“‘Experiential activity,’ I repeat in my head, feeling the sensation of a slow but strong panic begin to creep in.”
The Significance of Holding Space in Movement Therapy
It is a week before my senior spring semester begins, and I am looking over each of my course syllabi: under week two in the syllabus for Gallatin course “Creative Arts in the Helping Professions,” I read “Review Laban’s Effort Shape in Movement Analysis and the Kestenberg Developmental Movement Profile through experiential activity.” Experiential activity, I repeat in my head, feeling the sensation of a slow but strong panic begin to creep in. I recognize that this means we will have to dance—in class, in front of other people!—and after just one week of knowing my classmates! I’ve always been a writer, clinging to my ability to hide behind my words: it’s never been easy for me to physically express myself in that way, and I’ve certainly never been comfortable doing so in front of a group of strangers. I spent days before class worrying about every anticipatory detail: what exactly would I have to do? Could I somehow prepare before class? How I would look? What would everyone else think? Suffice it to say, no part of me had any insight into how strangely liberating, comfortable, and even enjoyable my brief experience with dance and movement therapy would be.
In Expressive Therapies, Susan Loman states that “the primary goals [of movement therapy] include removing the obstacles people have in expressing themselves, relating to others, or accepting their bodies or selves” (68). Amidst a tight clinging to my own self-control and self-containment, I found myself entirely unprepared for a moment in class that revealed this concept to me. Only a half hour or so into class, we stood as a group in a circle, and danced together to James Brown, and although I admittedly spent the first 30 seconds or so trying to decide what I would do when my turn came along, I eventually found that I had stopped giving any regard to how others were perceiving me, or to any of my preexisting insecurities. Instead, I was fully enjoying myself. I was laughing and connecting to myself and to the people around me in a way I don’t think I’d ever quite done before. It was incredible to experience, and, in the context of the readings and lecture material, it was exciting to feel the therapeutic mechanisms at work in a personally engaging way. The joint experience of reading the material and actually participating in the exercises revealed that dance therapy heals through allowing participants to reconnect with themselves and others in a safe, open, and non-judgmental space.
Loman goes on to examine the mechanisms of this first (James Brown) experience, an exercise in developmental dance/movement therapy. This approach draws from a wide range of psychological constructs—including ideas pulled from psychodynamic, ego-psychological, Jungian, and relational models (73). The main objective is to help patients re-experience developmental phases, and with the help of the therapist, identify and address any blocks, regressions or delays. In class, we began the exercise on the floor in the dark and moved forward through a series of developmental stages, growing and developing as a group. The exercise culminated in a group dance: we stood in a circle and worked off each person’s dance move to collectively move in a fluid and allied way. For me, it was an experience that felt beyond words—something I, as a writer, am unaccustomed to. Jean Piaget posits that “learning through acting is a more elemental process than learning through language” (Britton, 268), and this exercise felt like a succinct demonstration of this concept. Detached from language, with just our bodies to interact and communicate, we were able to connect in a manner that felt stronger and more wholesome than possible through conversation. We were suddenly stripped of the limitations of words and discourse, and instead we had to connect solely through our collective physical experience. I was surprised at how easy it became for the group to connect in this way, and how it circled back to my own sense of increased awareness and comfort with my self and my body. Although the exercise was brief, it felt transformative.
We also experimented with the act of mirroring (the Chace Approach, an approach pioneered by dancer and dance therapist Marion Chace in the mid-20th century) as a therapeutic movement technique. In class, we were paired together—one of us was told to act as therapist and the other as patient. The patient was then supposed to move in a specific way, and lead their ‘therapist’ around until the therapist found a way to break down the intrapersonal barriers and form a relationship. It was uncomfortable at first; my partner and I were unsure of how to connect, and found ourselves stumbling awkwardly around the room together. But, as we continued to move, we were able to push past this awkwardness. Eventually, we discovered that for us, facing each other the whole time was much more intimate and connecting than being side by side or one in front of the other. In her article “On Being and Becoming a Therapist,” Elizabeth Irwin says, about her own experience with a patient, “I began to see what dance therapists seem to have known forever—that if I followed Jeremy into the unknown, no matter how bizarre or unsettling the experience, eventually we could join forces and work together in what began to look like an alliance” (192). Our experience seemed to match this sentiment. We were initially very aware of this sense of ‘bizarreness’—we felt very disconnected at first, and I felt uncomfortable, unsure if we were even doing the exercise correctly. But once we shared this striking moment of connection and mutual realization, the movements seemed to fall into place around us.
In Expressive Therapies, Loman describes mirroring as the “main method in initiating trusting and meaningful contact . . . a way of reflecting a deep emotional acceptance and communication” (72). Once my partner and I were able to connect, I felt a strong individual shift in my own self-perception and relation. I no longer felt uncomfortable or self-conscious—instead, I felt very secure in my actions and role in the directive. Additionally, in a study “Specific dance movement therapy interventions—Which are successful? An intervention and correlation study,” Iris Brauniger describes that, in mirroring, “the emotional repertoire of clients’ movements is empathically mirrored to establish empathic connections and to promote empathic reflection” (446). I think that this sense of mutual empathy and emotional awareness was the essential tool that allowed my partner and me to truly connect and to move forward together through the experience.
The next class, we toyed with what turned out to be the biggest challenge for me—authentic movement practice. Joan Wittig, in her article “Embodied Experience: Authentic Movement in Dance/Movement Therapy,” defines Authentic Movement as “a beautifully simple form in which the mover closes her eyes, and waits for an impulse to move; and then follows the impulse where it leads.” The concept seemed very straightforward, and yet in practice, I struggled. We were lucky to have Joan come as a guest lecturer so that we could all work through the principles experientially. We began by discussing the article, and thinking through the more abstract principles of the technique as a group. Then, we spread out on the floor, and were told to simply ‘follow our impulses’ as Joan observed us. The first time we partook in the exercise, I felt very stiff and unsure. I continuously found myself questioning my impulses and movements, unsure if I was ‘doing it right.’ This directive was challenging for me because, during the actual movement part of the exercise, our eyes were closed, which felt immediately isolating. I struggled to connect to others around me, and therefore struggled to connect to my own body. In Expressive Therapies, Loman further describes authentic movement practice as “grounded in the relationship between a mover and a witness,” (74) which is something I later found to be deeply accurate. Our conversation with Joan after the movement exercise was reinvigorating—she went around the room and spoke to each student about the experience of observing our movement. I was struck by her ability to engage with each person in the large class, individualizing and giving meaning to everyone’s experience. When Joan gave me feedback, I was surprised to find how truthfully she had been able to read my experience. She picked up on my sense of insecurity and was able to vocalize this to me in a way that made me feel understood and validated, but also very safe. As a witness, Joan’s job was to “internalize the movements and attend to personal experiences of judgment, interpretation, and projection in response to what he or she sees” (Loman, 74). Joan did so in a kind, thoughtful, and engaging way that made me feel secure and open. The second time we went through the exercise, I felt much more comfortable listening to my impulses. I was no longer second-guessing or hesitating, and was able to participate much more fully. Joan also suggests that “Authentic Movement allows one to engage in movement as an in-depth exploration of self. It is the embodied experience of self that makes it possible to explore consciousness” (Wittig, 8). This aligned well with my own experience with authentic movement: I was able to connect with another person and use that as a platform to connect with and explore my own self.
Amidst all of this, the concept I found most crucial to each exercise we did was that of the holding environment. Building a safe and open environment seemed to be the single most important factor to enabling each person in the class to fully engage, participate, and derive meaning from our actions. Dance/movement therapy became productive and healing because of the mutual awareness, empathy, and openness of those around me. This type of connection would not have been possible without the establishment of an inclusive and welcoming environment, within which we were able to engage with others. But, because we were first accepted into this type of environment, we were able to connect with others, then with ourselves.
Bräuninger, Iris. “Specific Dance Movement Therapy Interventions—Which Are Successful? An Intervention and Correlation Study.” The Arts in Psychotherapy 41 (2014). 445–457. Web.
Irwin, Elizabeth C. “On Being and Becoming A Therapist”. The Active Psychotherapies. Vol 13 pp 191-195. Ankho International Inc. 1996 Printed in USA.
Loman, Susan. “Dance/Movement Therapy.” Expressive Therapies. By Cathy A. Malchiodi. New York: Guilford, 2005. N. pag. Print.
Piaget. “The Thought and Language of Children.” Language and Learning. By James N. Britton. Coral Gables, FL: U of Miami, 1970. N. pag. Print.
Wittig, Joan. “Embodied Experience: Authentic Movement in Dance/Movement Therapy.”