Dance heals: Newly popular therapy makes big strides with movement
We'd rather keep the thought out of our heads, but the fact is that anyone at any time can be betrayed by body, mind or both, whether the cause is illness, accident or simple old age. In that event, the little-known treatment of dance-movement therapy holds out hope to people, from cradle to grave, to live as fully as possible.
Fame and money are no defense against poor health, as "Dancing With the Stars" judge Carrie Ann Inaba learned. After seeing the effects of cancer on her mother six years ago, she became the national spokesperson for L.A.-based Drea's Dream, a dance-movement therapy (DMT) program for children with cancer and special needs.
On Tuesday, Evanston's Institute for Therapy Through the Arts confers its first-ever Lamplighter Award on Inaba for her support of DMT. And next fall, a significant three-year growth spurt will enable Evanston's 40-year-old provider of arts therapy to become independent from its parent organization, the Music Institute of Chicago. The field of dance-movement therapy in fact seems to be undergoing something of a boom, at least in Chicago. Columbia College's master's program, one of only six approved by the 50-year-old American Dance Therapy Association, drove a 33 percent jump in enrollment in the creative-arts therapies department last year — the largest growth of any college department, according its chair, Susan Imus.
With the observation that "war changes medicine," Imus notes that DMT got its start in the 1940s, when St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., invited dancer Marian Chace to work with traumatized World War II veterans there. That was before the advent of antipsychotic drugs, so the benefits of DMT alone were obvious, Imus says. Claiming the therapy's scientific basis, she says clinical studies have measured "how dance changes your biochemistry."
But it's a big jump from the science lab to a DMT session for brain-injured clients at Chicago's Anixter Center: Students of all ages, abandoning wheelchair, walker, or cane, each dance in their own way and — remarkably — in time with the music, which ranges from perky electronica to down-home fiddle tunes. A man with a big scar across his head worms his way, hips waggling, between another man and a woman, who are dancing face-to-face, if not cheek-to-cheek.
Still, this isn't a nightclub, or a dance class. Though dance-movement therapist Lisa Goldman does give verbal instructions, the aim isn't aesthetic but therapeutic. Trying to get participants out of their vertical planes, for instance, or create more diagonals with their bodies is intended to "heal the brain," she says.
Some comply with her directions, some don't. And in the talkback after the session, Goldman focuses on the difference between being on-task and off-task.
That kind of verbalization, Imus says, is part of what defines DMT, which aims for "coherency between nonverbal and verbal communication." Significantly, M.A. candidates at Columbia take numerous psychology courses, and their degrees are in DMT and counseling.
DMT can be hard to define, especially since its wide-ranging methods and goals overlap with those of other movement practices aimed at improving quality of life: physical therapy, yoga, the body-language training sometimes given to executives and job seekers. Plain old recreational dance can enhance mood and physical functioning, and classes can be tailored to special-needs populations: Hubbard Street has held adaptive-dance classes for Parkinson's patients since 2008, and started its Autism Project, for kids 5-14, last year.
But those are not DMT. While it may share some methods or aims with other movement practices, with DMT the goal is nothing less than reconfiguring the brain through neural repatterning.
The DMT group class I observed — Goldman offers two such sessions weekly at Anixter, which provides a huge number of services to people with various disabilities — is a case in point. A 1994 graduate of the M.A. program at Columbia, Goldman has directed Anixter's New Focus brain-injury program since 2003. And she believes DMT is perfect for such clients.
Assuming a body-mind connection, DMT posits that a larger movement vocabulary makes the client more capable and flexible not only physically but mentally and emotionally. So, using Rudolf Laban's system of movement analysis, DMT explicitly aims to grow clients' movement vocabularies, enabling them to take the body in all three dimensions at once, for example, and to increase movement's "flow," or "goingness."
DMT is beneficial to brain-injured clients in other, less tangible ways as well. Aphasia is common, Goldman says, and "when you don't have words, being able to express yourself and communicate with others through movement is a relief."
DMT can also provide "a spiritual experience," she says. "These people have survived — some have died and were resuscitated. Then the question is, 'OK, I survived, but I have all these challenges. What is the meaning and purpose of my life?' DMT provides an outlet for that, and it's a way to connect with other people who survived. That interpersonal connection is in and of itself brain candy: It affects the brain chemically and can create neurological repatterning."
One of New Focus' biggest success stories belongs to a man who suffered a stroke at 41. Afterward, despite having "used the computer up, down, all the way around for his work," Goldman says, he no longer even knew how to turn one on. After months of struggle ("he worked so hard!" she adds), he broke out of his movement prison dramatically one day by launching into a chair-bound jazz layout. (Goldman demonstrates, leaning back in a complex, flowing motion in three directions, arms and legs thrown out.)
Eventually Anixter hired the man to teach computer classes. And though right after the stroke his marriage "struggled," Goldman says, the family got back on track and survived.
Nancy Toncy, who has a 2003 Columbia College master's, is the clinical supervisor of a Rogers Park program for victims of domestic violence, Between Friends. When hired five and a half years ago, she introduced DMT to the agency, where she counsels English, French and Arabic speakers (she's originally from Egypt).
Body language and self-image are hugely important in this field. "I let the client know that we're going to pay attention to how their bodies experienced the abuse — a first step in recognizing that your body actually matters," Toncy says.
When she first meets clients, Toncy looks for the physical effects of habitual violence. "Someone constantly worried for their safety will be adjusting in their chair, trying to find a stable base," she explains. "If someone is predominantly depressed, I might see a collapsed posture, slouched shoulders, shallow breath." Using a "body-up" approach, she empowers the person partly by adjusting posture.
Physically mirroring clients is also crucial. Poor self-images result from the fact that with "their partner — their mirror — the constant reflection was negative, critical," says Toncy. Mirroring clients' movement and breathing enables her to both understand their experiences from the inside out and to model with them a healthy "mutual" relationship.
For survivors of domestic abuse, Toncy says, an expanded movement vocabulary can translate into "life feeling more ordinary, experiencing life more fully." Clients have told her that "just to have the space to move and breathe, to get bigger and smaller, stronger or softer, to be and do what they want and for that to be witnessed: That is healing."
Molzahn is a freelance reporter.
Welcome! Thank you for visiting my blog space. In this place, I will share writings of my own, along with other events and musings from the world of Movement Medicine, Dance Therapy, Yoga and Shamanic Healing.