The Dancing Dialogue:
Using the Communicative Power of Movement With Young Children

by Suzi Tortora, Ed.D., A.D.T.R., CMA

"Mommy, dance…please," begs Sean, a 10 year-old with autism, as he gleefully takes his motherʼs hands. To rock music, they shake, twirl and laugh. Dancing has become one of his favorite activities since he started therapy. As a result, he is more aware of himself and his environment and the relationship between the two. His eye contact is increasing, and his verbal interactions are more appropriate.

Observe and Identify Non-Verbal Cues

Trained as a dance therapist, I have become fascinated by the connection between mind and body. Observing childrenʼs non- verbal cues helps me uncover critical information about their physical, social-emotional, cognitive and communication skills. All nonverbal acts have the potential to be communicative.

The body and its sensations are the reference point from which non-verbal children decode experiences. Body awareness, posture, and movement style are all reflections of emotional expression. By paying attention to rhythm, tempo, muscular tension, effort and use of space, I gain insight into how children like Sean organize and experience their world.

In my work, I observe a dancing dialogue between child and adult, as well as between the child and the environment. Dance is the communication between the self and the other, drawing from the principles of sensory integration, developmental vision and language, all put to music. Expanding Individual Communication and Emotional Bonds through Movement

First I develop an awareness of a childʼs feelings and the messages behind them. Then, I determine a childʼs level and style of relating. by looking at visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, proprioceptive and vestibular sensitivities. Which senses are hyper- or hypo-reactive?

Next, I choose therapeutic techniques and activities that enhance relating and make interactions fun. My goal is to expand all aspects of abilities by engaging a child in movement, dance, play and music. Children learn how to regulate their senses through body and spatial awareness. I match a childʼs actions and then modify them. For example, running transforms into leaping, then into fast marching, and lastly, into slow marching, with a strong, focused beat. Verbally narrating actions during the interaction provides the child with symbolic verbal cues that label and follow the experience.

When following a childʼs lead, I watch for fragmentation, disorganization and chaotic behavior. If our dancing dialogue does not include mutual, sharing movements, affective reactions, and expressivity, then I must look for new avenues with which to connect to a child. Elements to Include in Group Movement Sessions

Groups help develop a sense of self and others by increasing body awareness and control. The improvisational nature of group sessions supports free expression, while, at the same time, encouraging greater social relatedness. The following elements, which encourage social interactions, can be adapted to any dance or movement session:

As children gain better body awareness and control they are ready for challenges.

[Suzi Tortora is a dance movement psychotherapist with practices in New York City and Cold Spring, NY. Her new book, The Dancing Dialogue: Using The Communicative Power Of Movement With Young ChildrenThe Dancing Dialogue: Using the Communicative Power of Movement with Young Children is available from DDR. Suzi will present an interactive workshop on this subject on November 7, 005 in Hasting-on-Hudson, NY. For her classes and other talks see her schedule at]

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 11, Number 1 - Fall, 2005]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.

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