How Dance and Movement Can Help Foster Identity


Movement is a vital component of life. Although it is often associated with exercise, it’s important for us to remember that movement is an overarching umbrella involving body language, non-verbal communication, gesturing, posture, and expression.  It is the first language we know and the only language we can never forget.

Movement is even more important for individuals affected by a cognitive disorder, like Alzheimer’s disease, because it can be used to foster identity, enhance communication, facilitate connection, and decrease isolation.

Dance/movement therapy, a niche psychotherapy that focuses on the use of movement for mental health, provides an individual living with Alzheimer’s the opportunity to use movement as a way to regain and even maintain a sense of self through the disease process.  Movement is used to observe, assess, and intervene in the therapeutic relationship. Through the use of non- verbal cues, body language, and movement qualities like time, rhythm, and space, the dance/movement therapist meets the Alzheimer’s patient in the moment without judgment, criticism, or expectation.

Through the observation of posture and gesture the dance/movement therapist gets to know the individual in an intimate way that acknowledges and validates. Sitting on the same level, mirroring body posture and gestures and responding to the tone and intensity of the body rather than just the words allows for the individual living with Alzheimer’s to take charge, feel connected, and regain what could be seen to others as a lost sense of self. It is important to note that the individual living with Alzheimer’s maintains his/her identity, but how it is expressed or even understood changes. Fluctuations in personality influence what others know of that individual and unfortunately cloud the perception of identity or lack thereof. By using and concentrating on a person’s movements we have no choice but to be present and in the moment with regard to that person’s wants, needs, and desires.

Movement of the body allows for movement of the mind as well. If the mind seems distant, disconnected, or confused, acknowledging or even adding movement into someone’s day can allow for reconnection, rejuvenation, even a rewiring of the brain. Movement aids in neuroplasticity, cognitive reserve, and, again, fostering and harnessing identity by using the most primitive and inherent form of communication we know: body language.

Remember that if we are living, we are moving. We are breathing, blinking, our hearts are beating, and we are able to connect to a language that everyone speaks. If we open our minds to this different way of connecting, communicating, and supporting our loved ones, we not only acknowledge identity, but we can find a way to relate and exist through the unknowns of this journey through Alzheimer’s.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Erica Hornthal, a licensed clinical counselor and board-certified dance/movement therapist, is the founder and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy.  As a psychotherapist in private practice, Erica is devoted to using movement in conjunction with traditional talk therapy to facilitate awareness, empathy, and enhanced quality of life for individuals and families affected by cognitive and movement disorders.   Erica works in various settings across the Chicago-land area including nursing homes, hospitals, day centers, and private homes.  She is extremely passionate about creating awareness and educating on the importance of movement for mental health, especially with individuals living with dementia


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