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Dance Therapy for the healing of Trauma

Artistic expression has been used to heal from traumatic experiences since ancient times. The tools of Dance Therapy can be especially useful because they unify the body and creativity as healing resources when words are not enough. The use of dance as a healing tool is rooted in the knowledge that body and mind are inseparable. Dance provides a direct experience of shared emotion on a preverbal and physical level, providing feelings of unity, harmony, and empathy.

Trauma is the result of an assault on our being and the consequences of trauma are complex and far-reaching. They may include complete disruption of life, isolation from others, anxiety, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, dissociative disorders, addictions, eating disorders, and a range of physical illnesses, as well as a loss of identity due to dislocation from the body.

For all that survive the ordeal of serious trauma at any age, the challenge is not only to heal the body, but also the mind and soul. The possibility of experiencing safety and pleasure in the body are impaired. If the body has been wounded, long after the body has healed survivors continue to cope with emotional devastation, as well as re-negotiation of their identities in bodies that have suffered profound changes. Recovery can be all the more difficult because the inborn life coping skills of the survivor are seriously affected.

Whatever the cause, traumatic experiences remain embedded in our bodies. Overwhelming emotions and shocking memories can be suppressed and repressed in an attempt to survive and recreate a sense of stability. Patterns of dissociation and chronic states of shock can impact the individual’s ability to live a healthy, satisfying life.

The general goals for treatment are: to help individuals feel stable and safe in themselves and with others; to work through and integrate the traumatic memories; and to assist in re-engaging fully in their lives and in relationships with others. (van der Kolk, MacFarlane & Alexander, 1996)

Dance Therapy is an important resource for treatment of trauma because it is helpful for rehabilitation of the body. It provides vital tools for reconnection to the body and to the self. It gains access to the implicit memories that are encoded in the primitive brain as visual, sensory imprints because it uses the language of the body, moving beneath words which often block access to conscious awareness. (Johnson, 1987) The creative play space provides a distance from intense feelings so clients can have a safe way to work with them. As participants learn to trust their bodies, they are more able to trust others and engage in healthy relationships.

Dance therapy groups always begin and end in a circle. This basic shape
provides stability where individuals can feel equally connected to each of the other group members. The leader encourages group members to listen to the guidance of their own bodies and never pushes people to engage beyond their own comfort level and physical ability. Groups always begin slowly with a physical warm-up. Participants may be invited to listen to the movement of their breath as they do gentle stretches which are adapted to the needs of the group. Often music is used to inspire and engage with melody and rhythm. As participants become comfortable with themselves and each other the leader will guide them in structured movements that encourage spontaneous self-expression and playful interaction with others. The group closes with a relaxation time and verbal sharing of the whole experience.

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