Dancing Through Dementia

Dancing Through Dementia: Basic Techniques

Just like the many schools of thought in psychology, there are many different schools of thought in dance/movement therapy. Dance/movement therapy pioneers developed different methods and techniques based on their experiences and based on their own expressive tendencies. I am going to share some basic techniques that I use in my practice that have been successful with individuals who are living with dementia.


Dance/movement therapy with the elderly began in America in the early 1940’s with Marian Chace. Marian Chace, the mother of dance/movement therapy worked with psychiatric and elderly patients at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, where she based her work on the principle that psychological issues are held within the body. Chace believed in dance as a form of communication that filled a basic human need. As a Chacian clinician, I will explain a few important techniques. If you are interested in learning about other theorists and pioneers I encourage you to read Dance Movement Therapy: A Healing Art.

It’s All About the Circle

For a group environment, using a circle ensures that everyone is witnessed and seen by others in the group as well as by the group facilitator. A circle can be a wonderful way to start but also end a group. This structure supports a sense of community, enhances socialization, and encourages self-awareness which so often is lost or impaired in our clients living with dementia.

Symbolism and Theme Development

Through the use of imagery, fantasy and recollection, symbolism allows for individuals to work through problems that might be difficult to verbalize. Exploring symbols through movement or sound can provide a non-threatening environment where a sense of trust can be experienced and strengthened. Through symbolism, themes can develop based on similar movements, sounds, or words that are being shared. It is important when working with groups for the facilitator to identify and emphasize these similarities because that is where the group can begin to build cohesion, support, and a sense of belonging among its members.

Mirroring/Empathic Reflection

Through mirroring, or taking on a person’s movements, we are able to meet the client where he/she is. This is a non-verbal way to empathize with our clients. In movement therapy, the term empathic reflection is used to describe how the therapist uses the body as an instrument to attune to the client. It is important not to imitate the person, but rather experience what they are feeling through their body via postures and gestures. This again will build trust and create a solid platform for the therapeutic relationship. This is just a small glimpse into some dance/movement therapy techniques. These are basic techniques that anyone with dance therapy training or experience working with older adults who have dementia can use to better understand where their clients are coming from and why certain behaviors may be present. These techniques take practice, but if used effectively can allow for greater expression, connection, and trust with your clients.

Learn More

For more information on creativity and aging see the following articles by Chicago Bridge members: “Why Arts in Aging” by Katharine Houpt, and “Feeling Connection: Engaging the Senses in Dementia Care” by Christy Schoenwald. This is the second installment of a six part series on Dancing through Dementia. Stay tuned for more! Please read the first installment “Dancing Through Dementia: What is Dance/Movement Therapy?”   Thank you to Kristen Pavle for editing this article.  Thank you pixie_law 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.


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