Listening to the body with dance movement therapy

Lalita Iyer | Updated on July 12, 2019 Published on July 12, 2019

Heal well : The roots of dance therapy can be traced to the modern dance movement of the 19th century

How dance helps you battle — or come to terms with — suppressed, unprocessed emotion

The body speaks. Just listen to it, we were told. “Anybody can move. You don’t have to be a dancer for it,” Sohini Chakraborty (46) said, as she led us in our very first movement class at a diploma programme for dance movement therapy (DMT) at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

What about form and composition, lines, structure and symmetry, we wondered. Looking good, being precise, perfect? Doesn’t matter; just move — and do what your body tells you to do, she suggested.

And it did tell us a lot. The movements came slow and fast, big and small. They covered space, levels and dimensions and unlocked something in the body and the mind. “Your body never lies,” Chakraborty reminded us.

Indeed, the body stores memory. It gathers stress, anger, sorrow, loneliness and trauma. And what DMT seeks to do is help participants come to terms with — or battle — suppressed, unprocessed emotion by offering a physical outlet to emotional energy.

DMT is based on the principle that movement reflects patterns of thinking and feeling. It is especially effective for survivors of domestic violence, as it encourages them to express and process their trauma through movement, which helps them heal.

“A majority of people who have faced trauma, sexual violence or even stress don’t want to talk about it. At such times, the body is the only medium of expression and it has a lot to say,” she said.

Take the case of Alo (name changed), a survivor of sexual violence. Struggling with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress, she couldn’t sleep, had no appetite and lost interest in life. She also experienced intense fear and distress over anything concerning sex. She attended DMT sessions reluctantly at first, but soon realised that it was helping her. As the sessions advanced, Alo said she’d experienced a positive change in her ability to control anger and grief. She also felt she could express herself without fear.

The roots of dance therapy can be traced to the modern dance movement of the 19th century when Marian Chace of the US, Mary Whitehouse of the UK and Trudi Schoop of Switzerland explored dance as a form of communication and expression and not just entertainment.

The tools used by DMT are varied: Sometimes it incorporates jumping rhythms into a dance, for research has shown decreased levels of vertical movement in people suffering from depression. “Mirroring” — matching another person’s movements — is another tool, embodying empathy for an individual and validating his or her experience.

In India, this form of therapy was pioneered in the early 1990s by Delhi-based Tripura Kashyap, the author of My Body, My Wisdom: A Handbook of Creative Dance Therapy (2005). DMT is now a professional programme at some centres. Courses have opened up at the TISS-Mumbai, Creative Movement Therapy Association of India (in Delhi and Bengaluru), Studio for Movement Arts and Therapies (Bengaluru), and Artsphere and Sancheti Healthcare Academy (both in Pune). A programme in expressive arts therapy is slated to start at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, this year.

Chakraborty, who hosts the programme for TISS through her organisation Kolkata Sanved, which she set up in 2004, is a trained dancer and theatre actress, besides being a sociologist. Passionate about dance, she always wondered how she could use her art differently. While pursuing sociology in Maulana Azad College, Kolkata, in 1991-92, she did two little experiments to find answers.

For experiment one, Chakraborty brought together a group of Muslim women on campus to do a session on movement. The women moved in ways they had never moved before, to verbal and non-verbal cues that triggered different emotions. They said their bodies felt liberated and they enjoyed the session, she recalled.

She then approached a music school and created a dance drama performance with 40-odd women for the second experiment. It was a success, too, she added. The participants discussed emotions and feelings they couldn’t otherwise talk about.

“Something struck me: I realised that all my learning had to be reoriented and restructured to be relevant,” she said.

While researching for her postgraduate thesis on criminology, she realised how rampant violence against women was. Then, at the Kolkata book fair in 1996, she was struck by an anti-trafficking poster which said:

“I am no more bride to be

I am no more mother to be

I am no more future to be.”

She offered to conduct a dance therapy session with trafficked children. And that’s where the tiny seed of her programme was sown. She began volunteering at Sanlaap, a city-based NGO working with children rescued from sex work. Her pilot project Rangeen Sapnay stitched together techniques such as expression through art and dance, group interactions, role play and education on rights. The project received government support and she worked with more than 120 children, covering four red-light areas in Kolkata and two shelter homes belonging to Sanlaap. She now also has sessions for children with special needs, mental illness survivors and senior citizens.

Therapy, Chakraborty stressed, should not be treated as an elitist concept. “I feel that any creative expression, not only dance, can bring big change. If you look at history, creativity can change society’s attitude. It’s a tool for recovery, healing, self-expression and reintegration,” she said.

Lalita Iyer is an author and journalist based in Mumbai

Published on July 12, 2019
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor