I recently re-read my master’s thesis in preparation for my co-presentation at this year’s American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) Annual Conference. As a side note, don’t do that unless you absolutely have to. It’s torture to read it and find mistakes, which if you were in the state of mind I was in at the end of my thesis process, you’ll find a few. As I was reading through it I found one particular sentence that struck me: “The culmination of the flexibility in the [group] structure and the holding environment [I] created gave space for my co-researchers’ creativity and capacity to reflect on our group process and our interpersonal relationships.” This particular sentence still resonates with me as a professional dance/movement therapist and very much defines the type of dance/movement therapist I try to be.
I won’t go into too much detail about the research I conducted for my master’s thesis because I plan to talk more about that during the ADTA conference. What I will say is that my research explored the topic of performance as an intervention tool when working with adults with developmental disabilities (DD). My experience during the research process highlighted the importance of group structure and the holding environment when creating a dance performance. What I learned during my research process is something I’ve carried with me as a working professional.
The holding environment is a topic I think about daily and it is my “front-of-the-line” approach to dance/movement therapy. During the beginning of each group I intend to create a safe holding environment. In some groups this happens in the first five minutes and in some groups it takes twenty. To be frank, in some groups the holding environment never occurs at all. I’m sure there is an array of clinical definitions to what this phrase actually means (think Winnicot), and I’m sure there are many personal interpretations of it specific to each creative arts therapist. What I mean by this phrase, however, is creating a space where my clients feel safe, creative, curious and empowered to make choices that concern the direction of the group in the present moment.
Often times when I write a blog post I first Google the topic to find articles and images that relate. This time, I discovered a website for the “See Me as a Person” book and workshop. On the website they define the holding environment (sometimes referred to as the container) as, “Holding is creating a safe haven for healing in which people feel accepted and held with dignity and respect.” In other words, first we establish a safe place for our clients’ self-disclosure and then we are able to hold whatever it is that happens in group. And by hold, I mean contain the physical, emotional, and mental safety of the group no matter how deep, ugly, amazing, or beautiful the content of group is.
Openly defining or even mentioning the holding environment is important because in some ways it’s often the elephant in the room. It’s something of great importance, but not something that is verbally spoken. The therapist doesn’t necessarily have to say, “Has the holding environment been established everybody?” Rather, it’s something that is known on a felt-sense. The safe container has been created or it has not, and it is usually fairly obvious if it has been established. The most obvious indicator that the holding environment has been established is if group members are actively participating in an authentic way. Are they choosing to disclose about themselves or engage in movement they might not normally engage in (or for my clients, engage in movement at all)? Are their words and movement a true expression of themselves? If so, then its safe to say they feel secure to be their authentic selves and to feel vulnerable.
Looking back on my dance/movement therapy education I don’t recall emphasis of the holding environment or being given any specific instructions on how to create it. I’m not saying we didn’t talk about it at all, because I am sure we did, but maybe like the thing itself, such instructions were implied. If I, as a dance/movement therapist, was kinesthetically empathetic, humanistic, and had strong boundaries, then this thing called a “holding environment” would exist.
The holding environment may seem obvious; it may seem like a therapeutic DUH. Yet, sometimes as dance/movement therapists (myself included) there is a pressure to make our clients DO something- we’re dance/movement therapists after all. So before we or our clients have a minute to get acclimated to the dance/movement therapy room in hopes of establishing a holding environment, we’re throwing out scarves and Koosh balls, or frantically clapping/stomping to Michael Jackson in hopes our clients will follow. I know I am speaking to something I’ve already spoken to many a times over in my blog. Yet, the more and more I do this work the more apparent it is to me that it serves my clients better to just BE with them rather than instruct them to DO something. Yes, I can tell my clients to clap their hands and stomp their feet, but who are they doing this for? To placate me? Wouldn’t it be more meaningful if they found movement themselves, organically, in a safe, therapeutic container?
I had an intern over the past summer and there was a poignant moment in supervision that spoke to this very topic. We were discussing her first week in dance/movement therapy groups and she admitted to not really knowing were the groups were going- she didn’t know the direction and intention of the group. I looked at her and gave her a moment to process her words. She then said something along the lines of, “But if I am wondering where the group is going then I’m one step ahead of my clients. I’m not with the group in the present moment.” Bingo. If you’re one step ahead of your clients you are not emotionally present for them to access, which is imperative in maintaining the holding environment. She’s a smart woman.
I must admit that I struggle with this too at times… still, after eleven months of doing this work full-time. It’s hard to sit in the unknown. It’s hard to wait for your clients to initiate the course of the dance/movement therapy group. It’s hard to give up your own power and control in hopes of empowering your clients to find their own.
As dance/movement therapists, we must establish a holding environment so that our clients feel safe to move and thus express themselves. And although how to do this might not always be obvious or explained thoroughly, we must honor that it’s the key to therapy. As dance/movement therapists, we must also trust our clients in that they know the path of their own therapy even if this means we must sit in the unknown. We must trust that our clients know what should happen in group, and if we, as therapists, are able to create a trusting environment then what needs to happen will happen.