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How dance can heal your mind

On International Dance Day, April 29, we talk to dance and movement therapists to find out more about their practice

Dance movement therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to improve health and well-being
Dance movement therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to improve health and well-being (Pexels)

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The Indian Association of Dance Movement Therapy (IADMT) was founded by nine internationally qualified dance and movement therapists in early 2020. All of them shared a vision of advancing the field of dance movement therapy in India, ensuring high quality of therapy services, ethical representation, and preventing malpractice while acknowledging indigenous therapeutic movement-based practices in the country.

 We chatted with some of its members to understand what dance movement therapy entails, its benefits, and the association's work.

Understanding dance movement therapy

According to the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA), dance movement therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to improve health and well-being. The practice helps address trauma, both directly and indirectly. Anshuma Kshetrapal, a founder, board member & VP of the Indian Association of Dance Movement Therapy, explains. "We use movement, art and other mediums of expression to help us express our feelings around traumatic events, express what has happened to us, and our life experiences through different modalities. The reason we may choose a particular modality is to tap into the unconscious part of the mind."

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Supriya Puri, an education committee and professional member of the IADMT, talks about dance movement therapy's role in mental health. "Mental health as a term isn't inclusive of the body per se as it delineates our physical experience from the cerebral. One of the most profound ways dance movement therapy and other body-oriented psychotherapies recalibrate the paradigm is to bridge the body-mind while bringing the depth, wisdom, and richness of our embodied narratives within the therapeutic space."

Of course, one can, and should, talk to the therapist about what they already know about the trauma of the experience. But there are things that one may not be aware of as it may be deep-seated trauma and feelings. "You may feel like you've talked about it so often, but that topic still makes you uncomfortable. You might be holding it in the body, or it may be coming up for you in different areas of your life," she says. She adds that the best way to help someone express that part of the trauma that cannot be discussed and is not consciously accessible to them is by delving into pre-verbal unconscious processes. Kshetrapal goes on to explain what pre-verbal communication may look like. "We can express ourselves in multiple other ways besides talking. But we forget those ways of expression as we grow up. Dance movement therapy is a way of returning to an expression that is very natural to us and our bodies - through dance, movement, breath, metaphor, etc."

Nishi Joshi, another board member of the IADMT, believes that the use of dance and movement has been part of the therapeutic community for several years. Dance movement therapy, in her opinion, is now expanding its ground & its presence, as an ethical and informed modality, with growing professional associations such as IADMT, and CMTAI, among others. Reputed institutions also offer professional courses. "Dance Movement is becoming more visible and understood. It's certainly growing slowly but steadily," she believes. She quotes dance movement therapist Marian Chace, who once said that movement was the medium in which we live our lives, and adds. "Using movement or dance, which is deeply rooted in our culture, is a powerful tool that allows us to work beyond words and verbal expression."

The mechanics of the therapy

The process in dance movement therapy plays out similarly to a regular therapy process. The difference is that dance movement therapists watch your micro-expressions, read body language, and perhaps are a little more suggestive. As Kshetrapal puts it, "We may observe things like, "Oh, I see that you're carrying some tension in your shoulders. Do you want to release that? Do you want to breathe a little?" And by doing this, the individual becomes a little more aware of their body. It is about bringing awareness to the whole individual, not just the mind." The therapeutic journey starts with small things - the therapist will not attach meaning to any movement, and they work with your movement language. Kshetrapal explains, "So when a client comes in, I take the time to understand their movement language and how they express themselves, why they might have picked up certain habits and ways of expressing themselves, are they suppressing certain emotions, and how they're showing up in your body. And then, I build up their expression and movement language to help them facilitate more expression. Ultimately, I identify what the client is comfortable with. For instance, I may be a movement-based therapist, but if you're more into art, I will align my modality to keep ending our sessions in the artwork so that one constantly feels comfortable expressing themselves. Or if one's more interested in talking, I will do 15 mins or so of breathwork, and then we can dive into talk therapy." She clarifies that art therapists are also skilled in talk therapy as we have a psychodynamic lens toward therapy.

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Establishing The IADMT

Dance therapy has always existed in India in the form of rituals and celebrations. Still, it got formalised about 30 years ago through a few individuals who came back from their overseas training, started setting up their practice and conducting courses. However, it started gaining momentum only recently. Kshetrapal recalls how the IADMT was established. "IADMT came into the picture in 2019 when critical masses were already reached. We started meeting each other at conferences. We had been feeling isolated and alone and felt the need to network and grow the field ethically and in liaison with government agencies and media. We were working individually, but we couldn't reach larger goals. We started as a collective of people and gradually realised that we needed to form a committee and do target work, not over-arching work."

Today, the IADMT, which is 60 members strong, works on everything ranging from licensure, ethical conduct of therapists in India, education, and training. In Kshetrapal's words, the larger goal is to do outreach and form a community of people. Joshi says that the IADMT has been a growing community of professionals using movement and dance as a modality or framework for mental health practitioners. "It's growing because it's giving us all a sense of community & ground to connect with & be part of," she interjects. 

The  IADMT has three types of members, which include facilitators who work in schools, colleges, prisons, corporates and do outreach work for the community, practitioners who do subclinical and neuro clinical work by conducting support groups, work with children, women, etc. and therapists who are trained in doing all kinds of work, both clinical and subclinical. While the association has only student and allied members, they will soon be opening up membership for research and organisations as well. In terms of work with educational institutes, Kshetrapal shares, "We're reaching out to institutes and universities interested in offering training. And we're trying to align with them in a way that when they develop the curriculum, it is done with people who are professionally qualified. Often, this profession is taken lightly, and when that happens, the client ends up suffering. We want training to be standardised across the country, and we want professionals to offer training."

Benefits Of Dance Movement Therapy

Courtesy Anushma Kshetrapal

It helps you express unconscious aspects of yourself

It helps build body memory by finding ways to access trauma and heal yourself

It helps reach a point where you can reflect on your emotions instead of feeling threatened by them

It makes emotions easier to manage and handle

It allows you to be objective and insightful about your emotions and feelings

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist






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