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Big Ideas: “Using Dance and Movement as Therapy” with Erica Hornthal, CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Hornthal. Erica Hornthal is a licensed clinical professional counselor and board-certified dance/movement therapist. Erica is the founder and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy, a group practice founded in 2011. […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Hornthal. Erica Hornthal is a licensed clinical professional counselor and board-certified dance/movement therapist. Erica is the founder and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy, a group practice founded in 2011. As an expert on the intersection of movement and mental health, Erica has appeared in publications, podcasts, live news, and radio including WGN, NBC, The Chicago Sun Times, The Chicago Tribune, Buzzfeed, Bustle, NBC News Better, Reader’s Digest, Prevention and as a columnist for Dance Informa Magazine, 30 Seconds, and Thrive Global. It is Erica’s mix of talk therapy and body-centered psychotherapy that earned her the nickname “The Therapist That Moves You.” In addition to seeing clients Erica is a passionate seasoned public speaker with more than 10 years experience in presenting talks and workshops at Fortune 500 companies, business organizations, women’s groups, professional associations and universities. Erica resides in Chicago’s North Shore with her husband, daughter, and 2 French Bulldogs. When she is not seeing clients, Erica can be found spending time with family, dancing as often as possible and working on her first book.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Back in high school I vividly remember career day. I eagerly looked around the room hoping to find a career in dance that sparked my interest. I remember seeing a dance studio owner sitting at a table and thought to myself that this cannot be it. Is that my only option? I have admiration and respect for dance educators and studio owners, but I knew that it was not my path. Fast forward to my freshman year in college as a declared dance major, sitting with my advisor, talking about my future as a professional dancer. I knew that wasn’t going to happen for me. I had the heart, but not the technique. So there I was again, at a crossroads. I could either become a dance educator and open a studio or I could abandon the idea that dance would be a part of my career. Then my advisor uttered the words that would change my life forever. She said, “You should look into dance therapy.” Those six words stirred intrigue, excitement, and curiosity inside me. As I went back to my dorm to research this field, I remember the feelings of validation and purpose as I read more about this surprisingly well established but rather unknown field. My fear of having to abandon dance as a career choice vanished. I was filled with hope and eagerness to combine my passion for dance and my love for helping people.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

A few years ago I was contacted by a woman in California who had read one of my blog posts for The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, a non-profit organization started by Maria Shriver to raise awareness for women’s increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. She and her business partner were looking to put on a “Dance for Minds” and wanted to know if I would be interested in giving my expertise on how dance and movement can be used to connect with our loved ones living with dementia. Weeks later I found myself video-conferencing into the event, a large intergenerational social dance party held at their studio in Los Angeles. As I was being introduced by one of the co-founders of the event I suddenly found myself talking to Maria Shriver herself. I remember her asking me some questions and then she said, “I am so proud of this young woman.” Me? I was floored! I kept my cool on the conference, but was screaming on the inside. It is my hope that dance therapy becomes a household term and I felt like this was the beginning of making that happen.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change the World”?

DANCE/MOVEMENT THERAPY. Dance/movement therapy is a psychotherapy that uses movement to assess, observe, and intervene in the therapeutic relationship. As a field it has been around since the late 1940’s when Marian Chace, a dancer and choreographer was asked to facilitate dance and movement for the inpatient psychiatric unit at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. It was there that dance was used as communication for people who were non-verbal and ultimately as a catalyst for improved mental health and behavioral transformation. Dance as a means of expression is as old as time. Dance as therapy is more widespread and it doesn’t take a Nobel Prize winner to see that dance has physical and emotional benefits for everyone. However, dance/movement therapy is a “new” way of treating mental health. When you consider that 80% of our communication is non-verbal it seems vital that the body be incorporated into psychological evaluations and interventions. The body must be acknowledged in the therapeutic process for people to see lasting changes and to embrace a new paradigm in mental health.

How do you think this will change the world?

Research has shown that being more connected to our bodies increases empathy, authenticity, and self-awareness. The state of mental health in our world is suffering. As a society we are more stressed out, overwhelmed, overworked, unaware, and disembodied than I believe ever before. There is a global epidemic in terms of a mind-body disconnect. We are so disconnected from our bodies that we instinctually turn to pills for a quick fix or an escape rather than listening to our bodies and hearing what it needs. Relearning (because we all knew how to do this when were born, but have forgotten along the way) to listen to our bodies and utilize the mind-body connection will make for a more peaceful society where our future generations do not have to fear for their lives in a crowded mall or worse in a place of education.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

No. There are no drawbacks to dance/movement therapy. Being more mindful and bodyful can only help at this point. We are so far from this today. Being more aware of our bodies and how we move in the world and in relation to others does come with one side effect: EMPATHY.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

After being in this field for a minute (compared to so many who have paved the way before me), it became evident to me that “we are how we move.” I mentioned this in several talks and presentations and it occurred to me that this is not common knowledge. Most people are completely unaware that movement comes from within and that denying your body certain ways of moving impacts mental and physical health. It is my passion to spread this knowledge and encourage people to challenge the ways they move through their lives not just on the dance floor.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

There are 3 things I can think of that are needed for widespread adoption.

1) The acknowledgment that something needs to change in how we address and treat our mental health.

2) Taking responsibility for our bodies, not just minds and how our actions impact people and the world around us.

3) Media attention and maybe Oprah Super Soul Sunday (J).

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

1) Following your purpose doesn’t make the journey any easier, but it is healthier.

When I ventured out on my own as an entrepreneur and private clinician it didn’t come with immediate financial stability or notoriety, but it came with improved mental health. The stress, anxiety, and anger I was holding dissipated. I wasn’t fighting to live a life that didn’t energize me just to make ends meet. I was free.

2) Failure is necessary, not a sign of weakness or stupidity.

Not everything is going to work out even if you are on the “right path.” Failure teaches us lessons and keeps us humble so we can continue the work we were destined for.

3) “No” isn’t the end. It is the beginning.

You are going to get a lot of “no’s” but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying. It just makes the “yes’s” that much sweeter.

4) Letting others put you in a “box” will only make it harder to get out.

I remember supervisors and mentors telling me how I should practice or that my method would never work. Staying in a certain mindset only holds us back.

5) Just because it has never been done a certain way before doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

The assumptions that we carry with us based off of what others perceive or have done can stifle our creativity, ingenuity, and productivity. Your way could be the next “big idea.”

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

There are so many resources out there that will tell you what you can do to ensure a future in your career. Make a vision board, keep a journal, think globally, etc. My only advice is to listen to your gut; listen to your body and use it as a resource. Learning to “read’ your body can be the greatest tool for success, happiness, and longevity in your career and in life.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

I would create a foundation that makes creative arts therapies (dance therapy, art therapy, drama therapy, and music therapy) accessible to anyone who needs it. The future of therapy is more than just talking and yet the resources are so scarce.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

The first philosophy that got me through graduate school was “fake it ’til you make it.” I know that this leaves a bad taste in many people’s mouths, but this helped me get over the imposter syndrome that plagued my mind. I had to go through the motions to get out of my own head until I found the confidence in myself to face my fear of failure.

The second philosophy that I live by is “move your body to move your mind.” When we are stuck in life, our career or our mindset it is imperative that we move. Movement means breathing, walking, posturing, gesturing, not just exercising. And we have to do it mindfully, not while texting or tweeting. Take the time to notice how your body moves or doesn’t move and increase your awareness. Your body and mind will thank you.

Lastly, I repeat “you are how you move.” Challenge the ways your body has been conditioned to move. It can make all the difference in your perspective and well-being.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

The “success habits” that I find most useful are: breathing, stretch breaks, and body scans. I know that I am more successful in my personal and professional life when I am taking the time to care for my mental health. This means allowing time for my body to unwind or even release whatever I may be carrying with me throughout the day. I focus on my breathing. I take stretch breaks whenever possible, especially if I am feeling stuck or need a little inspiration. And lastly, I make sure to mindfully scan from my head to my feet how I am feeling physically. Identifying tension and other sensations in the body allows for greater self-care which makes me a better therapist, mother, wife; person.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

How are you moving today? Not how are you doing, but moving. If you are unsure, less than satisfied with your answer, or think you don’t have time, then we should talk. How you move could be the difference between living your life or just going through the motions. It could also mean finding that next “big idea that might change the world.”

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can find me on Instagram: ericahornthal

Twitter: @EricaHornthal

Facebook: Erica Hornthal, Dance/Moverment Therapist, Clinical Counselor

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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