Erica Hornthal of Chicago Dance Therapy: “Bring attention to your movement”

Bring attention to your movement. Taking time to notice and become aware of how you are currently moving, or not moving, is the first step. It is imperative to acknowledge where you are and create a gauge or baseline. Some examples may be: texting on my phone, chopping onions, running, or sitting at my desk. As […]

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Bring attention to your movement. Taking time to notice and become aware of how you are currently moving, or not moving, is the first step. It is imperative to acknowledge where you are and create a gauge or baseline. Some examples may be: texting on my phone, chopping onions, running, or sitting at my desk.


As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Hornthal.

Erica Hornthal, known as “The Therapist Who Moves You” is a board-certified dance/movement therapist and licensed clinical professional counselor as well as the founder and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy and creator of the Dance Therapy Advocates Summit. As a licensed talk therapist, Erica knows that words only get us so far. Whereas, if we’re willing to tap into its power, the body can take us the rest of the way as we process emotions and strengthen our mental health


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I remember being at a crossroads when it came time to choose a career. Attending my high school’s career fair, I was frustrated when the only dance-related field was “Dance Studio Owner”. I was told I could teach dance or try my hand at becoming a professional dancer, but I knew that neither were my true passion. I yearned to help people, but also loved how dance made me feel. Dancing since the age of 3, I thought that I had to choose between dance and science. What I found as a freshman in college was that I could have both! Thanks to an advisor, I was introduced to the world of dance/movement therapy; a profession and field that not only excited me, but spoke to my very soul. I declared myself a psych major and dance minor and upon graduation 4 years later found myself enrolled in graduate school for dance/movement therapy and counseling. Since finishing my coursework, writing a thesis, and completing over 3600 hours of supervised work, I decided to create my own practice and business and never looked back. A decade later I have found a niche for myself; advocating for the field I love and educating the world on how the way you move makes you who we are.

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

The most interesting story on my mind these days has to do with how I refocused my work due to the pandemic. My full caseload went completely virtual and I found myself at a loss since many of the tools and resources I use in session have a great deal to do with being in person. While we can use our bodies and its innate healing potential anywhere, I like using visuals, markers, paper, and sometimes instruments. I thought to myself, “If I never see a client in person again, how can I replicate some of these interventions, and empower my clients to do them at home?” This resulted in my first workbook; Body Awareness for Mental Health. The interesting part of this is that I pitched my workbook to an editor at an educational publishing house who ultimately offered me a contract to turn the workbook into an academic course. Additionally, the course to be released in 2022 is intended for the K-12 curriculum. It will allow educators and administrators to harness the power of body awareness for mental health not only for themselves, but to then pass it onto their students and integrate it into their classrooms. The amazing part is that this isn’t a population I focus on, but now I can share this vital information with students and schools across the world.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

I’m not sure this qualifies as a humorous mistake, but a powerful lesson, nonetheless. When I was early on in my career, I had only a business card and my relentless self promotion. I will never forget when after a presentation someone asked me for my brochure. The voice inside my head said, “You are an imposter! You don’t have a pamphlet!” The voice that came out of my mouth said, “May I send you an electronic pamphlet?” I went home and worked for 3 hours making a professional pamphlet. Not only did I pivot in the moment, but I created a new marketing tool and launched my mailing list. The lesson for me that day was never say “no.” Look at everything as an opportunity and see what you can create to manifest your dream or reality.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

While I am so grateful to my family, educators, and fellow therapists who have supported and challenged me, I have to thank the individual who introduced me to dance/movement therapy; my college advisor who recognized my passion for dance and my love for psychology. Had she not mentioned those three words, I don’t know what my career would look like today. Perhaps I would have found it on my own or eventually found a way to incorporate movement and the body into mental health as so many people are doing these days.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Practice what you preach. Don’t just tell your clients, but live by your words. Find ways to increase your awareness and listen to your body. It gives you plenty of warning signs when you are on the verge of burnout and provides the path to positive mental health.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Get out of your head and into your body. So much of work culture perpetuates the silencing and minimizing of our inherent body wisdom and knowledge. How we sit, interact, and perform on the job can contribute to and exacerbate the stress we experience. Incorporating and normalizing opportunities for movement in the workplace will support your employees, allowing them to set healthy boundaries while maintaining or even improving productivity and morale.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.

Movement is such a powerful took for improving and sustaining mental health. Here are 5 steps you can take to incorporate more movement into your life.

  1. Bring attention to your movement. Taking time to notice and become aware of how you are currently moving, or not moving, is the first step. It is imperative to acknowledge where you are and create a gauge or baseline. Some examples may be: texting on my phone, chopping onions, running, or sitting at my desk.
  2. Keep a movement journal. Writing down or documenting how you are moving; not just the frequency, but the quality and nuances of your movement, holds you accountable and highlights what areas we can improve. This would entail writing down the aforementioned examples.
  3. Challenge your movement. This involves beginning to play with our ingrained movement patterns. Ask yourself why you move a certain way and change it up. Try engaging your non-dominant hand more often, play with the different rhythms or timing of your movement.
  4. Diversify your movement. This means broadening your movement vocabulary, or the movement currently at your disposal. Try a new form of exercise, preparing your own food instead of carrying out, or simply finding ways to move more throughout your day.
  5. Practice makes habit. All of these things must be practiced and incorporated into your lifestyle. It is not temporary and not a quick fix. Set timers that remind you to think about your body and movement. Create a schedule that allows you to bring this practice into your daily life.

See the video here.

Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

All of these tips apply to anyone, regardless of age and ability. Early on in my career I worked mostly with older adults diagnosed with dementia. This is where I really started to understand the need for movement and how movement supports mental health. Retirement is a very important phase of life, a transition as you mentioned. One of the best ways to transition into different roles is through our movement. Embodying the transition that we want and living it in our bodies is a powerful way to make them come to fruition.

How about teens and pre teens? Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?

All of the above pertain to teens/tweens as well. I would recommend my Body Awareness for Mental Health Journal. The journal is all about finding ways to highlight how our physical sensations influence our mental health.

This free journal is an easy way for young adults to practice these vital tips at a young age so by the time they reach adulthood it is part of their everyday lived experience.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Move Your DNA and Movement Matters by both Katy Bowman continue to have lasting impacts on me. It was the first time I saw in print how our movement or lack thereof is changing our evolution. This gave me the encouragement to write my own book (coming out Summer 2022) that continues the discussion on how our mental health is impacted by these changes in movement.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is the Body Aware Movement. Being body aware is about looking at our own movement habits and patterns and how they impact our mental health which ultimately influence our relationships and environment. When people embrace a body aware existence, they become more resilient, compassionate, and understanding.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”- Vivian Greene

This is what I have learned keep me going through even the hardest or most uncertain times. I can stop and wait, but truthfully life goes on. Things continue to change and I can be present to it or watch opportunities pass me by. We must learn to “dance” in the storm and keep moving for that it what helps us manage the stressors that the storm brings.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

Instagram: @the.therapist.who.moves.you

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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