By Katjusa Cisar
Like most professional dance/movement therapists, Mariah LeFeber loved dancing growing up. She took the “typical” line-up: ballet, jazz and tap. But when she got to college, she wanted to expand beyond dance. She struggled with what she perceived as the fleeting impact of dance performance and sought out a career that combined her love of dance with her desire to help people.
“There’s something inherently selfish in dance performance. There’s so much focus on me, on my body. Your body is your tool, so you have to be selfish,” LeFeber said. Dance therapy allows “the movement to become accessible to people,” long after the impact of a dance performance has faded in the minds of an audience, LeFeber also said.
LeFeber just finished her graduate degree in dance/movement therapy at Columbia College Chicago, one of five accredited programs in the United States, and is now working with autistic children at Common Threads in Madison, Wis.
Despite so few universities offering certification, dance/movement therapy is a growing occupational field. Membership in the American Dance Therapy Association has grown thirty percent in the last ten years and is attracting many new students, according to an association spokesperson.
LeFeber encourages young dancers to check out dance therapy as a career option, especially for those who want to keep dance in their lives but don’t want to have to struggle financially or wait tables on the side.
“I can bring myself as an artist into dance therapy,” she says.
So what exactly is dance therapy? Therapists at the Hancock Center for Dance/Movement Therapy in Madison, Wis., where LeFeber was a graduate intern, are quick to stress that a dance therapy session is not a lesson in dance technique.
Rena Kornblum, executive director of the center, boils the philosophy of dance therapy down to this: “The way that we hold and move our body indicates how we feel. If you change how you move, that change will affect your emotions.”
“We look at body, space, time and force: how the person relates to the space with their body, how they assert themselves through space and what their natural rhythm and attitudes are,”Robyn Halsten, who has been working as a dance therapist for 20 years, 14 at the Hancock Center, said.
Halsten facilitates sessions with groups of women who are survivors of sexual abuse. Many of these women “have come to realize that sitting and talking about their problems has only been able to bring them so far,” Halsten states.
Most of the women she helps “feel cut off from their body. They live in their head and carry around this thing called their “body.”
Each group therapy session is different and caters to the needs of the individuals in the group, but Halsten says that for many women, even being seen doing simple movements together in a nonjudgmental environment is a powerful experience.
Ann Wingate, another long-time therapist at the Hancock Center, uses “lots of props, scarves and streamers” to help groups of autistic teenagers relate to one another.
“In Western psychology, there’s been a real split between mind and body. Dance therapy weaves together the intellectual, the psychological and the spirit. I think it works more quickly because you’re integrating the different parts of the person that makes them whole,” she says.
The Hancock Center’s therapists also conduct group sessions with kids at area elementary schools. This is where Bessie Cherry, mother of a six-year-old daughter, first discovered dance therapy. Her daughter, then five, had started having all kinds of behavioral problems, possibly triggered by a cross-country move.
“She tried to poke out my eyes. She was a loose cannon and very angry. She didn’t know how to calm herself down, and I was at the end of my rope,” Cherry said.
Within a month of going to group and private dance therapy sessions, Cherry says her daughter had learned techniques to help control her own behavior and was well on her way to being her old self, “a happy-go-lucky, sweet, well-behaved kid.”
“It worked like a charm for her. She became more aware of her body’s reactions and how to turn them into positive movements,” says Cherry, who admits being skeptical of dance therapy at first, thinking it was just another “frou-frou hippie granola thing.”
Now she says she wishes more people knew about it: “It’s not what people think. It was an eye opener.”