Therapy with a twist: How dancing and movement can improve mental health
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Going to therapy is more common than it used to be, but watching people working on their emotional issues on the dance floor is a little more unusual.
“Body-based therapy is actually therapy on a cellular level,” says Erica Hornthal, a licensed clinical professional counselor and board-certified dance/movement therapist.
Hornthal says many clients who come to her feel traditional therapy has run its course. And with the recent “me too” movement, many survivors of sexual harassment or assault are finding their way to movement-based therapies for healing when they don’t have the words to express how they’re feeling.
“Talk therapy can get to half of the problem, but the memories that are stored in the body tissue, especially for those who have gone through trauma, need a physical component to help with the release,” said Jennifer Coon, a physical therapist at CARE Physical Therapy in Lincoln Park. “From a treatment standpoint, your tissue stores that energy and those memories, which can cause pain, lack of strength, imbalance. If it’s stored in the gut you can get nausea or vomiting, so there are all kinds of problems that come from memories that are not released, and moving can really get things started.”
Learning by doing
To fully understand the benefits of movement based therapy, I figured I needed to try it out for myself. So I scheduled an appointment and made my way to Hornthal’s studio in Northfield for a dance therapy session.
“Comfort is key,” she said as I took my shoes off and sat on the floor. Soothing music played in the background as she instructed me to take several slow, deep breaths. “Just acknowledge what you feel and sit up as tall as you can.”
After raising and lowering my arms with each breath, we stood up and started to move.
“I want you to walk across the room to the opposite corner,” she said.
I briskly did what I was told.
“Ok, go back to where you started and do it again, but this time take the most indirect path possible to get to the same location,” she said. “There is no wrong or right way to do this.”
Within seconds, I found myself walking in a figure 8 pattern all over the floor. Eventually I made it to my destination.
“Which one felt more comfortable?” Hornthal asked.
“This first one, because it was familiar,” I said. “But the second was a lot more fun.”
“It looked playful,” she said. “Some people get anxious having to choose a path or a pace. You felt it was freeing. Everyone is different.”
Since the figure 8 pattern made me feel “fun” and “playful,” Hornthal wanted me to explore those patterns in my body, having me move my legs, arms and hips in the shape of an 8. The legs felt awkward – almost mechanical, while the hips made me want to take salsa lessons. But when I got to the arms, it brought up a panicky feeling like I was treading water. We closed out the session with a guided meditation on the couch.
“So I want you to close your eyes and see how you feel when I bring up the concept of treading water, or staying afloat,” she said.
Immediately I started to get tense.
“I’m tired just thinking about it and I can’t relax,” I said.
“So find a way to support that in your body,” she said. “Think of something that will make you feel relaxed and supported.”
I put my feet up on the footrest and pictured myself floating in a lake in Northern Wisconsin on a hot summer day. I could smell the fresh water, and hear speedboats in the background. There wasn’t a “to-do” list in sight.
“Just embrace the feeling of weightlessness, and all the smells, sounds and sights of this place,” she said. “Keeping your eyes closed, allow your current surroundings to support you in the way that lake does. So when you leave this room, you take that lake with you.”
Back to reality
As I returned to work, traffic was much more tolerable thanks to the lingering memory of floating in fresh water. I’ve meditated plenty of times, but it took a session of dance therapy for me to realize that sometimes my “to-do” list makes me feel like I’m having trouble keeping my head above water. It’s one thing to know it in your mind. It’s another to actually feel it in your body.
“We as a society – even though it’s been around for a while – we are just starting to uncover what these therapies can do,” Hornthal said. “It’s about re-wiring. The body is always talking. (Dance therapy) gives us a voice without actually making noise.”