Can Dance be a Therapy for Bipolar Disorder?

Can Dance be a Therapy for Bipolar Disorder?

Hey guys! Before we get into the meaty meat of this post I have an announcement: The Dance Training Project has moved! I now have my own private space within a wellness center in the beautiful St. Lawrence Market area of downtown Toronto.

This move was spurred when an opportunity to take over a new space came up, and then became necessary when my former gym closed unexpectedly. But as the saying goes, doors close and windows open, and all things being flux, one has no choice but to go with the flow.

I have only this photo to show you so far, and it is of poor quality.

Humble beginnings of the new home of the DTP 🙂

But as you can see, there is lots of room for all sorts of activities. Rolling around on the floor. Deadlifting. I’m freakin’ stoked.

While it may not be the fanciest, I am happy with my new lifting dungeon. No longer do I share space with the roidy meatheads of my former facility. Although I will miss the fabulous entertainment people.

Not only am I excited to have this new location, but it is on the same block as the Thai massage center I also practice at, so my life has been made infinitely easier.

Anyway, enough about me. Let’s move on to the topic of today: Dance therapy.

Movement- It’s good for the body, it’s good for the brain. And dance, being a multisensory physical activity, is often referred to as one of the best activities to keep the brain sharp as we age.

Too, dance can be therapeutic for those with autism and other mental afflictions like chronic depression, anxiety and as we will hear more about today, bipolar disorder.

Meet Sam Kutner.

Sam feels strongly that rather than prescribe sedatives and anti-depressants, dance can be used to help treat mental illness .

I can attest that dance, indeed acted as a form of therapy when I first started. It was my escape from real life. It is unfortunate that dance eventually became the cause of some mental health issues, but before all the hard times dance took me to my happy place.

When Sam reached out with her story of institutionalization with severe bipolar and how dance became her ticket out, I knew I should share her experience. I’m sure many of you can relate, or know someone who can relate.

This will also be of interest to anyone who digs the exciting field of dance therapy. Before prescribing drugs that can turn people into zombies, what if doctors prescribed dance?

I’ll let Sam take it from here.

Dancing on Planet Trillaphon: Living a Creative Life with Bipolar Disorder

At fifteen I was ripped from my world of honors classes and competitive dancing and ushered into a mental hospital, where I stayed for roughly a month.

I could tell you how traumatic the experience of being in the “quiet room” on an involuntary psychiatric hold was for me.

I could tell you how I slept through the first week because the staff felt I needed to be sedated after knocking down three orderlies in a panic the night I was admitted.

I could also tell you how many times I tried and failed to convince the head psychiatrist that I was “ok” to go home.

But my intention is not to write about these things that people with mental illness have to suffer through, rather, what actually pulled me out from it and gave me a reason to keep going.

The staff at the instution, after realizing that a 108 pound dancer was not really a threat to them or the other patients, eventually let me join in group therapy . That is when things started to change.

Our entire group was made up entirely of teenagers who marched awkwardly into the rec room. Some were addicted to drugs and dealing with the psychosis it caused. Some, like me were “blessed” genetically with mental illness. Others had more abusive situations that brought them there and made my issues feel very small in comparison.

No one else was paying attention to the boom box in the corner, but I rushed to turn it on.

A million times in my living room at home I would to turn on music and just dance. Despite the change of setting, dancing there, with my awkward group of institutionalized teenagers, wasn’t much different.

It’s not like I had much to lose, or needed to worry about how I would be perceived. That ship had already sailed. The worst thing I could do, I reasoned, was confirm that I belonged there.

The other patients must have seen how much I was enjoying myself dancing, so I let them know I wanted them to join in too.

Despite everything we were suffering through we all danced like it was the most natural thing to do. The human body was built for movement. In that way, it was the most natural thing we could do inside the rec room of a psychiatric hospital.

I danced until I couldn’t dance anymore and sat down next to a nurse. She had been watching the entire show. She looked into my eyes, a thing most of the staff tended to avoid, and she said, “No matter what happens, never stop dancing.”

She knew before I did that dance would be my way out.

Dance has always been my therapy, a way to ride the waves of mania and depression. It has helped me see that no matter how strongly the depression comes, it will eventually pass.

Dance helped me return to health and fitness after the medications I was prescribed caused my weight to shoot up to 180 pounds.

When two more hospitalizations threatened to derail all of the progress I made, when I lost jobs, when I felt like I could never succeed in school again, I used dance to refocus and alleviate the stigma I felt hiding my illness from others.

I became a well-recognized member in my local dance communities. I even got a review published in a national belly dance magazine.

I  became friends with fellow dancers who also struggled with mental illness. I finally started opening up about my illness with a few understanding dancers.

As I revise this, preparing to share it with the internet, my boyfriend is cautioning me against it. He knows the shame others can make people like me feel, but in a way he is contributing to it. Publishing anything opens you up to scrutiny. I get that.

But that being said, I would rather be scrutinized for my own beliefs than subject to the ill-informed opinions of others.

I wish I could present a success story the way that they do in weight loss commercials. I cannot. What I can say is that every day you can cultivate a series of small wins for yourself, depending on the tools you have and the willingness to seek help.

I just received my Associates Degree of Arts and plan to continue on to my Bachelors in Psychology. When I am not dancing, I am writing. It is something I plan to expand into a blog for fellow artists and individuals struggling with mental illness. My ultimate goal is to earn my Masters in Dance Therapy and allow others to find help the way I did. I hope that anyone reading this can find their passion in life, in writing, in sports, in any discipline that gives them focus and calm.

There are two final things I would like you to know if you struggle with bipolar disorder. You are part of a select group of gifted individuals who, despite their suffering, have made positive, lasting contributions to the world through arts, sciences and literature. Most importantly, you are not alone.


Samantha Kutner received her Associate Degree of Arts from The College of Southern Nevada.

She is a freelance writer and dancer who has lived with bipolar disorder since a diagnosis in 2005. She hopes to become a positive voice in the fight against the stigma of mental illness.