painting of dancer

Dance movement is a therapeutic form of exercise which is great not only for physical health but also mental and emotional health. Music itself can be very powerful. It can affect our moods and our state of well-being by triggering memories and other emotional experiences. Just hearing a song from our childhood can create a sensation in our entire bodies that can instantly affect our mood and trigger memories in just a matter of seconds. When dance or any movement is set to music it can create a stress relieving, joyful and sometimes healing moment for those involved as well as increasing/releasing endorphins in the brain.

I have been working as a dance movement instructor for individuals with special needs since 2005. Throughout the years I have seen so many incredible changes and developments in the individuals with whom I have worked - even after only a single session. While there are numerous benefits and advantages to dance therapy for individuals with special needs; here are my top five:

1. Giving People the Ability to Express Emotions

Dance therapy is a great way to express emotions that are sometimes not easily expressed verbally. I like to give each client a chance to show how the music makes them feel and to show it through movement. I use a variety of music in my classes and many times take requests from the clients so everyone feels involved in the class and feels able to express themselves. Even clients with limited mobility are still able to express themselves through their own energy levels and abilities. Sometimes I make a circle of chairs and have one participant go to the middle of the circle and express themselves to a song in front of the group and if they are able to express themselves verbally we discuss how the music made them feel. Sometimes one song can make one person feel happy, another sad, and another energized and occasionally a song will make someone who may not have shown any expression the entire class suddenly smile from ear to ear. It is always interesting to me to see how different music and sounds can affect people so differently.

2. Stress Relief

Any form of exercise is great for relieving stress in the mind and body. Dance is no different. Dance therapy is a great stress reliever, not only because it is great physically for the body but it is also emotionally therapeutic. Since movement can be related to thoughts and feelings, dancing can bring changes to emotions and attitudes almost instantly.  I have seen individuals come to class upset or emotionally energized and within moments of beginning to move with the music I have seen changes in their overall well-being. 

3. Increased physical fitness and Gross Motor Skills Development

Dance is a great way to increase fitness in a fun and musical driven atmosphere.  I design each dance therapy class for the clients in the particular class. I always start with a warm-up of some sort to get everyone moving and comfortable with the class. I then incorporate different styles of dance, whether it be partner dancing, or line dancing or a lyrical form of dancing including props such as ribbons, or if they have limited mobility I have them move the part of their body they are most comfortable moving.  Stretching and deep breathing is also incorporated into each class to strengthen muscles and prevent injury and increase flexibility. Dance therapy also focuses on developing gross motor skills. By focusing on strength and coordination as well as balance, gross motor skills development is encouraged. I sometimes teach ballet, a classical dance style to increase muscle growth, encourage good posture and improve balance.

4. Improved confidence and Self-esteem 

Dance therapy has been shown to increase confidence, social and communication skills as well as improve self-esteem and over all attentiveness in individuals. I believe it’s important to greet each individual when they first enter the class, making eye contact and saying something positive or asking them how they are regardless of their verbal abilities. I believe this creates a positive and safe learning environment and lets the participant know they are welcome and that this will be a pleasant and fun experience. When I feel the individual is ready, I may ask to dance with them, whether its offering my hand or sharing a prop of some kind together like a ribbon or noise maker. I have put on dance performances with some of my classes, which gives them a chance to show what they have worked so hard at. It also creates a sense of accomplishment and promotes a great work ethic. I believe that maintaining a positive, reassuring, and encouraging environment is key to promoting self-confidence and self-esteem.

5. Encourages Creativity and Imagination

I think that one of our greatest gifts as human beings is our imagination and ability to create. Like the muscles in our body I believe that if you do not use imagination and creativity these skills will deteriorate. I use a big portion of my class to use the power of our imaginations. Whether we are flying through space or swimming in the ocean or moving like an animal or using our imaginations to think of a specific memory and then moving with the feeling gained from that memory it is important to use creativity and imagination in class. One summer I focused specifically on Happiness for the class. Each week I would have the participants think of something that made them happy, whether it was a memory, or something that was going to happen or something that they wanted to happen. I then asked them what they felt in their bodies when they held onto that thought; to hear what some of them would say was just astounding. I then asked them if they could use their imaginations at any time to think of what made them happy and would it change how they feel? I had one individual who never said much in class come up to me one day, almost a year later to tell me he was having a bad day and he thought about his “happy thought” and the bad day went away. It sounds so simple, yet it is so powerful. 

While the benefits for those involved in the class are great, I believe that as the instructor I experience and gain just as much from the incredible people with whom I am blessed to work.  I have learned more about patience, compassion and truly being in the moment from my work as a dance therapy instructor than any other experience in my life. 

Martha Krabill has been working as a dance and movement therapy instructor for individuals with Special Needs since 2005. She was awarded for her extraordinary levels of service to persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities in 2009 by the Arlington County Department of Human Services. Martha also works as Dance Instructor, Choreographer and Vocalist in the Greater Washington DC Area. Martha has instructed and choreographed for many different organizations including PBS Kids, Think Film, The Discovery Channel, the United States Army and Award Winning Dance Studios and Dance Teams across the United States.  Martha is the Owner & Artistic Director of 5678 Dance, LLC.