Therapeutic Relationships: The Dance of Joining-Joining the Dance


The importance of establishing a therapeutic relationship is well known to clinicians. What is often ignored is the fundamental and essential role of body and movement patterns in forming and developing those relationships. In fact, non-verbal patterns – how we move and inhabit our bodies and world, communicate important truths about ourselves and others. They provide an essential lens for clinical work, establishing a non-verbal dance that takes place between therapists and their clients.

Why notice movement and body patterns in therapy? On a fundamental level, everyone has a body and everyone is always moving in ways that uniquely reflect and communicate all of aspect their experiences, stories and histories. In addition, non-verbal interactions are the foundation of how we understand ourselves, process our world and form relationships. Neurologically, our bodies receive and respond to non-verbal information through mirror neurons, the Vagus nerve, the Limbic system and other neurophysiological structures. From our birth, patterns of relationship we are hardwired to connect through reflexes and other early neurological patterning which promote a sense of safety, nurturance and  support (Attachment Theory and Object Relations as well as Polyvagal Theory, Neurological research).  Because these early experience are the foundation for future relationship patterns, infants who are not able to feel sufficiently safe, supported and nurtured  develop relationships more cautiously later in life.  Throughout the lifespan, the client’s movement patterns will communicate the timing and process needed to establish a therapeutic relationship.

Many therapists already intuitively incorporate this on a rudimentary level. However a more nuanced ability to work with and understand non-verbal expressions requires additional training and skill. Attuning to details such as the size or dynamic quality of the movement, the shape, and quality of how the body is held, and the phrasing of movement sequences help to establish non-verbal synchrony and promotes feelings of connection. This facilitates interpersonal rapport and trust. Alternatively, therapist non-verbal mis-attunement can impede or even block the development of therapeutic relationships

How does this look in a typical session? When clients enters my office, I immediately observe their movement patterns including the way they inhabit the space around them, and how they live in their body. I also notice their movement dynamics and the phrasing and rhythms of their movement patterns. I also notice aspects of their  movement that are potential expressions of other aspects of their history and identity. Next, I compare my observations of the client’s current to their past movement patterns, as well as my own movement patterns. Finally I modify and attune my own movements to join with the client on a non-verbal level. I am learning how to dance with them, and I join by following their lead and trying on their rhythms. With more withdrawn or cautious clients, I also use empathetic attunement to adjust to their non-verbal responses, as a way to signal my willingness to meet them where they are and follow their timing. Together we are co-creating a dance. The process is iterative and takes less time to do, than to describe. It promotes therapeutic relationships more quickly and effectively than a more verbally-focused process.

As therapists, our mirror neurons also activate our kinesthetic, proprioceptive and neuroceptive responses. Using Dance/ Movement Therapy (DMT)[1] techniques, paying our own attention to our own inner responses can  providing insight about countertransference, transference as well as the client’s experience of the world. (These techniques work best when the therapist is curious and honest rather than judgmental, about their own embodied experiences.) ‘Somatic countertransference,’ the therapist’s awareness of their own somatic responses to the client, is an important tool for becoming aware of and distinguishing between the therapists’ ‘body biases/prejudices’  and what they are sensing from their client’s experiences. ‘Kinesthetic empathy,’ the intentional embodiment or taking on of their client’s movement patterns, can provide clues to the clients experiences and their sense of the world. Both techniques provide insights into the non-verbal inter- and intrapersonal dynamics present in the session.

Finally, from a systemically lens, consciously or unconsciously, the therapist’s body, gestures and movement patterns are always part of and influencing the therapy session  Just as therapists use words intentionally and mindfully, their embodied presence – the ‘Embodied Self-of-the-Therapist’- is also an important element that can  promote therapeutic relationships.  The process is a dance and following our client’s non-verbal lead and synchronize our rhythms with theirs we promote trust and safety: Won’t you join the dance?

Barbara Nordstrom-Loeb MA, MFA, LMFT, BC-DMT, CMA, PWAssoc, SEP, WoS,  has a private practice and supervises in Minneapolis. She also teaches at UMN, received a Fulbright Scholarship to teach in Estonia, and has also taught in Lithuania, China, and South Korea. She has extensive diversity/multicultural curiosity and experience. As a therapist she focuses on the use of embodiment and creative expression for psychological, somatic, and spiritual transformation.

[1] Dance/ Movement Therapy (DMT) is  a creative arts psychotherapy that works directly with embodied experiences as well as words to achieve clinical goals.

The above article is a Letter to the Editor. Opinions expressed in the MAMFT NEWS do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Editors or of MAMFT.