Dance/Movement Psychotherapy, Depression, and The Strong Black Woman


Research has found that the individuals who participate in dance/movement psychotherapy experience a decrease in psychological distress and an increase in the neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine.

The basic premise of dance/movement psychotherapy (DMT) is that body movement reflects the inner emotional state of the individual, and changes in movement can affect the psyche of the individual in a way that promotes health and well-being (Levy, 2005).  

Utilizing DMT in psychotherapeutic treatment can support individuals in identifying alternative coping mechanisms, emotional expression, and relationship building.


There is very little research on the effects of DMT as a treatment for black women experiencing depression. However, research has addressed the effectiveness of DMT in reducing depression more generally (Jeong et al., 2005; Kipp, Herda and Schwarz, 2000; Gunther and Hölter, 2006).

Jeong et al (2005) assessed the psychological health and changes in neurohormones of forty adolescents. Half of the group was assigned to a DMT group for 12 weeks. At the end of the 12 weeks the group was reassessed. The researchers found that the group that participated in DMT experienced a decrease in psychological distress and an increase in the neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine.

Kipp, Herda and Schwarz (2000) also found that DMT had a positive effect on the 40 patients in their study with depression, especially in relation to body image and affect. Similarly, Gunther and Hölter (2006), in their study of 45 adults with depression in a psychiatric day care, found that DMT produced positive outcomes in body and self-perception, perception of relationships, and feelings of overall well-being.

The effectiveness of DMT in the treatment of depression can be examined using an assessment framework, like the Kestenberg Movement Profile (KMP) - an assessment and clinical tool often used among dance/movement psychotherapists to observe, describe, and analyze non-verbal behavior.

According to Amighi et al (1999) the KMP can provide therapists with the tools needed to understand “the subtle and intricate possibilities for non-verbal relationship” (pg. 231). It also provides the therapist with the language and vocabulary necessary to notate and describe movement in a way that enhances clinical understanding and intervention in an embodied manner.

However, it is important that the dance/movement therapist exercise cultural competency and sensitivity when utilizing this tool with individuals who do not belong to the dominant culture, as body movement observation and analysis can unconsciously enact a bias against those whose bodies, abilities, race, and gender lie outside of sociocultural norms (Caldwell 2013).

The KMP is divided into two major subsystems, the Tension-flow Effort System, or System I, and the Shape-flow Shaping System, or System II. System I is used to describe the flow of muscular tension and reflects core temperament. Within this system of analysis there is potential to observe inner feeling states, needs, and affects. These feeling states can be examined through free, bound, and neutral flow (Amighi, Loman, Lewis, & Sossin, 1999).

Free flow is commonly associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure, bound flow with feelings of restraint and caution; and neutral flow is often witnessed in individuals experiencing exhaustion, numbness, or detachment from their feelings and environment.  

System I also includes efforts and pre-efforts. Efforts are movements with an external orientation and pre-efforts are a combination of inner and outer orientations; responses to environmental challenges.

Instead of measuring muscle tension, System II examines shape flow, or the growing and shrinking of three bodily dimensions: horizontal, vertical, and sagittal. It also provides structure to System I by providing spatial orientation.

According to the KMP (Loman & Merman, 1996), horizontal shape flow is observed when there is widening in the body. This expansion is associated with feelings of trust in the environment. On the contrary, narrowing in the horizontal plane can be indicative of distrust in one’s environment. In the vertical dimension, lengthening is often observed when one is expressing comfort, pride, or competence, while shortening can be a demonstration of pain, shame, or anger. Finally, bulging in the sagittal dimension is associated with feelings of self-satisfaction. Hollowing in this dimension could indicate a lack of self-confidence.

For the black woman with depression, or the Sisterella Complex, a predominance of neutral flow, narrowing, shortening, and/or hollowing may be observed.

According to Caldwell (2013, pg. 16), “the body is a symbol for all experience,” and many of these experiences are stored physiologically, unintegrated into the higher processing areas of the brain (Van der Kolk, 2014). Considering this along with the shifting behaviors that some black women admit participating in as a means of coping with oppression, The Black Girl Healing Project recommends a body-based therapy, like dance/movement psychotherapy to help self-identified strong black women manage depression.


Unlinked Sources:

Gunther, C., Hölter, G. (2006). Outcome Factors of DMT: A Pilot-Study with Depressive Patients. Presentation on the 2nd International Research Colloquium in Dance Therapy, Feb. 10–11, 2006

Kipp, J., Herda, C., & Schwarz, H. J. (2000). Wirkfaktoren der Ergotherapie Ergebnisse einer Pilotstudie. [Effects of occupational therapy. Results of a pilot study (includes DMT)]. Ergotherapie & Rehabilitation, 39(6), 17–21.