Jeannine Salemi is a woman I’ve learned a great deal from about dance/movement therapy. She is a Board-Certified Dance/Movement Therapist (BC-DMT), Graduate Laban-Certified Movement Analyst (GL-CMA) and a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) (not to mention a great friend). I first met Jeannine when I began my internship, where I now work, as she was my internship supervisor. As my supervisor, she helped guide and foster my growth as a dance/movement therapist during my nine months as an intern. Jeannine both served as an example for me and gave me space to figure it out on my own. We talked ad nauseam about what the heck dance/movement therapy was in the first place, teasing out differing theories and approaches, and I am forever thankful for her patience. Her words below are absolutely stunning and certainly more eloquent than my own. And although she says it differently, her words certainly describe my lens as a professional.
My training as a dance/movement therapist began at a Buddhist-founded university, where we learned the meditation practice of Tonglen. Tonglen is a somewhat radical practice where one imagines darkness/the depths of human suffering and takes that in on the inhale. On the exhale, one imagines light/beauty/unconditional love and gives it away completely as the breath leaves the body. The way this applies to being a therapist is that as we inhale darkness and exhale light, we are sharing the loving-kindness we have cultivated for ourselves with those who need it more than we do in that moment. It is an act of radical generosity and love to imagine taking the pain and suffering of others into one’s being and then sending love and light toward them. It is a way to show gratitude for the gifts we have been given to imagine taking the burden of suffering from others, even for a short time. It is not about being co-dependent and trying to fix anyone, but simply sitting with the pain of others so that they feel less alone.
As dance/movement therapists, we probably do this often without thinking about it, yet there is a clear shift that occurs when we practice this with intention. We become willing to suspend our need to feel good for the time being as we dance with the darkness that others may be wrestling with and give back light and positive feelings in return. This is a form a kinesthetic empathy, which is what dance/movement therapists do as a way to communicate to someone non-verbally that he/she is seen and felt in that moment. When we are intentionally practicing Tonglen, we are not only empathizing with our patients on a kinesthetic level, but we are also giving back light and love as a way to show gratitude for our gifts through compassion for others.
I strive for the balance where I can practice this in my work and at the same time find clear edges where my feelings end and another’s begin. The reality, however, is that often it all seems to swirl together. I go into group with the intention to offer myself/my gifts, and I end up feeling pulled in to the heaviness of depression, psychosis, drug addiction and despair. It feels like I am being pulled in by a swirling vortex of pain sometimes. Here is where the gift of the body and dance/movement comes in, as I can surrender to this swirling through movement. I often literally connect to the swirling movement by finding three-dimensional spiraling movement with my pelvis, which I then allow to gently extend to the rest of my body. (Bringing this energy into the movement of pelvis and lower body seems to have a grounding effect as well). The patients eventually begin to mirror this movement quality and then find their own way to dance with the swirling. I often then find a way to mirror the movement quality of the dance that emerges within them as a way to support their process.
As I write this, I realize that surrendering through movement to the potentially overwhelming feelings in the room is my way of alchemizing the darkness that I take in from them into light that I can give away. (However it doesn’t feel completely selfless because it feels good to move in spirals). They see me moving in this way and somehow a part of them seems to feel seen and they are invited to share their light through their own form of movement expression. They then begin to encourage and support each other moving and dancing. At this point, I am gladly on the sidelines, witnessing the variety of ways they are sharing the joy of movement with each other. I feel a sense of gratitude for the gift to be a part of this process. It is almost as if when we have the courage to intentionally take in the pain and suffering of others, we are carving out space to invite our patients to find their own wisdom and light, and if we are lucky, we get to bask in that glow.
“The task of the therapist is to help patients connect back with their own fundamental healthiness and goodness.” – Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche