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Using the Body to Heal the Mind


Our movements speak—often louder than our words. Our bodies hold our lives’ experiences and memories, and a gesture or posture can betray grief, happiness, tension, pain, joy, desire, enthusiasm, or fear—despite our verbal denials. At every moment, our mind-state is stored in the body and expressed through its movements: This is the basis for the therapeutic modality known as Dance Movement Therapy.

By: Micki Leventhal / Photography by: Erika Dufour

Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) has its roots in the work of dancer Marian Chace. In the 1930s, Chace began using dance as a mode of expressive therapy in non-clinical settings. By the 1950s, her pioneering work had become the subject of serious study at the Washington School of Psychiatry.

In 1966, the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) was formed to promote the practice and ensure the professionalism of DMT, a creative arts therapy that is grounded in a non-dualistic view of the mind/body relationship. Dance Movement Therapy was established as a recognized professional discipline.

Today, the acknowledgment of the integration of mind and body is becoming increasingly common within the practice of Western medicine, and the benefit of alternative or complementary therapies is gaining widespread acceptance. Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example—one of the pioneering proponents of the mind/body relationship to wellness and healing—was once considered “crunchy” and decidedly fringe. He now has a faculty appointment at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Susan Imus, chair of Columbia’s graduate department of Dance Movement Therapy and Counseling (DMT&C), says that DMT assists people in learning to dis-identify with the negative aspects of the body and identify with the positive aspects. “Western medicine is beginning to accept a holistic approach to healing, such as that used in DMT. This moves away from the old medical model, which focuses on symptoms.

“Trauma, whether emotional or physical, is stored in the preverbal centers of the brain,” explains Imus, whose clinical specialty is working with clients with chronic pain. “Psychobiologists are studying and proving the efficacy of nonverbal methods of communication to treat trauma.

In fact, the field of psychotherapy has recently added a new concentration in body psychotherapy. This method employs some of the techniques of DMT, but leaves out the creative process. In Dance Movement Therapy the work is most often initiated by the client; movement is elicited from inside rather than imposed from outside. We create a framework for the client to explore through movement whatever issues surface. Movement is both the assessment and the intervention tool.”

But how does DMT facilitate discovery and change in a client—a client who may be an autistic child, an anorexic adult, an Alzheimer’s patient, an individual struggling with addiction or managing chronic physical pain, a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or any of the rest of us with our childhood scars and workplace wounds?

photography by Erika Dufour / © 2008

The DMT Session

In a DMT session, the therapist acts as a mirror for the client, using a technique called empathetic reflection. According to practitioners, this experience of empathy and “witnessing” on a nonverbal body level can, in and of itself, be a profound healing experience. In addition, movement helps the individual to let go of the mind’s struggle with past and future and drop into the present moment where healing can occur.

Practitioners of Dance Movement Therapy assure me that a DMT session is different with each client population or individual, there is no script. Movement may be suggested, guided, or unguided. Music may be used, or not. The therapist may invite or initiate some verbal interaction. It all depends on the client. So, then, what might a session look like, feel like? What are the mechanics of DMT? I decide to find out.

I take myself, my stresses, my garden-variety neuroses, and my particular family dysfunctions to the Fine Arts Building, a few blocks north of Columbia’s main campus, where Gina Demos, ADTR (Academy of Dance Therapists Registered), has her office/studio. Gina, who has been recommended by a number of faculty and graduates of Columbia’s DMT&C program, knows that I am researching an article, but that I also have a serious interest in my subject, as well as a background in movement (I’ve taken dance classes in various forms throughout my life, and have taught yoga for several years). We will spend two hours together, approaching the session not as a journalistic interview, but as a first-hand, full-out DMT experience.

We begin by talking through some of my personal issues and goals. At each step in the process Gina “checks in,” asking if I am comfortable with a suggestion or ready to go on to another sequence in our exploration.

Gina starts with a guided mediation that helps me ground myself in my body and identify my emotional/energy centers. I choose a particular issue I want to work on and Gina guides me with verbal cues and encouragement as I let instinct take over and flow into movement that taps into a sometimes surprising wellspring of emotions.

After about 10 minutes I naturally wind down and Gina offers a movement reflection: she will dance for me the emotions that she felt watching my dance. This is an experience of witnessing and mirroring, and it is very powerful to see my emotions through the canvas of another person’s empathy and body.

I do two more explorations—moving through hope, aspiration, and joy, as well as rage, pain, and grief. Then Gina subtly and gently guides me to closure and we come to stillness and talk about what happened, the release and insight it brought. Gina notes that because of my prior experiences and high comfort level with movement, we have done about six months of work in our evening together. I feel somewhat like a star pupil, but am also concerned that people understand that the DMT experience will progress at a different speed for each person, based on each individual’s needs and comfort level.

DMT at Columbia

Columbia’s DMT&C program, which had its beginnings in the early 1980s as a series of elective undergraduate classes within the Department of Dance, became an official graduate program in 1982. When Imus joined the department in 1997 the program counted about 40 graduates. Ten years later, the number of DMT&C alumni has reached more than 145. It is not one of the college’s largest departments, to be sure, but it holds a fairly unique status in the field, boasting the distinction of being one of only five master’s DMT programs in the United States that is approved by the American Dance Therapy Association.

In addition to training students to become DTRs (registered dance movement therapists), and offering a graduate Laban certificate in movement analysis, the department collaborates with Columbia’s Office of Student Life on Making Connections Workshops, a grant-funded suicide-prevention initiative. These workshops, developed and facilitated by Columbia DMT&C faculty and alumni, are also offered to community groups through the Shannon Hardy Making Connections Project, geared for junior-high and high-school-age students.

Faculty from DMT&C have also taught over the past two years at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. There they provide medical students with tools to read patients’ nonverbal cues in a course called Embodiment: A Way of Better Knowing Your Patients, clear evidence that Western medicine is indeed beginning to embrace the concept of the mind/body connection.

The Class of 2010

Columbia’s DMT&C program currently has 70 students working toward master of arts degrees, each of them engaged in a three-year course of intensive study that includes 60 hours of coursework plus 900 hours of clinical experience by way of fieldwork and internship, and a research thesis.

The 16 students who make up the new cohort will spend the next several years of their very busy lives gaining a thorough knowledge of basic therapeutic theories and the biological and social causes and conditions of mental illness. They will acquire the skills that will allow them to read the language of movement, assess and diagnose that movement, and plan treatment based on that assessment. They will complete coursework in professional ethics and research methodologies.

They will also travel on a journey of self-discovery and transformation. The group is preponderantly female, predominantly white, and mostly twenty-something. The students hail from Kentucky, Alabama, and Idaho; Chicago, Detroit, and New York City, as well as points beyond and in between. Some have arrived at this crossroads with undergraduate degrees in psychology and a life-long avocational interest in dance. Some are dancers with a few psych courses under their belts. Their paths here have been smooth or bumpy, short or long, but they all know they are in for a lot of hard work, and they all possess a dedication to the goal and a determination to succeed.

“Dance and life are inseparable,” says Ande Welling, who intended to join the Peace Corps after earning her undergraduate degree in psychology and anthropology. An injury put her Peace Corps plan on hold, but now she hopes that a career in DMT will allow her to combine her loves, bringing the joy and healing of dance and movement to others.

Growing up in Detroit, Jerica LaRayé Humphrey dreamed of moving to Chicago and studying psychology and dance at the University of Chicago. She set aside those dreams to attend Eastern Michigan University, earning her bachelor’s degree in arts management.

Out in the workforce, Jerica became involved with a man diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began researching alternative management techniques. She discovered DMT and knew she’d found the way to realize her early goals and serve others at the same time. She’s now focused on gaining the training to work with adults with emotional disorders.

Emma Barton comes to DMT with a B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; an intriguing history of living, studying, and working in places as far flung as Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur; and a solid career as a yoga therapist. “I guess my interest in DMT was birthed from my own interpersonal issues and the amazing wealth of problem-solving skills I developed through the use of movement,” she explains. Emma feels that DMT is another powerful healing tool to use in her ongoing work with substance-abuse patients.

Hailing from the Cumberland Gap area of Kentucky, Kristina Fluty earned a degree in dance at Point Park University and danced professionally in Nashville and New York, moving to Chicago in 2002 to dance with MadShak. Through this work and her teaching experiences she came to a deep understanding of the mind/body connection and the power of dance to heal and change—both herself and others. “Guiding people to self-awareness is perhaps the most important step in making the world a better place, because the peace we find in ourselves can allow us to become more compassionate toward other people,” she says. “The field of dance therapy provides a clear conduit for me to pursue these goals as an individual and concerned member of society.”

Cultural Connections

At Columbia, the students’ journey into DMT begins with Cultural Connections, a crash course in cultural sensitivity. For a week, I am offered the opportunity to step out of the role of researcher/reporter and into that of participant, joining the class as a student.

“Everyone has a culture,” asserts the instructor, Dr. Lenore Hervey, who earned her doctorate in creativity and research from Union Institute and University. “White folks do not see themselves as having a culture. Yes you do. You just have to identify which piece you live in. Before you can become culturally competent with others, you need to become culturally competent with yourself.” Under her tutelage, we explore the various cultural meanings and methods of healing, as well as our own cultural baggage, prejudices, preconceived notions, personal identities, body issues, ageism, racism, classism, sizism, sexism...

For five full days we unpack the notions and definitions of what constitutes “culture” (the shared, learned knowledge that all people in a given society hold; all that is human-made) and “ethnicity” (what we genetically or religiously inherit from our parents/family; this is also language based).

In a central exercise that extends over several sessions, we present our cultures to one another through movement: Aqueena Smith’s African dance, Karla Karpowicz’s and Alexandria D’Aurio’s Tarantellas, Kim Kaufman’s Hora, Kristina Fluty’s bluegrass hoedown, Anna O’Connell’s summer-camp rendition of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, and Sabrina Washington’s high school cheerleading. We share the movement that has shaped us and made cultural meaning for us. It is a profound experience that also serves to create a sense of family among this assortment of strangers. And importantly, it gives us the support and community we need to accomplish the very challenging capstone project for the week: a dance in the public park across the street from the college…to which we must invite the homeless citizens who spend their days in Columbia’s “front yard.”

The Capstone Project

There is significant anxiety and angst when we learn about this project that is meant to both break down some of our own boundaries and fulfill the department’s curricular commitment to Columbia’s Critical Encounters initiative—a year-long, campus-wide, in-depth exploration of the issues surrounding poverty and privilege. As the Friday event draws nearer, the students express increasing discomfort about how this “invasion” will be perceived by the target audience.

After much discussion, we decide to simply invite random individuals from the street and the park to a “dance event” at noon on Friday. We hand out flyers each day, encouraging individuals to join us and bring their friends, and we take a pass on attempting to engage these strangers in the assigned discussion of systemic causes and social constructs of poverty and privilege. We create a conceptual structure for the event and decide on movement metaphors for “the street,” “shelter,” “stepping,” and “the system,” and loosely plan how we hope the event will unfold.

But on Friday, as it has done for millennia, the act of communal dance—in the open air, beneath the sky, under the trees—proves to be greater than the concept. To the beat of Aqueena’s drum, we begin in a circle. While only one gentleman from the park joins us in the dance, several gather round to watch. When the movement, which has progressed in and out of our “choreography,” comes to an end, we all gather under the trees to talk and listen. The men talk about what they saw in the dance, how it “looked like a ritual, like Africa,” or reminded them “of home, of New Orleans.” They share the stories of their lives—of their dashed dreams, and the hopes for a better way to live that still glow inside them. Politics and city policy are certainly critiqued. Ideas on class and race, choice and responsibility, faith and belief are shared. Stereotypes are shattered. In the balance of who gives what to whom, it is clear that the students are given a gift of communication and community that far exceeds what we have granted in exchange. After all of the resistance, hesitation, and fear, this engagement is a positive and defining moment in cultural literacy education.

Next week my new friends will experience another intense session of learning and growth as they are introduced to The Body-Mind Experience in Movement. Soon they will begin their studies in psychology, counseling, and observation and assessment of movement. And I return to my role in media relations at Columbia, much richer for having met and moved with these incredible folks.

Shannon Hardy Making Connections Workshops began as a community outreach program in 2002, and came to Columbia in the fall of 2005 as part of a suicide prevention grant awarded by the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to Columbia’s Office of Student Counseling Services.

Making Connections: A Creative Approach to Suicide Prevention

While the Columbia community has not experienced a suicide, the national statistics on youth suicide reveal a serious trend. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide was the third leading cause of death among youths and young adults aged 10 to 24 in the United States generally, accounting for 4,599 deaths in 2004. While the period from 1990 to 2003 showed a significant overall decline, 2003-2004 experienced a sharp eight-percent increase. In 2005, 16.9 percent of U.S. high school students reported that they had seriously considered suicide during the previous year, and eight percent reported that they had actually attempted suicide one or more times during the same period.

Among young people attending college, suicide is the second leading cause of death, and in offering funding for campus suicide-prevention programs, the federal government recognized it as a national crisis.

In typical Columbia fashion, those involved with the suicide-prevention project sought a creative approach. Student Counseling Services worked with the DMT&C department to develop a program component that would adapt the successful work DMT faculty had been doing in the community (through the Shannon Hardy Making Connections project, created by DMT&C chair Susan Imus) for use in a college environment. Based on this innovative proposal, SAMHSA awarded Columbia a three-year grant and the Columbia Making Connections project was off and running.

Under the guidance of project director and DMT&C graduate Shannon Lengerich (M.A. ’01, ADTR, LCPC, GLCMA), dance movement therapists conduct Making Connections workshops that are experiential in nature. In this way, they have taught more than 400 people to recognize the nonverbal language that constitutes clear warning signs of psychological distress or suicide warning symptoms. They have also taught participants important verbal and nonverbal communication skills, and protocol for appropriate intervention and referral to Columbia’s Student Counseling Services.

In more than 40 workshops conducted through Residence Life, Conaway Achievement Project, the Advising Center, and several student organizations, as well as faculty and staff in the radio, marketing/communications, and fiction writing departments, DMTs have trained over 400 members of the college community. They will continue to reach out to academic departments to offer the training to faculty, whose daily contact with students could make a significant difference in timely intervention.

The DMT&C department has received recognition nationally for its innovative, body-based approach to suicide prevention. Faculty have been invited to present their work to other SAMHSA suicide prevention grantees at colleges and universities across the country.

In addition to the Making Connections experiential workshops, the program offers a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation that reviews the warning signs and risk factors as well as Columbia’s suicide prevention and response protocol.

To find out more or arrange for a workshop or presentation, contact Shannon Lengerich at 312.344.8597 or slengerich@colum.edu.

Micki Leventhal is director of media relations at Columbia College Chicago. She has taken classes in several dance forms for most of her life, has practiced yoga since 1995, and has taught yoga since 2004. Photographer Erika Dufour earned a B.A. in photography from Columbia in 1997. She maintains a studio in Chicago, and her work may be seen at www.erikadufour.com.

Comments (1)

One of the issues that face dance movement therapists is the abstract lingo...which is cultivated and only understood by a select Caucasian few... unless the individuals who become therapists hybrid the core structure and approach to accommodate the "real world."

Re: Stress
Throughout the Columbia College Community there is a great need for "movement" support groups...stress is a major issue that needs to be addressed...students who are non-dancers have sought out the Dance Center for movement courses, but find those courses too regimented and oriented toward dancers...The campus needs a stress- management/movement support option...I worked at the Writing Center from 1992-2007, as a Writing Consultant...a dancer in a writer's world. The student tutors who are writers are very successful students who have decided to not only excel in their majors, but to help others during their stay. These people could use a stress-management movement option...I began to give them a one-hour workshop, before I left in 2007. Also, the adjunct faculty, who are over- the-top exhausted, can surely use it too...
Please consider what is going on within the Columbia College community...under your own roof...there is a lot of need...I hope I get approved!
Best regards,

Debra Levasseur-Lottman
Dancer/Choreographer/Dance Educator, Alumni 1994
Writing Consultant