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How to Become a Dance Therapist

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How to Become a Dance Therapist

By Grace Edwards of Dance Informa.

One of dance’s harshest realities is that while there are many talented people who love to move, few will actually become professional dancers. However, enterprising dance-lovers need not despair — those with an open mind may well discover that there are many equally interesting alternatives out there. Have you, for instance, ever considered a career as a dance therapist?

Dance Informa’s Grace Edwards spoke to Melbourne-based dance therapist Bouthaina Mayall about the ins and outs of her job. Bouthaina is a professional member of the Dance Therapy Association of Australia and runs dance-movement therapy groups in aged care facilities for residents with varying needs including dementia. Her clients have included children with disabilities and autism and she also works on a one-to-one basis with clients.

How did you become involved in dance and dance therapy?

I come from a Middle Eastern background so culturally I am connected to dance. I started studying ballet as a young girl at the age of seven and became really inspired by ballet thanks to my teacher at the time. I left that form of dance for a while to explore contemporary dance, which was such a completely different place to come from and that really challenged all my preconceptions about movement.

Following that, I explored Indian dance and became inspired by the Abhinaya of Indian dance, the story-telling aspect and the hand gestures. Even without me thinking about words, I found that each gesture embodied meaning. That led me to an exploration of meaning and movement and from there, I moved into dance therapy.

How did you become a dance therapist in Australia?

I went to an introductory day with the IDTIA (International Dance Therapy Institute of Australia) where people can come and see what is involved. That’s always the first step with them. There is also another place called the Phoenix Institute which is soon to offer a nationally-recognised diploma and which I believe is also good, though I trained with the IDTIA, so I can only speak from experience with reference to that body.

If you decide to go through the IDTIA, you can apply formally and there’s an interview process involved because there’s a certain level of maturity that’s required to due to the psycho-therapeutic nature of the therapy.

If you are successful, you will then enter the certificate course. That’s one year in duration and one in which you will do a lot of experiential study backed up by a theoretical component. There is a practical component where you go and assist the therapist in his/her groups and at the end of a certain amount of time he/she will invite you to take a section of her therapy session so that you get a taste of what it is to facilitate a session. A course will also include the study of Laban movement analysis —this provides a common language through which we speak about and analyse movement. It’s also used as an assessment tool for clients. Upon the completion of your training, you can hold classes of your own.

To call yourself a therapist, however, you need to apply for the advanced training course, where you ultimately get to practise in the field under supervision. That usually takes two years. At the end of that, you can also apply for a professional membership of the Dance Therapy Association of Australia (DTAA).

dance therapist

Bouthaina Mayall working with her clients.

What traits are required in a good dance therapist?

Definitely a dance background, it’s very primary. You don’t need a professional level of training but you need to love movement and dance, and be willing to explore your own relationship to dance not just physically but psychologically and emotionally.

You also need, as I mentioned, a degree of maturity, because you’re approaching people in need, people in difficult situations, and you need to be able to tolerate that in a compassionate way so that you can fully accept a person in their suffering or in the state in which you find them. Sometimes, for instance, you might be working with people who have very little movement and great disability, and your ability to validate their state, range of motion and expression through movement is really important. They may have limited verbal ability, so their ability to otherwise express themselves might be limited. You have to be able to attune and adapt to that.

What might a typical session look like for you?

I work mostly in aged care and a little bit one-to-one with the general population. I have my music and my props, and props play a big part in my intervention with the therapy. I use them to engage eye contact, expand movement and so on. I might use see-through cloth, large heavy balls if I want to encourage my clients to feel strong and self-assertive, or something they can push or stretch. If you imagine someone who is sitting in a chair for most of the day, those props and actions can make all the difference. I also select my music very carefully to support my interventions. After greeting everybody, I make sure I establish a relationship and carry on from there. After each session I write up my notes to assess how it has gone.

Do most dance therapists work full-time or part-time in Australia?

I think it would be mostly part-time. I would say about three days a week, usually, if they are well-established. 

Do qualifications for dance therapists vary from country to country?

Dance therapy began in America and Europe. The pioneers over there began exploring movement as therapy after the Second World War, so the field is a great deal more developed there. There is even a Masters program.

The professional bodies in Australia, however, are fighting to gain a higher profile and I do think that more people are becoming aware of its impact and usefulness, so the field is definitely growing.

What kinds of backgrounds do dance therapists come from, apart from professional dance?

 They come from a very wide range of backgrounds – they might be school teachers, nurses, carers, mental health nurses, midwives, social workers or even business professionals. I know some who work in business to help facilitate communication, for instance.

In what sorts of professional environments do dance therapists find themselves?

At the end of your training, you are generally encouraged to consider a number of ‘populations’ for when you leave your training, usually at least two. By that, I mean groups of potential clients who are supported by an institution, like a daycare centre or a hospital, so that you’re supported by other professionals. This is to ensure a safe environment for new therapists and their clients. You can also find dance therapists working with refugees or one-on-one with members of the general population who want to work through issues using their bodies instead of some kind of verbal therapy. Others might visit disabled people in their homes and work with them one-on-one there as well.

What are some of the common misconceptions you mentioned with regards to dance therapy?

The biggest is probably that it’s seen as just a way to entertain or pass time. Also, because dance therapy is as much about well-being as it is about movement and is not just a dance class, you get some people coming in and wondering, ‘Why aren’t people up and dancing right now?’

With aged care, carers change every day, and they may not completely understand what I do or what I need, so establishing clear boundaries is an important part of my job. I generally need to tell the carers that during the time my session is happening, our space is to be respected. For my clients, it’s their time to focus on their emotional well-being and it’s important for them not to be disturbed – people can’t just be barging in and taking them off to have their medication. So I need to be pro-active in creating a sacred space where people can be themselves and have that space respected.

How competitive is the field?

There is definitely a lot of potential for dance therapy in Australia. It takes an entrepreneurial spirit, someone with initiative to go out and offer what we do and to recognise the environments and people who would really benefit from it. You need to be able to put yourself out there.

What are the future prospects for dance therapy in Australia?

Dance therapy is not well known here and it’s often misunderstood, but it has been steadily gaining a higher profile. I know with my work, that dance therapy it’s gaining a better profile in aged care and there is a lot of potential there. Among those with disabilities I think dance therapy also has a lot of promise –and increasingly, I think, also in hospitals.

Bouthaina Mayall, prof member DTAA, Dip. Dance Movement Therapy (IDTIA), B.Sc., Hons (Biochemistry), Dip.Ed. Therapeutic Touch practitioner is based in Kew (Melbourne), and works in Surrey Hills, Thornbury and Mordiallic. Email her at bouthaina@netspace.net.au.

For additional information on dance therapy and training courses across Australia, see the Dance Therapy Association of Australia website at www.dtaa.org.au

Photos: Bouthaina Mayall working with clients. Photos courtesy of Bouthaina Mayall. 

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