Building Bridges Across Cultures in Dance/Movement Therapy: Connecting Through Indian Dance

The population in the United States continues to become increasingly diverse with the minority population rising from 30% in the year 2000 to 38% in 2019 (USA Facts, 2021). According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s population projections analysis report, the minority population is projected to rise further to 56% by 2060 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015). This also means that there is an increase in minority individuals seeking health care services that need to be more culturally sensitive and less based on traditional Western practices (Ume-Nwagbo, 2012). Particularly in the case of mental health, treatment should include culturally appropriate services that include an understanding of how mental illness is perceived by different cultures.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in every five adults in America experiences a mental illness and one in 25 adults live with a serious mental illness. In comparison to White adults (19.3%), statistics from NAMI indicate that Hispanic adults (16.3%), Black adults (18.6%), Asian adults (13.9) and American Indian/Alaska Natives (28.3%) constitute a large proportion of minority adults living with mental illness in America. Some of the critical issues that these diverse communities face in living with mental illness include less access to treatment, less likelihood to receive treatment, poor quality of care, higher levels of stigma, culturally insensitive health care system, racism, bias, homophobia or discrimination in treatment settings, language barriers, and lower rates of health insurance (NAMI, 2015). Therefore, it is essential that healthcare providers modify traditional practices to accommodate the needs of these minority individuals (Ume-Nwagbo, 2012). Additionally, there is also an urgent need to increase the number of minority health care providers who can serve the needs of minority clients (Ume-Nwagbo, 2012).

In the late 1960s the field of counseling and psychotherapy began questioning and challenging the appropriateness of traditional practices and services offered to minority clients (Sue et al., 1982). In the 1980s D. W. Sue, D. Sue, and colleagues were instrumental in developing their model of multicultural counseling competencies (MCC) (Carmichael Golonka, 2012). They defined the term cross-cultural counseling/therapy “as any counseling relationship in which two or more of the participants differ with respect to cultural background, values and lifestyle” (p.47). They reiterated that it is imperative to understand the socio-political history of minority groups within this context (Sue et al., 1982). Three fundamental characteristics of a culturally skilled counseling psychologist were identified, and these characteristics were based on competencies in three areas (Sue et al., 1982; Sue & Sue, 2016).

  • Beliefs and attitudes - awareness of one’s own biases, assumptions and preconceived notions
  • Knowledge - understanding the worldview of culturally diverse clients
  • Skills - developing appropriate and relevant therapeutic skills that are sensitive to culturally diverse clients

According to Sue and Sue (2016), developing multicultural counseling competence is a lifelong journey, and is applicable to both, students and counseling professionals from dominant and marginalized groups. They believe that it is not only imperative to understand the different worldviews of diverse clients, but it is equally important to understand one’s own biases, prejudices, and stereotypes. They also state that racial/cultural identities of both the clinician and the client within the therapeutic relationship, can either enhance or impair the therapeutic outcome.

Social justice is another key value that is taken into consideration in the areas of clinical practice, teaching, and research in the field of psychology (Torres-Harding et al., 2011). While examining the multiple ways in which social justice has been defined, Torres-Harding et. al., (2011) observed that all definitions ultimately include key components such as participation, collaboration, and empowerment. This basically means minimizing structural and social inequalities and that “society should work toward empowerment with people from disadvantaged or disempowered groups (Torres-Harding et. al., 2011). In recent years, the tripartite model of multicultural counseling competencies developed by Sue et al., (1982) has been revised by the Multicultural Counseling Competencies Revision Committee of the American Counseling Association to also include social justice competencies (Sue & Sue, 2016). Based on these revisions the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC) was developed. Counselors have since adjusted their practice to include approaches grounded in the knowledge that their clients are part of a larger ecosystem and have been historically marginalized (Ratts et al., 2016). The MSJCC has provided a framework to help counselors integrate both multicultural and social justice practices not only at the individual level, but also at a systems level that positively influence the mental health and wellbeing of their clients (Ratts et al., 2016). The MSJCC included action as a fourth competency which involved taking action by advocating for clients on an individual and community level (Ratts et al., 2016). The MSJCC competencies also hold relevance to the field of dance/movement therapy (DMT) and should be taken into consideration when working with diverse clients.

Dance/movement therapy was identified as a specialty of the counseling profession in 1999 when the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) affiliated itself with the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) (Hervey & Stuart, 2012). Just as the field of counseling was historically based on Euro-American assumptions and concepts (Sue & Sue, 2016), the field of DMT was also essentially dominated by White-European practitioners who were modern dancers and developed DMT methods around the foundations of these dance forms (Chang, 2009). The concepts and methods were developed in the context of the culture bound to a specific time and place. However, the changing landscape of society, which includes an ever-growing population of diverse individuals has forced the DMT community to change the way they provide healthcare services. Clinical settings have seen a rise in diverse client populations, which warrant increased cultural competence in the clinical practice of dance/movement therapists. Additionally, an increasing number of dance/movement therapists of color have entered the profession from around the world and are challenging some of the assumptions underlying the training and clinical practices of DMT (Hervey & Stuart, 2012).

The first step towards making DMT more inclusive and accessible to a diverse client population is self-awareness of not only one’s own but also the race, ethnicity, culture, gender and class of the other (Chang, 2009, 2016). Self-awareness of one’s own personal history and background can be developed by engaging in an exploration of one’s own movement preferences using dance as the vehicle (Chang, 2012). This process can enhance the ability of the dance therapist to engage with clients “in their entire social and cultural contexts” (Chang, 2012, p. 312). It is also imperative to understand that movements of minority clients differ to the movements of those with privilege and power (Farr, 1997). Therefore, a dance therapist needs to be culturally sensitive during assessment, analysis and interpretation of movements of minority clients (Farr, 1997). Additionally, when a dance/movement therapist works with a client whose culture is different from their own, it is important not to interpret or assign meaning to the client’s movements without understanding the cultural differences between them (Chang, 2012). Instead, the dance/movement therapist can utilize cultural knowledge and feedback from the client in relation to their assessment and diagnosis (Chang, 2012).

Given that there has been an increase in the diversity of clients and dance/movement therapists, multiple cultural configurations are possible within the therapist/client relationship. The MSJCC divides these cultural intersections into four quadrants based on the privileged and marginalized statuses of the counselor and the client (Ratts et al., 2016):

  • A privileged counselor working with marginalized clients
  • A privileged counselor working with privileged clients
  • A marginalized counselor working with privileged clients
  • A marginalized counselor working with marginalized clients

These configurations are also relevant to the therapist/client relationship in DMT. A

dance/movement therapist must consider the configuration that exists within the therapist/client relationship and must also take into consideration the four competencies - attitudes/beliefs, knowledge, skills, and action - within the configuration.

This workshop includes examples from personal experiences of the facilitator who worked as a dance movement therapist in a mental health facility within an intercultural configuration that belonged to the fourth quadrant in the MSJCC. The facilitator, a minority dance/movement therapist from India provided therapy services to a large population of marginalized clients of African American descent, in addition to clients of African, Hispanic, and South and East Asian descent. Dance is one of the oldest artistic traditions and richest representations of culture in India that traces back to 1000 B.C. By integrating the body, mind, and spirit, dancers connect with audiences through storytelling by using intricate hand gestures, movements of the eyes, head, and neck and by expressing nine emotions (navarasas). Indian dancers embody different characters and images from nature to depict narratives. This cultural knowledge and aptitude enabled the facilitator to apply her dance tradition when working with clients from diverse cultures, in a Western context. Using dance and movement as the central focus, the facilitator and her clients discovered similarities and differences of each other’s sociopolitical and cultural assumptions, biases, and values. As a result of such a cultural exchange through dance and movement, the facilitator not only expanded her own movement repertoire making her a more effective clinician, but clients also learned new ways to express that led them towards recovery and transformation.

In this workshop, participants will first gain an understanding of Indian dance tradition nuances and explore new ways of moving and expressing themselves. They will learn how Indian dance elements such as hand gestures, facial expressions, movements of the head, neck, and eyes, and the navarasas are used in storytelling. Participants will also understand the healing powers of the language of mudras or hand gestures used in Indian dance. Mudras have the capacity to enhance the flow of prana or the life-giving energy in the body that can heal physical and mental challenges and can also lead to spiritual enlightenment (Swami Saradananda, 2015).  Additionally, through a case study, participants will learn how Indian dance, specifically Bharatanatyam, became the central focus in an African American client’s trajectory of recovery from trauma. The facilitator will underscore the importance of cultural awareness, context and recognition in a therapeutic relationship, and how it forms a bedrock for subsequent therapist and client interactions.

Learning Objectives

  1. Participants will recognize what it means to be a culturally competent dance/movement therapist.

  2. Participants will increase their understanding of movement expression through a different culture and will acquire basic storytelling skills through Indian dance.

  3. Participants will discover ways to use hand gestures or Mudras for meditative practices.

Continuing Education: 3.0 ADTA, NBCC CEs 


Nalini Prakash, MA, BC-DMT, CMA, is a board-certified dance/movement therapist whose clinical experience includes working with individuals who are chronically mentally ill within the criminal justice system. Using creativity, spontaneity and sensitivity, Nalini facilitates recovery-based dance therapy groups that value and reflect cultural and ethnic diversity, empowering individuals towards positive change. A classical Indian dancer, Nalini integrates elements of Indian dance and creative movement in her work as a dance therapist and uses these tools as a vehicle to help individuals re-experience emotions in a safe and non- threatening way. Nalini has a master’s in performing arts and a master’s in dance/movement therapy. She is also a certified movement analyst and has used her skills as a dance therapist and movement analyst to reduce violence and resolve conflict, while fostering social change among a forensic population. Nalini is currently a PhD candidate within the creative arts therapies graduate program at Drexel University, Philadelphia. She is also on the advisory council of the Creative Movement Therapy Association of India (CMTAI).