Dancing Through Dementia: Application for non-Dance/Movement Therapists

For those of you who have read about dance/movement therapy and like what you have read, you might be wondering how you can apply some of this to your own work with people with dementia. Here’s how: Body-based interventions for everyone Making the jump from reading about dance/movement therapy to using it is a challenge. Especially for individuals who have not embraced their inner dancer. Remember that we all have innate movement. Our breath and heartbeats are involuntary movements that we engage in every day. Here are some body-based interventions that you can encourage your clients, participants, or residents to explore.
  • Practice deep cleansing breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth) to decrease anxiety and stress.
  • Turn on music and clap your hands or tap your toes to the rhythm to encourage socialization and a sense of community.
  • Try asking the person to show you how they feel using a part of their body rather than using words to express this.
I’m not much for dancing; can I still connect with someone on a body level? Yes! Body language accounts for over 50% of our communication in a sense we already use our bodies to connect every day. The difference is whether or not we are aware of it. Here are two examples:
  1. “I want to go home.” When a person living with dementia says this we often respond with a “therapeutic lie” to appease them. Instead, try understanding what home represents or why they want to go home. Often home is associated with feeling safe. Perhaps the person is feeling unsafe or lonely; try using movement to create a feeling of security. Touch may be appropriate in this case. Engaging the person in a group activity with music or dance can help to create that sense of security.
  2. “Mr. L won’t take a shower.” Showers can be a tricky thing. Consider how you would feel if someone started taking your clothes off and pushing you into the shower room when you weren’t expecting it. This is where reading a person’s body language can be invaluable. Facial expressions, clenched fists, and rapid speech can all be signs of anxiety or agitation. The important thing to remember is to allow the person to be themselves and to validate them. First, we want to control the anxiety by calming the person down. Perhaps let them walk a bit, take a few deep breaths, or even stomp out the anxiety or anger. Then allow them to take control of the situation. Try to explain what needs to be done and encourage the person to do it themselves or help you. You might find that the task needs to be revisited at a better time during the day when Mr. L is in a better mood.
Remember that our moods fluctuate throughout the day and sometimes for reasons we are unaware of. Individuals with dementia are just like you and me, except sometimes the moods and emotions that they experience are difficult to convey or express verbally. Watch the body language and you can begin to notice these moods and emotions in a different way. Recognizing these before they become an issue, can help to diffuse behaviors or extinguish them all together. Here are a few other ways that you can start to connect with your clients, participants, or residents on a body level.
  • Pay close attention to body language. Try to get a sense of how the person is feeling based on his/her body.
  • Notice feelings that arise in you in response to the person’s body language.
  • Remember to reflect what you see. Do not imitate what you see.
  • Never force your own movement on a person. This is their time to be expressive and creative.
  • Always be authentic. Validate the person’s experiences and be true to yourself in relation to him/her.
Keep in mind that you are not trying to implement dance/movement therapy, but instead applying some of the basic techniques. It is recommended that you have a supervisor or colleague to process your experiences with, especially as you begin to pay attention to your clients in this new way. Some people may benefit from a professional dance/movement therapy intervention. If you feel that an individual needs more assistance, here are some clues that you might need to refer to a professional dance/movement therapist.
  • Traditional talk therapy is at a standstill.
  • The individual has many physical symptoms that are not otherwise explained.
  • The individual speaks about body specific symptoms.
  • The individual has difficulty with verbal communication.

Dance/Movement Therapy for Anyone

Dance and movement can be enjoyed by everyone and this is therapeutic. Some people respond better to one creative art over another. Remember that dance/movement therapy supports the theory that mind, body, and spirit are connected and that individuals should be treated in such a way that supports integration of these three entities. Dance/movement therapy believes that all experiences, good or bad, are held in the body and that every person has a desire to communicate no matter how buried that desire may be. Physical limitations, cognitive impairment, or two left feet do not prevent someone from participating in dance/ movement therapy. In fact, it is often people with these conditions that can benefit the most. Being in our bodies increases expression, communication, and self awareness which is useful for everyone.

Learn More

For more information on creativity and aging, read the following articles by Chicago Bridge members: “Lessons Learned from Improv and Art Therapy: Part 2” by Katharine Houpt, and “Feeling Connection: Engaging the Senses in Dementia Care” by Christy Schoenwald. This is the fifth installment of a six part series on Dancing through Dementia. Stay tuned for the last installment in December! For more information about basic dance therapy techniques, please read the second installment “Dancing Through Dementia: Basic Techniques.”   Thank you to Kristen Pavle for editing this article and supporting my journey.  Thanks to Spiess Life for the photo.


Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT, received her MA in Dance/Movement Therapy & Counseling from Columbia College Chicago and her BS in Psychology from University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Erica has worked in adult day centers, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and seniors centers throughout Chicagoland. Erica founded North Shore Dance Therapy in March 2011. In her private practice, Erica focuses on maintaining the integrity and dignity of each client regardless of the progression of their dementia, through holistic body-based interventions. Along with the client, Erica works intensively with families and caregivers to educate them on how to maintain healthy communication and relationships with their loved ones.

One Comment

  • Melissa Buckles Haley

    This was fascinating! Thank you!

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