Dance/Movement Therapy vs. Artist in Healthcare: What’s the difference?

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In the dance and dance/movement therapy worlds (they are each their own, respectively) there is an ongoing discussion about what the difference is between dance/movement therapy and artists in health care.  Over the past few years, it seems as though there is a growing trend of dancers working in various health care settings.  Examples include Chicago’s own Hubbard Street Dance Co., who has the Parkinson’s Project.  As their website describes, the Parkinson’s Project, “…uses contemporary dance techniques to work to slow the progress of the disease.”

Another famous example is Bill T. Jones’ piece titled “Still/Here.”  Jones led what was known as “Survival Workshops” with terminally ill patients to discuss and explore feelings about their illness and death.  From observing their movements Jones choreographed the piece.

Sounds a bit like dance/movement therapy, doesn’t it?  Well, it’s not.

So, how does the work of a dance/movement therapist differ from the artists in health care as mentioned above?  After all, dance/movement therapists are in fact dancers and artists themselves.

The single most important difference between dance/movement therapists and artists in health care is the education that dance/movement therapists receive.  As therapists we have the knowledge and background to work with individuals with disabilities.  Any dancer can work with a person with disabilities and create a dance piece with them.  Yet, what happens when, as we like to say, “shit hits the fan” with the person with disabilities?  Undoubtedly moving and dancing may stir up some emotions/feelings, which is where a dance/movement therapist can verbally process with that person to help promote therapeutic growth.  Not only that, but it keeps the person safe and healthy.  A dancer who does not receive education in counseling might not know how to do that.

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As a person who strongly identifies with the “dancer” aspect of myself (not all dance/movement therapists do) this conversation is one I think about often and it strongly resonates with me.  It was stirred up once more after I attended the Axis Dance Co. Panel discussion.  Axis Dance Co. is what is known as an integrative dance company, one that includes dancers with disabilities.  The panel discussion, held at Access Living, talked about ideas of dancers with disabilities, art making, and therapeutic aspects of dance.  There seemed to be a strong sentiment among the panel members that integrative dance is not necessarily therapeutic, and that it would in fact like to differentiate from this notion all together.  Below is a video of some of the beautiful work done by Axis Dance Co.


Although this may be a touchy subject for dance/movement therapists and dancers alike, I think it is important to remember the intention behind choreographing dance with people who have disabilities.  Is the intention to simply be integrative like Axis Dance Co.?  Is the intention to simply create dance?  Or is the intention to create dance in a way that is both integrative and therapeutic?