Dance is a form of catharsis for people. Many cultures have dance-forms where people dance till they reach a point of exhaustion and yet they feel energised after the experience. There is a rationale for this—while dancing, the body’s natural urge to move is satisfied, endorphins are released creating the sense of wellbeing, blood circulation gets enhanced, the body releases toxins as it sweats, stress and tension accumulated in different body parts are released and people stop thinking… for a while at least! Most importantly, dancing serves as an outlet for expressing suppressed emotions.
Though dance was part of healing rituals in many pre-historic cultures, it was only in the 1940s that it became a distinct therapeutic modality and gradually gained acceptance in the field of mental health. Dancers used the therapy to work with various groups of people—normal as well as those with psychiatric issues.
Parallel between psychotherapy and dance therapy
The psychotherapist encourages clients to clarify workings of the mind through the verbal medium and resolve specific conflicts. In contrast, a dance therapist would use the medium of body movement to elicit self-expression from individuals. Not everyone is comfortable or articulate enough to express themselves through the verbal medium. In some cases, children who have undergone emotional or physical trauma find it less threatening to express themselves through movement or music. In other cases, adults who are totally un-communicative through words have found their expression through drama or visual art. Relationships and bonds between people are built almost instantly while people dance and interact with each other on a physical level. After a certain amount of trust is established in groups, people are actually able to open up verbally to share undisclosed feelings or thoughts.
Most therapists use creative dance as the primary approach to unchain people’s bodies from habitual movement patterns. Individual ideas, feelings, images, incidents or stories are expressed through movements created by participants themselves. Using creative strategies, therapists encourage individuals to use movements that feel natural and fall easy on their bodies. Through this experience, people begin to find an authentic movement language to express themselves.
Therapists use both directive and non-directive approaches to help individuals focus on and explore their personal movement vocabulary. Participants are encouraged to discover their range of motion, movement preferences, physical limits, strengths and creative abilities. As the understanding of their own body movements grows, participants also begin to explore and expand their interpersonal skills with other group members.
Is dance therapy like a dance class?
Of course not! It is not as simple as putting on music and asking people to move freely. Many folks would freeze on hearing an instruction like that! Therefore therapists plan their sessions with care and foster in individuals the ability to create a movement vocabulary bank, into which they can dip and choose whatever is suitable. With this vocabulary, each person shapes his/her own body language to achieve self-expression. To begin a session for example, the therapist might ask participants to express with their bodies how they feel this particular day. If there are 10 people, they would come up with 10 varied postures or movements indicative of their mood. Through this simple activity, the therapists do not really teach participants how to move; rather they come up with ideas or suggestions to initiate movement in people.
Creative dance encourages a collaborative relationship between therapists and participants. Using the session like a laboratory, they jointly experiment and play with movement; the less conventional the idea or movement, the richer and more exciting the experience. As people freely improvise movements, intuition comes into play—the body thinks aloud, brainstorming movements that are based on certain needs or feelings of the individual. There are no judgments on whether a movement is right or wrong. In fact, movers constantly receive acknowledgment for delineating their creative ideas through movement.
What about people who find it difficult to dance?
Sessions that demand creativity automatically make people more involved with the theatre of life and its innumerable movement possibilities. Much of the source material for creative dance is derived from nature, the streets or marketplaces. For example, for adults who have trouble externalising their emotions, the therapist might make emotional expression as the theme of a session. To begin with, participants might emulate walks or body postures expressing rage or disgust they might have seen in public spaces. As they get comfortable with imitation, they might be asked to show how they would express these emotions in their own daily life.
The process of going from the imitative to the improvisational makes it easier for participants to express themselves. In a session with teenagers who are passive and withdrawn, a facilitator might use a more playful strategy to elicit movements. The group might be asked to imitate birds in motion. Many may or may not be able to do this. So the next time they see birds in flight they would observe their movements more closely. The second time round, they may have a better idea of how to incorporate unusual details of a bird’s movements into their improvisation. These playful experiences become the building blocks on which creative dance therapy evolves.
There are some people who learn dance to become performers. Many others desire to dance for themselves, in which case it does not matter if a dance appears aesthetic or not, whether bodies are slim and streamlined or not and if bodies can make precise lines and shapes or not. Creative dance therapy provides an introspective and expressive experience in which, rather than a choreographed product, it is the therapeutics of dance that is of primary importance.
This was first published in the May 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.