends on the setting and the patient. Sometimes patients dance to "have someone witness what they want to express," says Hornthal; other times sessions are sedentary, with the DMT trying to connect a patient's experience to their breath or their posture. For Beardall, it's less about dancing and more about patients being expressive, and their feelings, patterns and preferences coming out through movement.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021