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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