Harmonizing Body and Mind: The Transformative Power of Dance Movement Therapy and Positive Psychology

CPPA Students
7 min readSep 26, 2023
Image credit: Emma at tuka-tuka.com

By: Matt Patterson

This blog has been reviewed by Bre O’Handley and Chiamaka Okigbo; edited, formatted and published by Nicholas Murray.


What does it mean to dance? According to the Oxford Dictionary, dancing is the innate human ability to move rhythmically to music, following a prescribed sequence of steps. In modern Western society, dance is widely seen as an enjoyable leisure activity that we engage in during social gatherings or cultural events. However, for some individuals, it becomes a calling that consumes their entire lives, starting from a young age and continuing into adulthood, becoming an integral part of their identity and livelihood.

To truly understand the intricate nature of dance, one needs to look at the historical significance and cultural ramifications of dance. During the colonial era in North America and England, grand balls facilitated social interaction and courtship among young men and women. Dance was a platform for meaningful conversations, forging social connections, and nurturing relationships. In this context, dance provided entertainment and served as a channel for societal unity.

Nevertheless, dance holds a profound significance in Indigenous and Asian cultures, surpassing its role as mere amusement.

Within the Kalahari bushmen community, known as the !Kung¹, dance takes on the form of healing ceremonies deeply ingrained within their cultural and spiritual practices. These ceremonies, integral to their belief system, emphasize the interconnectedness of all beings and the spiritual forces governing the universe, serving to address physical, emotional, and spiritual ailments. These rituals involve trance-like states induced through ritualistic dancing, drumming, and chanting, led by revered healers possessing extraordinary powers to communicate with the spiritual realm. Such altered states of consciousness enable the healers to connect with otherworldly entities, receiving profound guidance and healing energy. Both the afflicted and the healthy actively participate in these ceremonies, believing in their community’s collective energy and intentions to contribute to the healing process. Rooted in communal support, spiritual connectivity, and the profound belief in the mind’s influence on emotional and physical well-being, these ceremonies foster unity, instill hope, and strengthen cultural identity within their way of life.²,³

In Asian culture, folk dances have been around and heavily immersed in their culture for some countries like China for 6000 years, as depicted on relics found through archeological exploration. Asian folk dancing is a powerful medium for storytelling, passing down ancestral traditions, and celebrating various festivals and occasions. It brings people of all ages together, fostering a sense of camaraderie and cultural pride. Moreover, the physical benefits of Asian folk dancing cannot be overlooked. It is a form of exercise that engages the entire body, promoting cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and coordination. Regular participation in Asian folk dancing can improve stamina, posture, and overall physical fitness levels. Additionally, it has been shown to positively affect mental health by reducing stress, boosting mood, and enhancing cognitive function. The rhythmic movements and music of Asian folk dancing have a calming and therapeutic effect on the mind, allowing individuals to express themselves creatively and find joy and fulfillment.⁴

Image credit: Wikipedia

However, one does not need to venture to southern Africa or the far east to witness the powerful healing potential of communal dance. First Nations communities, for instance, frequently partake in healing dances conducted by skilled healers or shamans well-versed in traditional healing practices. These dances incorporate rhythmic movements, chanting, and the accompaniment of traditional instruments like drums and rattles. Performed within sacred spaces and often involving the entire community, these dances restore harmony between individuals’ physical and mental health, rectifying imbalances through rituals and a deep connection with the spiritual realm. Beyond releasing negative energy and emotional expression, these dances connect individuals with their cultural heritage, promoting physical healing, well-being, and a sense of belonging. They serve as a poignant reminder of Indigenous cultures’ resilience and wisdom.

Image credit: Nathaly Ruiz at OCLS blog

Positive psychology, pioneered by American psychologist Martin Seligman, represents an innovative discipline that concentrates on individuals’ strengths and positive experiences, focusing on positivity, growth mindsets and integrating therapeutic endeavours — for example, using dancing to build confidence as part of an enjoyable experience (something typically not associated with western psychotherapy). However, this does not imply that traditional therapeutic approaches and psychoanalytical assessments are becoming obsolete. Instead, these new therapeutic modalities offer clients a new tool for reintegrating into society, reclaiming their identity, and finding purpose. Seligman argues that individuals have three fundamental psychological needs: the ability to experience positive emotions, engage in meaningful activities, and foster positive relationships (Seligman, 2011).

Applications of positive psychology have gained significant traction in recent years, finding new uses in various aspects of life; therefore, it is of no surprise that in a therapeutic setting known as dance/movement therapy (DMT), dance has shown tremendous potential in enhancing cognitive function, emotional well-being, and behavioural patterns, positioning itself as a valuable tool in psychological treatments.⁵

The American Dance Therapy Association offers a comprehensive definition of dance/movement therapy as the skilled utilization of movement to integrate across an individual’s “emotional, social, cognitive, and physical dimensions”, enhancing overall health and well-being. Previously, historical studies often highlighted the negative mental health implications of professional dancing. However, dance/movement therapy eliminates external stressors and replaces the relentless pursuit of perfectionism with a healing process and post-traumatic growth.⁶ In this therapeutic context, dancing has positively affected mental health and overall well-being. It serves as an avenue for self-expression, stress reduction, and the cultivation of self-esteem and confidence.

The bond between dance and positive psychology is undeniably strong. With every graceful movement, dance has the incredible power to effortlessly transport us into a mesmerizing state of flow, a fundamental concept at positive psychology’s core. Flow is a mental state in which individuals become wholly absorbed in an activity, losing track of time and the outside world.⁷ This state of mind is often described as being “in the zone.” When we dance, we can surrender ourselves entirely to the interplay of music and movement, allowing us to momentarily set aside our worries and the burdens of daily life.

Simultaneously enjoyable and creative, dance becomes a powerful tool that enhances our mental and physical well-being.

Another crucial aspect of positive psychology revolves around the importance of social connections and their profound impact on our psychological and emotional states. In this regard, dance is meaningful in bringing individuals together, allowing them to partake in a joyous experience and cultivate meaningful connections.

Additionally, dancing contributes to refining communication skills and promotes participant trust. Dance also can evoke diverse emotions and sensations, enabling us to savour life’s pleasures to the fullest. Whether through the graceful movements of a ballet performance or the vibrant beats of a hip-hop routine, dance allows us to engage with our senses, providing a unique and exhilarating experience.

In conclusion, dance transcends cultural boundaries and manifests in various forms, carrying profound meanings and implications. From facilitating social interaction and courtship in historical societies to serving as a conduit for healing and spiritual connection in indigenous cultures, dance is essential in human civilization. It has also found its way into psychology and mental health, weaving into positive psychology and dance/movement therapy, offering healing, self-expression, and transformation. Through dance, we experience the joy of movement, forge connections, and tap into our innermost emotions. Dance is a vibrant and captivating art form that enriches our lives in various ways, uniting us as human beings.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Thank you for reading. If you found this blog interesting, you may enjoy more of our content from Student Ambassadors the Canadian Positive Psychology Association. You can find us over at the Student Zone. Feel free also to join the CPPA by becoming a member, and to share this blog with your friends!


  1. Publishers, H. (n.d.). The American Heritage Dictionary entry: kung. Ahdictionary.com. https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=kung
  2. SAN (Bushman) Healing Dance Botswana Africa
  3. Katz, Richard, 1937. (1982). Boiling energy: community healing among the Kalahari Kung. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.
  4. Malkogeorgos, A., Zaggelidou, E., & Georgescu, L. (2011). The Effect of Dance Practice on Health: A Review. Asian Journal of Exercise and Sports Science, 8, 100–112.
  5. Duignan, D., Hedley, L., & Milverton, R. (2009). Dance as a therapy in dementia care — “Wu Tao”. Give Life a Dance. https://wutaodance.com/givelifeadance/dance-therapy-dementia-care-wu-tao/
  6. Collier, L. (2016). Growth after trauma. Monitor on Psychology, 47(10), 48. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2016/11/growth-trauma
  7. Steimer, S. (2021). Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, pioneering psychologist and ‘father of flow’, 1934–2021. UChicago News. https://news.uchicago.edu/story/mihaly-csikszentmihalyi-pioneering-psychologist-and-father-flow-1934-2021



CPPA Students

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