Erica Hornthal turned on classical music in a room full of people suffering from dementia and other cognitive impairments. She was an intern at an adult day center in Evanston, years ago. An elderly woman in the room looked for her ID in her purse, looked for her keys in her purse. She found both. She looked for her ID again, looked for her keys again. She found both again.
She looked for …
Hornthal instructed the folks to pretend they were holding a paintbrush. She then encouraged them to pretend-paint an image in front of them. Hands moved up and down and in circles. Hands moved across imaginary canvases. A certain woman in the room no longer was fishing for her possessions. She was busy and absorbed, creating something only she could see.
Hornthal eventually told the artists to stop “painting.” They stopped.
“I asked the woman, ‘What did you paint?’ ” Hornthal, a North Shore-based psychotherapist/dance therapist, recalls. “She described an image of a 25-year-old version of herself on a boat, looking at her reflection in the water. Her sweetheart was on the boat, too, with his arm around her. He had died. She cried. That led to a group discussion about grief and loss.
“For 30 minutes,” Hornthal adds, “the woman focused on something other than the contents in her purse.”
Hornthal, 33, is the founder and president of Chicago Dance Therapy. The Deerfield resident does not lease studio space in Northfield to teach the waltz or hip-hop dance to clients of all ages, some in their 100s. Movement is her emphasis throughout therapy sessions in the studio. Any kind of movement. Movement jumpstarts the healing process. Bodily motion helps those with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s feel empowered. Hornthal helps depressed people rediscover optimism, helps angry people rediscover the restorative power of smiling.
“Dance therapy is an alternative to psychotherapy, or talk therapy,” Hornthal says. “It’s easier, for some, to express themselves through dance, through movement. There’s a strong connection between the body and the mind. Stretching, maintaining proper posture, developing coordination … they’re parts of a dancer’s foundation. Music gets people moving. I work with a man whose mood completely changes as soon as he hears a Frank Sinatra song. He’d been upset or agitated. The song starts, and suddenly he’s relaxing, smiling, laughing. And winking. Winking at me.”
Hornthal laughs and takes a bite of the scrambled egg whites she had ordered at Walker Bros. Original Pancake House in Highland Park. Her Healthy Start Medley order also included fresh fruit and a side of wheat germ pancakes. A glass of orange juice rests northeast of her plate.
Hornthal’s path to dance therapy began in Gainesville, Florida, freshman year, at the University of Florida. The Stevenson High School graduate was a dance major, interested in psychology. The Dance in Healthcare director at UF encouraged Hornthal to look into the field of dance therapy. Hornthal returned to her dorm room and did some research, learning all about the principles and stages of dance movement therapy (DMT) and all about Marian Chace, one of the founders of dance therapy. A dance choreographer who had studied at the Washington (D.C.) School of Psychiatry, Chace was hired to work with geriatric and mentally ill patients at a facility in Maryland. Many of the patients experienced the therapeutic benefits of dance/body movement in the 1950s and ’60s. Their verbal skills improved considerably.
“The way a mind works fascinated me when I attended college,” Hornthal says, “It still fascinates me. I remember taking a psychology course, a 101 class, and thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a term for that phenomenon, for that coping mechanism.’ I knew, fairly early on, that I wanted to be in a profession dedicated to helping people.”
Hornthal transferred to the University of Illinois in 2002 after one year at UF. The 9/11 attacks had pulled her closer to home. She majored in psychology in Champaign and earned her master’s degree in dance movement therapy and counseling at Columbia College in Chicago.
Hornthal has been practicing for nine years, the last five and a half as the head and heart and soul of Chicago Dance Therapy. Her pool of clients recently swelled. Victims of bullying in school also seek her counsel. Eighty percent of communication is nonverbal, she notes. The way a middle school student with a low self-esteem walks in between classes — timidly and unevenly, eyes staring at the floor — often sends a clear message to a bully. It goes something like this: I am a prime candidate to receive your attention and your insults.
“I like to ask a victim, ‘What does confidence look like?’ ” Hornthal says. “I usually hear, ‘I don’t know.’ I then ask, ‘Who looks confident at school?’, and what I hear a lot is the name of the bully. The way a student moves during the school hours, the way a student carries himself or herself, is important. You can project confidence by the way you walk, and [victims of bullies] don’t know what that way feels like. We help them.
“Bullying today is much worse than it was 10 years ago, mostly because there are so many other ways to bully,” she adds. “There’s the cyber-bullying component, the use of social media. Bullying was done previously only in the lunchroom or on the playground.”
Some parents of victims think the issue of bullying should be handled by school administrators. Some school administrators think the issue should be handled by parents. Hornthal and her team of therapists push for awareness and prevention and a “We need to be a team” approach.
Hornthal’s team at home includes her husband, Northbrook native David, and their two-year-old daughter, Sami. The toddler might be in the running for a Tony Award nomination before her first day of kindergarten.
“She is so theatrical,” Hornthal says. “Expressive, sweet, empathic. And funny. She knows she’s funny. She likes to say, ‘I funny.’ ”
Sami’s mother is fortunate. She does not have to travel far to recharge. She does not even have to take time off from work to decompress.
“Being with clients brings me joy,” Hornthal says. “It’s relaxing; I never feel overworked. It’s therapeutic for me. I love moving with them and dancing with them. It’s rewarding to see them change and to help them become more efficient with their time and energy.”