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Theme 4: Sense of Struggle
All of the women in this study reported that their experience of dance therapy was infused with a sense of struggle. Initially this involved the unfamiliarity of this type of therapy. Many found dance therapy to be new and strange and used words like "challenging," "difficult," and "uncomfortable" to describe their experiences. Some felt inhibited and embarrassed at the idea of dance itself, whereas others felt apprehensive because this approach to therapy was non-traditional and represented uncharted territory.
As discussed previously, the women struggled with the discomfort of being seen by others. They felt self-conscious and worried about looking foolish. For some, the experience went beyond embarrassment to a more acute sense of vulnerability and exposure. One woman's metaphor poignantly conveyed this feeling: "Moving is like opening the book … it wasn't just like opening the book, it was like ripping the book open. It was really difficult."
Some of the women also reported that they struggled with how to deal with painful memories and feelings that arose during their dance therapy sessions. Many talked about how their bodies contained information about past traumas and about how that powerful and sometimes shameful material surfaced while they were engaged in the therapeutic movements. Anticipating the emergence of new and potentially painful material contributed to the women's sense of apprehension. This was dramatically captured in one woman's metaphor: "Being in my body always feels like walking through a minefield … you know that there's danger out there, you just don't know where … you're waiting for the inevitable."
The women also reported their struggle to cope with the fact that particular aspects of the dance therapy process (e.g. music, certain movements, structured activities) could trigger physical and emotional responses associated with past trauma. Certain kinds of music triggered in one woman a deluge of emotion and frightening mental images related to the ritual abuse she had experienced as a child. An exercise that involved holding still reminded another woman of being bound and confined as a small child, and these memories resulted in considerable emotional and physical distress during the session.
Although these women struggled to keep from being overwhelmed by body memories and emotional triggers, they were also aware that this material was necessary "grist for the therapy mill," the identification and working through of which was critical to their own growth and healing. As such, these women considered it essential to develop a sense of safety in the group. They reported that the therapist and other group members helped create a safe environment in which they were able to challenge themselves to explore difficult and painful issues.
Despite these struggles, the women said they continued in dance therapy because they saw their hard work actually helping them to grow and heal. One woman remarked, "I kept going back because I felt like some of the problems … weren't as significant as the benefits I was getting." Another participant's summary reflects the sentiments of the other women in the study: "There were times when I really didn't like the stuff [dance therapy] brought up … but at the same time it's what helped free me. I think if it had just been fun and playful, I would have felt really cheated."
The women in this study reflected on their experience of a unique kind of emotional connection with others while engaging in dance therapy. They remarked on how this intimacy was created without words, simply by moving together and at times, physically connecting with each other.
The words of one participant captured this experience:
I was feeling very connected to that person, as if we were sharing something very special and we did it without words, we didn't organize it, we didn't plan it in advance, we didn't have a script, we just seemed to move together in some collective space that was warm and caring and quite beautiful.
The women talked about how the sense of intimacy they experienced with other participants during dance therapy was uncontrived. It seemed to emerge spontaneously through the wonder of simple gestures, playful moments, and dances that conveyed trust and caring. The women also spoke about factors like music and synchronized movement that contributed to a feeling of unity in the group. The participants believed that this connection and intimacy added greatly to their growth and healing through dance therapy, because they felt supported by others and accepted both physically and emotionally within the group.
The participants in this study remarked that observing another person being vulnerable while dancing was also a meaningful aspect of their dance therapy experience. They called this observation "witnessing" and said it was important for them in several ways. Seeing others taking risks and being vulnerable made them more willing to risk and to open up and share more of themselves and their struggles. The women also felt "honored" to receive the gift of another's dance and said this contributed greatly to their own sense of self-worth. In the words of one participant:
In talk therapy I didn't have so much of a sense of being honored at the presence of the sharing. I guess in the dance therapy that came across more for me because there were so many people who weren't able to do it at all … so those who stayed and shared, I felt really honored to be in their presence … they trusted me to hear their pain."
The women also discovered that during group sessions, they gained insights about themselves and were engaged in their own work, even when bearing witness to the struggles of other members or when others were working individually with the therapist. As one participant said, "My experience was that things always came up for me. It never stayed feeling like it was the other person's time; it was always my time as well."
The word freedom appeared repeatedly in all of the women's stories in many different contexts. The participants reflected on how they appreciated the freedom of choice that characterized dance therapy. They talked about having their choice of the activities that were presented and about feeling free to adjust their participation according to their own needs, agendas, and comfort levels. One woman explained, "It was clear to me that I could choose not to do any exercise, which was very important, or I could choose to do it in my own way." For one woman, this freedom of choice and control over the therapeutic process was especially significant and meaningful in light of her past abuse experiences:" For most people that have been sexually abused, that's one thing that was taken away from them, their ability to move, emotionally, physically, mentally, everything. So you've got this freedom that is so important." This woman described the sense of personal freedom as entitlement—reclaiming her right to be in charge of her body and her experience.
The women also spoke about how the particular freedom not to talk was a very significant part of their dance therapy experiences. Verbal processing was optional, and this was important to the women for various reasons. Some commented on how nonverbal expression provided a welcome reprieve from talk-based therapy. One woman expressed a sense of being tired of talking about her pain and wanting an alternative way to process it. Another described how talking was a pitfall for her because it kept her "in her head," unaware of her feelings and experiences. She found that non-verbal modes of expression were more fruitful for her in terms of making the connection to her inner world.
Freedom not to talk was also perceived as valuable for those who were processing distressing memories or flashbacks to abuse experiences. In these cases, expressing feelings and memories first in movement was reported as being a safer and more gentle way to begin to work on these very painful and difficult therapeutic issues. For some of the women, not having to engage in talk and analysis was important in terms of not "spoiling" a significant moment of bodily connection. One woman explained, "It was a great experience in my body … and I didn't want to observe it, didn't want to form some conclusion. I didn't want to leave my body and go into my head."
The women in this study also spoke about experiencing freedom on a visceral level; that is, they were not restricted in their use of space or in the intensity of their emotional expression. Some of the women told stories about breakthrough cathartic experiences that illustrated the powerful potential of dance therapy. One woman told her story:
My epiphany was a complete body experience. I started sobbing, and I ended up on the bathroom floor curled up in the fetal position screaming at my dad, screaming at my mom, that I wasn't going to hold onto this anymore … and my body let it go. Since then, I remember the beatings and the sexual abuse, but the pain isn't attached to it anymore. I'm not reexperiencing the pain with every memory.
All of the women told stories of emotional release, which they experienced to some degree in more traditional forms of therapy. What the women believed was unique to dance therapy, however, was the opportunity to discharge some of the physical energy that accompanied these powerful emotions. As one woman put it, "When stuff comes up in dance therapy you've got some way to expend the energy that's involved … to deal with it in terms of your body, and to get the energy out of your body, not just out of your mouth."
The women stated that releasing the emotional energy through their bodies helped deepen their therapeutic process, and they found that this gave them an unprecedented sense of resolution. One participant expressed it this way: "A lot of emotion shifted and came out … somehow a lot of whatever had been building up was gone." Another remarked: "The whole approach was so different than talk therapy. It just freed me up to let that stuff go."
A review of the findings indicates that four of the themes are reflective of the participants' experiences of the therapeutic modality of dance (i.e., reconnection to their bodies, permission to play, sense of spontaneity, sense of freedom), whereas two of the themes, also related to dance therapy, are more specific to participating in this type of therapeutic work in a group setting (i.e., sense of struggle, sense of intimate connection). What follows is a discussion of the implications of these findings based on these apparent distinctions.
In terms of the participants' experiences of dance therapy, the results suggest that for the women in this study, all of whom had prior experiences with more traditional "talk" therapies, dance therapy provided a forum for therapeutic work that, while emotionally painful and psychologically challenging, was also infused with pleasure. With observations similar to those of other clinicians and researchers (B. Bernstein, 1995; Schmais, 1985), these participants identified spontaneity of movement, permission to play, and the freedom to construct and control their own therapeutic experiences as important components of dance therapy. As Espenak (1981) contended, vitality and playfulness seem to be central to the effectiveness of dance therapy, because they help to counterbalance some of the more painful and difficult aspects of therapeutic work.
A progression toward increased spontaneity in their bodies and in their emotional expression through their bodies was also noted by the participants in this study. Through dance therapy, the women became aware of various blocks and inhibitions in themselves and gradually learned how to move in ways that were more unconstrained and authentic. Originally conceptualized by Mary Whitehouse (Levy, 1988) as authentic movement, this involves the relaxing of the ego's defenses against spontaneous expression so that unconscious aspects of the client's inner world can be expressed (Espenak, 1981; Levy, 1988; Simonds, 1994). Indeed, the women in this study underscored the importance of being able to move "out of their heads" and past their cognitive defenses, so that they could begin to attend to their bodily sensations, feelings, and impulses. In so doing, they confirmed the contentions of many dance therapists and theorists (e.g., P. L. Bernstein, 1986; Payne, 1992; Penfield, 1992) that they became more "aware" of and connected to their inner emotional and psychic worlds. Referred to by Yalom (1975) as the process of recognition, expression, and integration of previously unknown or disowned aspects of the self, participants in this study emphasized the therapeutic value of getting in touch with their inner strengths, as well as the more problematic and painful aspects of their experiences.
The findings also underscore the importance of the physical discharge and expression of emotional and psychological energy through bodily expression. For the participants in this study, spontaneous physical movement was perceived not only as an avenue to access their inner worlds, but also as a vehicle for the physical expression and release of sometimes intensely painful emotions. The women talked about the importance of being able to express and expend through spontaneous movement the energy generated by this therapeutic work—a type of physical catharsis (Payne, 1992; Schmais, 1985; Simonds, 1994)—allowing for a physical release that participants perceived as an important part of their "healing" and a critical aspect of reconnecting to their bodies.
All of the women in the study had felt disconnected from their bodies to varying degrees—a very common experience for survivors of child sexual abuse (Ambra, 1995; Bass & Davis, 1988). Perhaps a consequence of the dissociation that is common among abuse survivors (Bass & Davis, 1988; Sanderson, 1995), each woman in the study learned through dance therapy how to "become attentive to the body, to feel safe in having a body … to be present in the body as an adult" (Simonds, 1994, p. 9). They learned to trust their bodies and to feel more grounded and safe and comfortable within their own skin, resulting in greater acceptance and care of their bodies and a greater sense of physical and psychological integration.
More specific to the participants' experiences of dance therapy in a group format, the results suggest that the group setting both impeded and enhanced their therapeutic work. Similar to the reactions of those in more traditional forms of group therapy (e.g., Corey, 1991; Gazda, Ginter, & Horne, 2001; Yalom, 1975), the women in our study struggled with feelings of vulnerability and fears related to emotional disclosure within the group. Many talked about their heightened self-consciousness in sharing their emotional worlds through such a physical medium and about the difficulty of being "observed," especially given their personal discomfort with living and moving in their own bodies. They emphasized the need for safety and trust, underscored the power of this type of work, and emphasized the importance of their readiness to work within a group context. They also reflected very positively on the benefits of working in a group, describing the deep emotional connection that seemed to emerge spontaneously with others in the group in the absence of speech and their feelings of unity as they moved together in a synchronized fashion. The women also spoke about the therapeutic power of bearing witness to the experiences of other group members, and of others bearing witness to their experience. Musicant (1994) underscored the value of witnessing in dance therapy, suggesting that this process involves watching another person in a compassionate, nonjudgmental manner while also following one's own feelings, thoughts, and sensations. He claims that learning to witness another with compassion and acceptance facilitates the development of compassionate and accepting self-observation.
Overall, the findings from this study provide some important insights for counseling professionals. First, counselors should remember the importance of play and fun as a counterbalance to some of the more emotionally challenging aspects of therapeutic work. It is also important to liberate clients from the constraints of the therapy chair and from having to verbally articulate all of their feelings and concerns. In addition to dance therapy, there are a variety of nonverbal, expressive interventions that counselors can incorporate into their practice (see Simonds, 1994) to help clients access the landscapes of their inner world, and to assist them in expressing and releasing intensely charged emotional material.
Counselors need to be cognizant of the ways in which clients' psychological worlds are etched in their bodies and in their relationships to their bodies and find ways to include embodiment work in their clinical practice, a task that for most counseling professionals is not easily undertaken. According to McNiff (1981), "probably no single feature of artistic and general human expression is as consistently missing in training psychotherapists as the language of the body" (p. 131). A body-inclusive counseling approach is critical particularly when working with adult survivors of child sexual trauma, as in the case of 5 of the 6 women in this study.
The impact of sexual trauma on the body demands that the body itself be a major topic at some point in treatment. Reconnecting with the body, learning how to care for the body, developing more positive feelings for the body, and recreating sexuality must occur in the process of healing. (Simonds, 1994, p. 10).
Indeed, clients' experiences of and relationships with their bodies are implicated in many of the issues that they commonly bring to counseling (e.g., health problems, aging, physical injuries, reproductive concerns, eating disorders). As such, counselors may need to work along with other mental health professionals who are trained in therapeutic body awareness methods or they may need to undertake professional training in these areas if they are to more fully meet the needs of a wide range of clients.
- Mills, L., & Daniluk, J. (2002). Her Body Speaks: the Experience of Dance Therapy for Women Survivors of Sexual Abuse. Journal of Counseling & Development, 80(1).
- Zygmont, A., Doliński, W., Zawadzka, D., & Pezdek, K. (2023). Uplifted by Dancing Community: From Physical Activity to Well-Being. International journal of environmental research and public health, 20(4), 3535. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20043535