Is dance movement therapy an effective treatment for depression? A review of the evidence

Why is this review important?

Depression affects 350 million people worldwide, impacting on quality of life, work, relationships and physical health. Medication and talking therapies are not always suitable or available. Dance movement therapy (DMT) uses bodily movements to explore and express emotions with groups or individuals. This is the first review of the effectiveness of DMT for depression and will add to the evidence base regarding depression treatments.

Who might be interested in this review?

People affected by depression.

General practitioners.

Mental health professionals.

Psychological therapists.

What questions does this review aim to answer?

Is DMT more effective than no treatment or standard care?

Is DMT more effective than talking therapies?

Is DMT more effective than medication?

Is DMT more effective than physical treatments such as dance or exercise?

How effective are different types of DMT?

Which studies were included in the review?

Databases were searched for all published and unpublished randomised controlled studies of DMT for depression up to October 2014, with participants of any age, gender or ethnicity. Three studies (147 participants) met inclusion criteria: two of adults (men and women); and one of adolescents (females only).

What does the evidence from the review tell us?

Due to the low number of studies and low quality of evidence, it was not possible to draw firm conclusions about the effectiveness of DMT for depression. It was not possible to compare DMT with medication, talking therapies, physical treatments or to compare types of DMT due to lack of available evidence. Key findings were:

Overall, there is no evidence for or against DMT as a treatment for depression. There is some evidence to suggest DMT is more effective than standard care for adults, but this was not clinically significant. DMT is no more effective than standard care for young people.

Evidence from just one study of low methodological quality suggested that drop-out rates from the DMT group were not significant, and there is no reliable effect in either direction for quality of life or self esteem. A large positive effect was observed for social functioning, but since this was from one study of low methodological quality the result is imprecise.

What should happen next?

Future studies should be of high methodological quality, comparing DMT with other treatments for depression, and include economic analyses.

Authors' conclusions: 

The low-quality evidence from three small trials with 147 participants does not allow any firm conclusions to be drawn regarding the effectiveness of DMT for depression. Larger trials of high methodological quality are needed to assess DMT for depression, with economic analyses and acceptability measures and for all age groups.

Read the full abstract...

Depression is a debilitating condition affecting more than 350 million people worldwide (WHO 2012) with a limited number of evidence-based treatments. Drug treatments may be inappropriate due to side effects and cost, and not everyone can use talking therapies.There is a need for evidence-based treatments that can be applied across cultures and with people who find it difficult to verbally articulate thoughts and feelings. Dance movement therapy (DMT) is used with people from a range of cultural and intellectual backgrounds, but effectiveness remains unclear.


To examine the effects of DMT for depression with or without standard care, compared to no treatment or standard care alone, psychological therapies, drug treatment, or other physical interventions. Also, to compare the effectiveness of different DMT approaches.

Search strategy: 

The Cochrane Depression, Anxiety and Neurosis Review Group's Specialised Register (CCDANCTR-Studies and CCDANCTR-References) and CINAHL were searched (to 2 Oct 2014) together with the World Health Organization's International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (WHO ICTRP) and The review authors also searched the Allied and Complementary Medicine Database (AMED), the Education Resources Information Center (ERIC) and Dissertation Abstracts (to August 2013), handsearched bibliographies, contacted professional associations, educational programmes and dance therapy experts worldwide.

Selection criteria: 

Inclusion criteria were: randomised controlled trials (RCTs) studying outcomes for people of any age with depression as defined by the trialist, with at least one group being DMT. DMT was defined as: participatory dance movement with clear psychotherapeutic intent, facilitated by an individual with a level of training that could be reasonably expected within the country in which the trial was conducted. For example, in the USA this would either be a trainee, or qualified and credentialed by the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA). In the UK, the therapist would either be in training with, or accredited by, the Association for Dance Movement Psychotherapy (ADMP, UK). Similar professional bodies exist in Europe, but in some countries (e.g. China) where the profession is in development, a lower level of qualification would mirror the situation some decades previously in the USA or UK. Hence, the review authors accepted a relevant professional qualification (e.g. nursing or psychodynamic therapies) plus a clear description of the treatment that would indicate its adherence to published guidelines including Levy 1992, ADMP UK 2015, Meekums 2002, and Karkou 2006.

Data collection and analysis: 

Study methodological quality was evaluated and data were extracted independently by the first two review authors using a data extraction form, the third author acting as an arbitrator.

Main results: 

Three studies totalling 147 participants (107 adults and 40 adolescents) met the inclusion criteria. Seventy-four participants took part in DMT treatment, while 73 comprised the control groups. Two studies included male and female adults with depression. One of these studies included outpatient participants; the other study was conducted with inpatients at an urban hospital. The third study reported findings with female adolescents in a middle-school setting. All included studies collected continuous data using two different depression measures: the clinician-completed Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HAM-D); and the Symptom Checklist-90-R (SCL-90-R) (self-rating scale).

Statistical heterogeneity was identified between the three studies. There was no reliable effect of DMT on depression (SMD -0.67 95% CI -1.40 to 0.05; very low quality evidence). A planned subgroup analysis indicated a positive effect in adults, across two studies, 107 participants, but this failed to meet clinical significance (SMD -7.33 95% CI -9.92 to -4.73).

One adult study reported drop-out rates, found to be non-significant with an odds ratio of 1.82 [95% CI 0.35 to 9.45]; low quality evidence. One study measured social functioning, demonstrating a large positive effect (MD -6.80 95 % CI -11.44 to -2.16; very low quality evidence), but this result was imprecise. One study showed no effect in either direction for quality of life (0.30 95% CI -0.60 to 1.20; low quality evidence) or self esteem (1.70 95% CI -2.36 to 5.76; low quality evidence).