TORONTO - Ever since Kelly Marie was young, she loved to dance. At four, she was learning ballet and jazz dance; by 13, she was dancing competitively.
"It became an integral part of me and it's something that I couldn't imagine living without," said Marie, 24.
"Dance was always an outlet. For me, being able to go to dance every night as a teenager helped me work through a lot of stuff that I didn't really understand."
She pursued her love for the art form through her studies, attending York University for a bachelor's degree in dance. But when she came across dance therapy in her fourth year, while looking to simply fulfil a thesis project, even she didn't foresee dance being involved in helping her deal with some mental health issues that had begun to creep in.
"I didn't come into (dance therapy) for necessarily specific therapy reasons, at first. But like anyone, they came up," she said.
At the outset, Marie had no idea what she was getting into. Little wonder, since within Canada, dance/movement therapy, or DMT, remains a niche practice in the realm of psychotherapy. The plot of "Silver Linings Playbook" it is not: premised around the integration of the body and mind, the practice believes that the health of one means the health of the other.
While dance does have natural therapeutic qualities, dance therapy is different: it deploys movement for a vast number of specific purposes. Sometimes, after an improvised dance while thinking of a particular element of a trauma, clients unpack the reasons behind a particular movement with their therapists; other times, it's used to try to better access the mind among patients with Alzheimer's.
"It's just like what's happening in the education system: every child does not have the same learning style or learning needs," said Megan English, a Toronto-based private practitioner.
"So if we think of psychotherapy as a learning process, which I think it is, it's a process of change which involves learning, then that must carry true for people engaging in therapy. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution."
Practitioners say DMT is enjoying something of a growth spurt in Canada. There are now 19 registered dance therapists in Canada, a number that is still small but has grown from 14 in three years. English says she's receiving more requests than ever to be a clinical supervisor for students, a necessary condition to complete a degree.
And in Montreal, Les Grands Ballets recently announced a new National Centre for Dance Therapy, which will undergo three first-of-their-kind pilot projects over the next few years to provide much-needed quantitative research, as well as provide the country's first homegrown graduate-level dance therapy training program.
Mary Moncrieff, a dance/movement therapist at Ottawa's Perley and Rideau Veterans' Health Centre, recently went to a conference in New York and said she couldn't remember the last time she saw so many young people attend. She credits the resurgence to a change in how society as a whole looks at the body.
"People are looking at trauma, people are looking at physical health, at awareness of the body, and there's a lot more readiness from the population to attend to the body and their life in general," she said.
"And on top of that, dance itself appears to have risen in profile. You can take it in a tacky way, like with shows like 'So You Think You Can Dance,' or how Ellen (DeGeneres) dances, or with Zumba, but the fact is, people are allowing themselves to dance."
The growth that the 60-year-old Moncrieff has seen, while slight, is particularly remarkable because of the odds stacked against dance therapy: a lack of awareness, a paucity of evidence-based research, and the lack of a coherent body to train and represent Canadian therapists.
"I think it should be in every hospital and be an everyday program, and it's not," said Andreah Barker, 36, who works in dance/movement therapy at Toronto's Baycrest Centre.
Barker, who wrote a research thesis on the history of dance therapy, said it was first conceived in the 1940s in the United States to treat non-verbal war veterans, a tradition that explains why the practice is more common there.
Most Canadian DMT therapists take their cues from the best practices and ethics of the American Dance Therapy Association, she said; there is no such regulatory body for Canadian therapists. (A Canadian association was founded in 2011, but a spokesperson said that the creation of a regulatory body is still "in the works.")
While it did gain some ground in Canada during the 1970s, according to Barker, it faded in large part because the country lacked a developmental pipeline: until the Grands Ballets program was announced, those interested in pursuing dance therapy had to go to places like the U.S. and England because there were no homegrown master's degree or diploma-granting programs.
"I think it's important to have a Canadian standard of practice," said Barker.
"I think our system is very different from the American system, and I think that people who practise here should train here rather than follow an American way of doing things."
There are also questions as to whether mainstream psychologists see dance therapy as a viable complement to more traditional therapy techniques. Dr. Martin Antony, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University, says there is a lack of evidence-based research that dance therapy really works, beyond dance's natural therapeutic qualities.
"What we'd need to see is a study that looks at traditional therapy without dance therapy and traditional therapy with dance therapy, and there is nothing. I haven't seen any studies like that," he said, citing cost as a possible reason. "My guess is that mainstream psychologists don't know a lot about it."
Christian Senechal, director of Les Grands Ballets' National Centre for Dance Therapy, agrees research is needed for credibility and funding.
"We need quantitative research to have some proof, and we are trying to build our research around that," he said. "All the projects we have now, we are trying to create quantitative data."
English said dance therapy is up against techniques that have been around longer, and that collecting data about something so organic has proven tricky.
"Cognitive behavioural therapy has been successful in creating almost a manual to deliver it, so there's something concrete that can be shown, and with dance and movement, it's often happening in the moment, so to document those things is a little bit more challenging. It's not that it's not possible, it's just more challenging."
Moncrieff agrees that the work will eventually pay off: "I often think of occupational and physical therapy and what they've gone through for so many years to prove themselves."
As for Marie, whose treatment has now shifted to more traditional therapy, she says she could not have got to where she is today without dance therapy.
"I think if I sat down or just laid down on a couch like the traditional stereotype, I don't think I would have gotten this far ... it would have been too intense," she said.
"It really improved me as a person, in a lot of really minute ways. As long as you're coming into it with an open mind, it's absolutely beneficial. And I think it's beneficial in lots of ways that someone's not going to expect."