Dance / Movement Therapy and Adoption-Competent Therapy

dance movement therapy

“Movement and breath signify the start of life.
It precedes language and thought.”

—S. Chaiklin

Movement is the first outlet of communication and expression that we have as human beings. It begins in the womb as we kick and flip; and throughout our life, we learn to finetune our gestures, postures, and body movements to get our messages across. A closed fist, a loving embrace, a shoulder shrug and eye roll, and an extended hand carry just as much meaning and impact as a verbal statement. We are constantly in motion: movement helps us grow (developmental), get through the day (functional), emphasize a verbal point (communicative), and express our imagination (expressive). Movement is also part of our emotional processing: we are often told to “walk it off” or “shake it off” when we are feeling anger or stress; we join a yoga class or a running club to take care of physical health and emotional well-being; we rock and sway with our babies to soothe them and help them fall asleep; and we may even do a power pose or two in the bathroom before a big presentation. All in all, movement is integral to our experience as human beings.


What Is Dance/Movement Therapy?

The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) defines dance/movement therapy (D/MT) as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual for the purpose of improving health and well-being” (ADTA). In other words, dance/movement therapists regard body movement with as much importance as verbal language and communication in the therapeutic process.

D/MT can be a supportive therapy modality for anyone and everyone. No matter the physical, mental, or cognitive ability of the client, no matter their age, any form of movement can be accessible as a therapeutic intervention: there is no such thing as a movement that is too small or too big. Dance/movement therapists are trained to observe, assess, and share movements with clients in individual, couple, family, and group sessions. Dance/movement therapists can work in private practice, in community behavioral health, in nurseries, in schools, and in hospitals. Since we move from birth to death, dance/movement therapists can work with anyone from infancy to end of life. A session can look like playing a game together or running around with balls or scarves; a session can consist of creating a dance to express our unspoken feelings, using props to help in our movement making; or it can be a simple verbal conversation between client and therapist. In other words, dance/movement therapy is an “embodied, movement-based approach” to psychotherapy (ADTA).


How Can Adoption-Competent Therapists Incorporate Dance/Movement Therapy?

In a BPAR blog post from 2022, “Adoption-Competent Therapy - What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Find It”, we shared that “adoption competent therapists have a trauma lens and understand that our body has memory through our senses even before we had a verbal language, meaning that even if relinquished as a newborn, an adoptee has experienced and remembers (on a body-level) the loss of their mother; this is called implicit memory (Randolph, 2014)” (BPAR).  This statement also aligns with the works of mental and physical health practitioners such as Judith Herman (Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror), Resmaa Menakem (My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies), Nadine Burke -Harris (The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma and Adversity), Bessel Van der Kolk (The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma), and the personal accounts of so many survivors of traumatic experiences that all share the same core statement: these traumatic experiences leave a profound impact our physical bodies, and those implicit memories or deeply buried traumas can sometimes be inaccessible to verbal processing, and only accessed through body-focused and somatic-focused work. 

This is where dance/movement therapists can intervene. At the core of our work is the attention that we pay to our clients’ bodies. In session, we ask ourselves, how is their body moving or how is it held in stillness? When is their body activated or when does it shut down? How is the client breathing or holding their breath? And the most important question of all, how is the client aware of their own body in moments of regulation and dysregulation?


Why Might an Adoptee Benefit from Dance/Movement Therapy?

Dance/movement therapists use mirror neurons to build kinesthetic empathy and attune to the client’s experience. This can foster connection and offer different perspectives on the subject being discussed. By integrating the body into the work that dance/movement therapists do, we are called to examine and question how these traumatic events affect all aspects of our clients’ lived and moved experiences. Topics such as racial/cultural/ethnic identity, gender and sexuality, physical and cognitive differences, mental health diagnoses, socio-economic status and location, privilege and oppression, immigration status, and obviously, adoption status all impact the body of the client.

Oftentimes, adoptees can be hypersensitive to the needs and emotions of others. Dance/movement therapy can be used to help adoptees tap into their physical needs, emotional sensations, and attune to themselves. Healing and growth can occur when their relationship with Self is strengthened and transformed.

There can also be a disconnect between the mind and the body when trauma occurs. Language can be difficult to access during this experience. Experiencing our physical and emotional sensations in the body can be uncomfortable: think, for example, about anxiety showing up as stomach pains or cramps. Sometimes, in order to avoid this discomfort and pain, we may intellectualize or find a “logical” explanation to these sensations instead of actually feeling them. However, this disconnection limits us from being a holistic individual and connecting all of our experiences to form our Self. Dance/movement therapists work with adoptees to provide interventions that target this mind/body reintegration.

When it comes to adoption-competent therapy, dance/movement therapists have the training and experience to offer a trauma-informed, body-centered, relational-culturally focused therapeutic approach, where all levels of the adoptee’s experience are felt, moved, reflected, and discussed. No matter the age of the adoptee, bringing in creative, expressive, and functional movements into the therapeutic space can bring another dimension to the client’s story and their healing journey.


Written by Sahita Pierre-Antoine and Madison Janke
Boston Post Adoption Resources


American Dance Therapy Association (2017). Kinesthetic empathy: The keystone of dance/movement therapy.

American Dance Therapy Association. What is dance/movement therapy?

Chaiklin, S. & Wengrower, H. (2016). We dance from the moment our feet touch the earth. The Art and Science of Dance/Movement Therapy: Life is Dance, Second Edition, Routledge.

Purrington, B (2022). Adoption-competent therapy — What it is, why it matters, and how to find it. BPAR Blog.

Adoption-Competent Therapy — What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Find It

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About Madison Janke, LMHC, R-DMT

Madison Janke, LMHC, R-DMT, is a clinician at Boston Post Adoption Resources. To read her bio, please visit BPAR's Team page.