How Erica Hornthal, Dance Movement Therapist, Uses Movement to Help Cancer Patients

Erica Hornthal, a board-certified dance movement therapist and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy, is famously referred to as "the therapist that moves you." Through her unique approach, she leverages the mind-body link to assist cancer patients in their treatment journey. The correlation between mental and physical states, commonly known as the mind-body connection, is an established phenomenon. For instance, feelings of anxiety may stimulate physical actions such as pacing, while anticipation or nervousness can cause stomach discomfort. However, most mental health treatments predominantly concentrate on mental healing, seldom acknowledging the role of physical stimulation. This gap is precisely what Hornthal fills through her dance movement therapy (DMT). Despite being a niche form of psychotherapy, DMT places significant emphasis on body awareness, non-verbal communication, and elements of mindfulness within therapeutic relationships. Originating in the 1940s, dancers and choreographers first acknowledged dance's potential as an emotional expression medium. Early dance therapy variants were founded on psychodynamic therapy principles, which analyze how non-verbal actions and experiences influence individuals' mental state. In 1966, the American Dance Therapy Association developed a training program for dance movement therapists, further legitimizing the method. Today, DMT is employed to manage anxiety, depression, enhance interpersonal skills, and improve overall life quality.

In her role, Hornthal provides one-on-one, group, and family therapy in various settings. Dance movement therapy for beginners may resemble a standard talk therapy session, with clients and therapists seated across from each other in cozy chairs. “If an individual wishes to delve into the mind/body connection or already finds expression in their body, [the session] could entail moving around the studio,” elucidates Hornthal. "Perhaps we're spending the entire session seated or lying on the floor." Hornthal has recently concentrated on helping cancer patients express their emotions through dance movement therapy. Research indicates that dance movement therapy yields positive results for cancer patients. A study of breast cancer patients found dance movement therapy to enhance their vitality, improve their quality of life, and decrease physical manifestations of psychological issues. The emotional journey of undergoing or completing cancer treatment can be challenging to verbalize, making dance movement therapy especially useful for cancer patients. "There's so much the mind has to process, and a lot of it is incomprehensible," Hornthal points out. "If you have things to say but lack the words, dance movement therapy can be really beneficial." Hornthal has observed a profound impact in her preliminary work with cancer patients. "What I remember is the shift in energy in the room," she recalls. "People who were controlled began smiling. Their faces softened." Hornthal strives to bring greater bodily comfort during her sessions. "It's easy for us to concentrate on pain, whether it's emotional or physical," she asserts. To combat this, Hornthal redirects the focus towards moving the body pleasurably, introducing a warm blanket to the practice, and working with pain-free body parts. "Realizing 'not every part of me is in pain' is liberating," Hornthal says. Hornthal encourages clients to concentrate on a neutral body part and incites movement there, which gradually extends to other body parts. "Eventually, the body part that is in pain may still feel discomfort, but it's mobile," she adds. Hornthal incorporates sensory experiences by taking her practice outdoors as another means of helping patients shift focus from pain towards something more positive. Engaging with nature, breathing fresh air, and listening to the sounds of a lake or running water are ways to stimulate bodily movement. The beauty of dance movement therapy lies in its accessibility – anyone with a body can participate, according to Hornthal. She finds immense satisfaction in sharing the benefits of dance movement therapy through her work. "When I'm moving, I feel the most like myself," Hornthal confides. "If others can reach a point where they feel most like themselves by connecting with or moving their body, then I've done my job."

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