The body says what words cannot -Martha Graham
It is no secret that the past year was one of profound loss for so many in the dance community. Whether we lost long-hoped for contracts, gigs, and career opportunities, or we had to grapple with the utter anguish following the death of a friend or family member, it has been a year of grief and mourning all over the world. To state the obvious, there is no moving on from loss, only moving forward with it. So we persist in coping with grief, waking up the next day, putting one foot in front of the other, and working towards healing from trauma. For many, a therapist is a step in the right direction, allowing them to explore their pain and develop the skills to manage it. But for dancers, the hyper-developed connection between our minds and our bodies allows us to physicalize our thoughts and emotions. Why not use this ready-made connection to our advantage? Perhaps dance therapy could be a useful alternative or addition to the healing journey ahead of many of us.
Words often fail to capture the depths of pain that an individual passes through while healing from trauma, and anyone who has experienced bereavement can tell you that it is often felt in the body as well as the brain. With this in mind, dance as a form of therapy seems self-evident at times, especially to dancers who are used to using their bodies to tell stories, implementing the flick of a wrist or the arch of a spine to further the plot. Furthermore, dance is a physical activity, and the simple act of exercising will aid the brain in producing the “feel-good” neurotransmitters and hormones, endorphins and dopamine. Additionally, dance can serve as a distraction, allowing the dancer to focus on the music, the counts, the rhythm, the steps, and the technique. It can provide a mental break, allowing the dancer to focus on something outside of their own sadness and suffering. Finally, dance as a form of self-expression and creativity can aid in the production of oxytocin, another pleasure hormone, in the brain. It can provide the opportunity to physically process and express the at times overwhelming and all-consuming misery, while producing positive chemicals in the brain, making it more manageable to cope with grief on a daily basis.
With all of that being said, dance therapy is still a relatively recent phenomenon in the field of psychotherapy. Early pioneers began exploring dance as a form of therapy in the 1940s, and the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) was formally established in 1966 allowing for the expansion and establishment of Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT) and licensed dance/movement therapists in the United States. The ADTA defines DMT as the “psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual, for the purpose of improving health and well-being.” The goal is to integrate the body, mind, and spirit, and use dance as the primary mode of therapy, something dancers are already familiar with. Sessions can be done individually, as a couple, as a family, or with groups, which can be helpful for those processing grief. Some prefer and feel safer with a more private experience while others may benefit from social interaction that does not involve talking and verbalizing their loss. Dancers who choose to go down the road of utilizing formal DMT can find and work with a licensed dance/movement therapist in order to achieve their mental health goals.
While working with a dance/movement therapist may reap many benefits for a dancer, the dancer’s individual experience with dance and creativity should not be ignored as another avenue with which they can explore and manage their personal heartaches. In addition to professional counseling, dancers should be encouraged to use their gifts and talents to help themselves. It can be incredibly cathartic to improvise alone while meditating on your loss, to tell your story through choreography, or to process your rage at the unfairness of it all during a sweaty and high-energy hip hop class. There is no wrong way to move through your grief.
There is no wrong way to move through your grief.
Dance is so much more than a string of steps or an array of techniques. It is one of the oldest forms of human communication, social interaction, and art, a multifaceted form of expression that cannot be boiled down into a simple hobby. The urge to dance, express, and move is as innately human as talking, and though all people may feel the occasional pull to dance, dancers are blessed to have this skill highly developed and at their beck and call. Despite the current cultural obsession with flashy dance competition shows like So You Think You Can Dance or World of Dance, dance should not be reserved for the stage, the camera, or the polished, mirrored studio alone—it is more than one glitzy, impressive performance; it is deeper than lights and costumes, steps and enchaînements. It is a way to communicate with one another, to tell our stories, to unite with humans around the world in the universal feelings of pain and loss. It belongs to all of us and is always available for us to use in our joy and in our sorrow.
So dancers, use your gift however you see fit to aid your healing, and remember that even if dance feels like something that you classify as a job, an extracurricular, or a hobby, it can always be much more if you allow it. Though 2020 is behind us, our grief is not. We can either sit in it, or we can dance with it.