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The healing power of dance

Researchers explore trauma treatment through a different kind of therapy
By: Dana Yates
January 26, 2017
From left: Jennifer Lapum and Jennifer Martin

Photo: Professors Jennifer Lapum, left, and Jennifer Martin will study how a dance-based intervention reduces symptoms among youth who have experienced trauma. Photo credit: Nicole Hack.

People dance for many reasons. Some, for example, see it as a way to celebrate while others view it as a type of exercise. Two Ryerson researchers, however, are curious to find out if dance can serve an even bigger purpose: helping young people to heal from traumatic experiences.

Jennifer Lapum, a professor in the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, and Jennifer Martin, a professor in the School of Child and Youth Care (CYC), have partnered with Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre, and Unity, an arts-based organization for young people, to launch the five-year research project Sole Expression. With more than $1.1 million in funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada, and a sub-grant of almost $262,000 to Ryerson, the study will determine if and how a dance-based intervention reduces trauma-related symptoms, such as anxiety and impulsivity, among youth who have experienced child abuse or have been exposed to family violence.

In particular, the research will focus on youth who are on a wait-list – often for up to a year – to receive psychological services. Meanwhile, those young people need immediate mental health support and developmentally appropriate interventions to cope with the emotional effects of trauma, says Martin.

When treatment becomes available, it usually involves cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). A widely used treatment for trauma, CBT has people talk extensively about their traumatic experiences. It's believed this helps diminish feelings of anxiety.

"CBT is considered the gold standard in treatment, but sometimes talk therapy isn't enough," says Martin. "CBT is very much about the mind and many young people who have experienced trauma feel disconnected from their bodies."

For that reason, Lapum says, the movement-based therapy of dancing could provide a viable, and perhaps more effective, alternative to CBT for some youth.

"Trauma is held in the body, and dancing can be a safe way to deal with trauma and develop trust with your body," says Lapum, who specializes in arts-based research.

Sole Expression, which is currently recruiting participants, will begin next month with a pilot dance program in Toronto. Later, a larger intervention will run in Toronto and Orillia.

Accompanied by a trauma therapist and led by Unity dance instructors who have received training in how to deal with trauma, approximately 14 to 16 young people per group will learn hip-hop choreography. Then, instead of talking about their traumatic experiences during the 10-week program, the youth will use mindfulness and movement to regulate their emotions, integrate with other participants and develop a sense of community and empowerment.

Through interviews with program participants and surveys and focus groups with dance-intervention facilitators, Lapum and Martin will determine if the program decreased the young people's symptoms of trauma. Along the way, the researchers will receive help from several Ryerson community members: research co-ordinators Sara Cowan, Psychology MA ’12 and PhD ’16, and Emmie Henderson-Dekort, a master's student in CYC; and Sole Expression advisory committee members Joe Blake, a master's student in CYC, and Cassandra Myers, an undergraduate student in CYC.

"This intervention may reduce symptoms of trauma for young people on wait-lists," says Martin. "We're also interested to see if it eliminates the need for future treatment."