Writing about dance/movement therapy and educating others about our growing field is something I've always enjoyed. Although I was asked to write about my use of dance training in a "non-performance field," I want to be clear that in some circumstances, I feel there are many performance opportunities within dance/movement therapy. Although much dance/movement therapy focuses on expression of the here and now rather than expression of something rehearsed, I argue that there are many opportunities for the contrary. For the purposes of this newsletter, however, I will focus on illuminating dance/movement therapy, and discuss ways in which dance training and my therapeutic practice intersect.
The definition of Dance/Movement Therapy has evolved since the 1960s. Currently, the American Dance Therapy Association website (www.adta.org) explains, "Based on the empirically supported premise that the body, mind, and spirit are interconnected, the ADTA defines dance/movement therapy as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical, and social integration of the individual." Dance/movement therapists (DMTs) generally work with the healthy aspects of an individual, utilizing a client's strengths and unique abilities to promote growth and healing. Dance/movement therapy is practiced internationally, in a variety of settings including schools, hospitals, nursing homes, forensic facilities, rehabilitation programs, private practices and more. DMTs treat groups, families, couples, and individuals seeking treatment for psychiatric diagnoses, substance abuse, eating disorders, developmental delays and disabilities, medical conditions, histories of trauma, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and so forth. Although dance/movement therapy credentials can differ from state to state, most practicing DMTs have a Masters degree from an ADTA approved program, are registered with the ADTA (R-DMT), and later accrue supervised hours to earn their board-certification (BC-DMT). In New York, many DMTs have admirably fought to create the LCAT, which stands for Licensed Creative Arts Therapist. This credential allows DMTs to be recognized as licensed mental health practitioners, and has greatly contributed to the acceptance of the Creative Arts Therapies as an essential element in the multidisciplinary treatment approach. Furthermore, the BC-DMT and LCAT ensure that only trained professionals are able to practice dance/movement therapy. This allows consumers to ensure they are entering therapy with professionals who maintain ADTA standards as well as the code of ethics.
Having explained a bit about dance/movement therapy in general, let me now explain more about the integration of dance into my clinical work. Like many young girls, I started my dance training as a toddler, strutting my stuff in taffeta and tights. For years I studied ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, hip hop and the like. I always knew dance was a definitive part of me, but it wasn't until high school that I developed a greater understanding of my passion. Impulse Dance Center in Natick, MA provided me with an entirely new appreciation for the communicative properties of dance. Among my many amazing teachers, Karen and Nicole taught me about improvisation, rhythm, creativity and artistry. In addition to classes in modern, jazz, and tap, their Monkeyhouse company class enabled me to discover infinite possibilities. I learned my own movement preferences, learned how to observe and talk about movement, and explored the sense of touch, contact, and sharing weight. I learned to dance with spontaneity, dynamics, trust, and reflection- four key components of my work as a DMT today. Most importantly, I think, I learned to use dance as a way to relate to others.
As a dance/movement therapist, I try to help my clients experience the intrinsic healing powers of dance and movement. For some, the mere act of dancing freely with others can provide feelings of joy, acceptance, and safety. Currently, however, I use many other aspects of dance to help me facilitate as much health and growth as I can. I work in a state psychiatric hospital, primarily with patients suffering from severe mental illness. In addition to psychosis and mood disorders, many of these individuals have histories of substance abuse and trauma. For my work with these clients, I often have many objectives.
First, I try to help my clients feel alive in their bodies. Through dance, I help them expand their range of motion, recognize muscular tension, feel bodily connections, and find ways to use breath as a way to regulate their energy and emotions. By helping clients experience various qualities of movement, they are often able to experience correlated emotional experiences. By helping a client expand her capacity to experience a range of emotions, it is my hope I can help her develop a more complete sense of self. Furthermore, I believe by understanding one's own movement, a person can better understand her emotions. This can potentially help a client recognize patterns, increase her insight, and may assist in developing appropriate ways to self-soothe and cope. Of course, there is also a biological element at play here, as movement can promote the secretion of healthy hormones that physiologically help a person feel better.
Second, I use dance to encourage self-expression. Many clients are unable to express themselves verbally, but are able to do so through dance and movement. This helps those clients who are isolated feel seen and heard, even if they are unable to use words. Although DMTs often use words to clarify a movement or provide an image to support the dance, in some cases no verbalization is necessary. As Martha Graham once said, movement never lies. I find that especially in my work with trauma victims, the dance itself is much more honest and expressive than a conversation in words. Third, I use rhythmic dance to help my clients relate to one another. Rhythm usually helps my groups feel a sense of cohesion, and helps my clients emerge from the isolation of their illness. By moving in a shared rhythm, I find that my clients are able to quiet their hallucinations and suppress their pain. In general I feel rhythm assists in helping clients feel oriented, organized, and present. Fourth, I use dance to empower my clients. There are many ways to do this. For some individuals, learning a specific dance step and mastering it can provide a sense of accomplishment and pride. For someone else, being able to relish in one's own movement and perform either an improvised or rehearsed solo in the center of a group can boost self-confidence. When a client has an opportunity to teach his peers a phrase he choreographed, or can teach me about a dance genre I'm unfamiliar with, a sense of empowerment almost always ensues. This can help a client's negative symptoms dissipate, while also increase personal drive toward recovery.
Lastly, I want to explain how my dance training and knowledge of my own body help me serve my clients. My high school dance training, bachelors program, and masters program have all helped me gain a thorough understanding of what it feels like to move in my body. As a result, I'm able to adapt my posture, tension, rhythm, and movement quality with relative ease. In doing so, I'm able to use movement to help my clients feel I can relate to them. For example, very often I will mirror a client's movement, adjusting my body to reflect the essence of her movement. If I'm able to do this authentically and genuinely without mocking or copying, most clients will begin to feel me relating to them. It is my hope that this can help us develop trust, and can promote the development of our therapeutic relationship. Furthermore, my dance training and knowledge of my own body serve me when I notice an unusual physical sensation, or when I find myself moving in a way that feels foreign. Quite often, these kinds of feelings are actually informing me about my client's experience. When I think about this phenomenon, one particular story always comes to mind.
A dance/movement therapist was working with a client struggling with substance abuse, when repeatedly she found herself feeling a strong, painful burning sensation in her chest and abdomen. After trying to ignore this feeling, it finally grew unbearable. The DMT was honest with her client, and shared that she wanted to work with him but couldn't shake this intense fire in her stomach. The client then expressed to the DMT that he felt a similar fire in his stomach each and every day. The two were able to have dialogue, and ultimately developed a stronger sense of trust because of their mutually shared experience. In other words, the DMT's ability to differentiate her own sensations from her client's enabled her to recognize the valuable information. She gained a better understanding of her client, and empathized with him authentically. As a result, their therapeutic bond was strengthened. Among DMTs, this phenomenon is known as somatic countertransference. Without my training as a dancer, however, I don't believe I would have enough self-awareness to utilize somatic countertransference in my work.
Conclusively, I know I'm not alone in my belief that dance experience and training are vital in the work of a DMT. The godmother of dance/movement therapy, Marian Chace, was in fact a member of Denishawn, one of the first American modern dance companies. Although Chace strongly believed modern dance was the foundation for dance/movement therapy, today's field is full of therapists from a variety of dance backgrounds. Even in the small group of students I studied with at the Pratt Institute, our group included a ballet dancer, belly dancer, and burlesque dancer! This gives me confidence in knowing the spirit found in all dance forms truly is healing.
Why Dance Therapy
by Kelly Long