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Between Extremes: Integrating DBT with Dance/Movement Therapy for Black & White Thinking

Updated: Nov 5, 2023

In the heart of every therapeutic relationship is the essence of trust, understanding, and growth. As a dance/movement therapist, my primary goal isn't to judge or direct but to create an environment of unconditional positive regard. This term, first coined by the psychologist Carl Rogers, suggests that each person is deserving of acceptance and support, regardless of what they express or the behaviors they show. The aim is to guide the client to the point where they can hold themselves in the same light of unconditional positive regard, ultimately bridging the fragmented relationship between their mind and body. The modern zeitgeist includes this concept in theories like Shadow Work.

Mental illness, in many ways, can be perceived as a disconnection or discord between one’s mental and physical self. The interplay between our thoughts and actions, desires and reactions, can sometimes be disjointed, leading to feelings of dissonance. Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) integration seeks to harmonize this discord. By interweaving the principles of DBT with the expressive modalities of DMT, clients are provided with tools not just to cope, but to reconnect with their authentic selves.

What is DBT?

Dialectical: The term "dialectical" comes from dialectics, which is a philosophical concept rooted in the idea that change happens through the balance of opposites. In the context of DBT, it means balancing acceptance (of one's current state or feelings) with the need for change. The therapy involves recognizing and validating a patient's feelings while also working on methods to change negative behavioral patterns.

Behavior Therapy: This part of DBT is rooted in cognitive-behavioral approaches. It's about identifying negative or destructive behaviors and working on strategies to modify them.

It focuses on teaching patients skills to cope with emotional instability, improve interpersonal relationships, and be mindful and present in the moment.

Imagine stepping into a virtual therapy room, where instead of the standard chairs and desk, there's an inviting space filled with a standing desk, an invitation to be barefoot or socks, wear cozy clothing, and ambient music that immediately sets you at ease.

This space isn't just for talking; it's for feeling, moving, and expressing.

This creative setting isn't merely aesthetic; it's an integral part of the therapeutic process.

It allows clients to step out of their habitual cognitive patterns and step into a space where the body and mind can coalesce.

A peek into one of these 50-minute sessions can provide a glimpse into the transformative nature of this therapeutic approach. Names have been changed for client safety and HIPAA protection:

The therapist greets the client, Jane, with warmth as she enters the virtual room. Jane, having attended sessions for the past three months, is familiar with the setup. Today, she seems particularly ready to test her mind-body-spirit connection. Jane has been mastering her new pleasurable morning routine from 7:30-9am before going into work mode.

Without pushing her to speak, the therapist starts playing a soft rhythm tune. The familiar melody seems to act as a balm, and Jane's tense shoulders begin to relax. Sensing this, the therapist invites her to move Between Extremes, or in dance/movement therapy terminology: polarities, "Let your body sway to the music and ground into your feet, the start of your root chakra or the place to activate stability. There’s no right or wrong movement. Now try the opposite polarity, moving airy and ungrounded."

Jane slowly starts moving with her eyes closed. As the music flows, her movements become more fluid, her arms lifting and swaying, socked feet grounding into the floor. There was a child-like exploration in the airy and ungrounded place, relevé on her tip-toes.

The therapist notices the moments when Jane's movements become repetitive and indulgent, a possible reflection of her trusting the chosen autonomous movement and going deeper into the grey area. Instead of addressing it verbally, the therapist mirrors her movements, creating a non-verbal dialogue. This action reassures Jane that she is seen, understood, and not alone in her feelings.

As the session progresses, they use a mix of movement and conversation. Jane shares her deeply rooted impulse of self-sabotage, of moments when she’s her own worst enemy. Instead of delving deep into the 'why,' they explore the 'how.' How does that feeling manifest in her body? Where does she feel the tension? How can she explore it?

To address this, the therapist introduces more clear polarity directives, a holistic form of DBT training, encouraging Jane to be mindful of her feelings without judgment and finding comfort in the newness. They practice mobility polarities, spatial polarities, flexibility, and time polarities, focusing on physical sensations, anchoring her in the liminal space where freedom and liberation is reborn.

Jane is then asked to verbally integrate what had come up for her in the movement process. She shared the time polarity experience, specifically noticing how the quicker movements invited an uncontrolled and fleeting emotional feeling that was out of her typical range of expression. It became a dance of release, of curiosity, of letting go. She applied this movement as metaphor: releasing old black and white thinking while noticing the protectiveness of her old thinking patterns, and also honoring how the extreme harshness is no longer working for her life.

By the end of the session, Jane isn't just talking about her feelings; she's moved through them, physically and emotionally. The act of mindful dancing has provided her with a tangible way to process and release pent-up emotions, and the DBT skills equip her with the tools to navigate these extreme feelings outside the therapy room.

Through an integrated approach of DMT and DBT, the session transcends traditional talk therapy. It offers a holistic avenue where clients explore, understand, rewire, and reconnect the fragmented pieces of their mind-body-spirit.

By leaving judgment at the door and embracing each moment with unconditional positive regard, clients like Jane can truly learn to let go in the moment, paving the way for healing and self-acceptance in any given scenario.

Dance/movement therapy informed by DBT is not about perfect steps but about moving authentically, with each sway, twist, and turn leading one closer to trusting the body to therefore trust the mind, and gain inner harmony.

Be sure to leave a comment if this blog post resonated with you.

In health,



Chopra, D., Williamson, M., & Ford, D. (2010). The shadow effect. HarperOne.

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