Integrating our artist and dancer selves in dance/movement therapy.

Last month I posted a blog discussing the loss of dance and the dancer self within the culture of dance/movement therapy (DMT).  I suggested that our modality has lost these elements, the elements that make us unique amongst other body-based therapies.  The blog post created a rich discussion via comments on the post, a Facebook thread, and messages/e-mails sent to me personally.  One individual in her Facebook comment said, “Perhaps a good topic of conversation for [dance/movement therapists] would be where is dance in your life right now?”  I agreed.  I took that as motivation to reach out to the DMT community to specifically ask them about their dance and artist self, and how they integrated these components of self into their daily professional work.  I asked: Where is dance in your life right now? Where is your artist self and how (if at all) do you integrate this into your professional/non-professional role as a dance/movement therapist?

Usually I include my own response anonymously among the responses below, but this time I’d like to be transparent about my own relationship to this topic.  Throughout the process of writing the blog post and gathering responses, I realized something important about my own relationship to my artist self.  I’ve done a good job of maintaining my dancer self by taking technique classes and attending Authentic Movement workshops.  What I realized is that taking class isn’t enough.  I realized that it is important for me to create and choreograph, or be a part of another individual’s artistic process.  I also like to perform.  So, while I was shedding light on the lack of these elements in the DMT profession, I was also shedding light on the lack of these elements in my personal life.  I now realize I need to reclaim my artist self.  I need to find the courage to create.

Below are the responses I received.  They are beautiful, stunning and inspirational on a lot of different levels.  Thank you to everyone who took the time to contribute.

Dance is my cardio, stress reliever, and inspiration in my work. I use dance to enhance my creativity in my professional work. If I do not dance for myself, I notice that my creative juices within the therapeutic realm suffer.  My artist self really is in my creative interventions with my clients. I am always looking for ways to connect their concern or issue with the body and how to process it on a deeper physical level. I never thrived on creating choreography, although do feel inspired to do so at times. When I find myself yearning to perform I look for opportunities to do so.

Dance as an art form continues to play a role in my life but seemingly more as a hobby than a way of life. Upon leaving the collegiate vortex of life as a dance major, the risk-averse side of my personality arose and convinced me to find work that was stable and financially supportive. This inevitably led to the demise of a working artist’s life and transformed dance into something I did “when I could.”

After a lucky run-in with a past dance friend at one of two professional auditions I attended in Chicago, I gave dance one more chance, but only as a Sunday ritual and yearly performance. I have been a choreographic and performing member of Evanston-based enidsmithdance for eight years and continue to love the process. I gave in to the idea that dancing professionally was something I could do as a side-gig but not for a living. And I am ok with that.

Fast forward to the moment I realized I had to find a way to weasel dance back in to my life as more than just my Sunday afternoon creative adventure. Dance/movement therapy felt like a natural transition to bringing my life back to a compromised center. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do but it is definitely a different path than my 18-year old version envisioned. Interestingly, it is once again easier for me to fall in to being more clinically focused as a dance/movement therapist than artistic during work with clients. This may be a product of working in hospitals and/or stringently evidence-based focused health agencies, but I am beginning to think that when my brain and soul are tired, it is easier to fall back on the code of clinical persuasion than dive into the artistic realm where the mind/body connection can be expressed more fully. When one is engaged in the craft of being an artist, an almost continual vulnerability is needed that can be terrifying. Like looking for a stable job, relying on the more acceptable and establishment supported clinical realms feels safe.

Unfortunately, the most rewarding and professionally fulfilling moments of my career thus far have been when I mustered enough courage to let the artist self emerge without restraint in session with clients who then often met me there with equal bravado. I say unfortunately because I continue to need self-reminding that when I begin to rest in the “easy” place of clinical work and neglect the artistic realm needed in dance/movement therapy, I am allowing myself to move further away from what drew me to this work in the first place. In some ways, when I go back to home base and allow the dancer in me to show in session with clients, I am truly in beginner’s mind again and feel myself wading through the shallow water searching for depth. But, in truth, isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing with our clients? So perhaps my search for true comfort in allowing my artist self to be ever present in work with clients is parallel with their need to also find solace and comfort in their own identities.

In terms of where dance is in my life right now, over the last few months I have really felt a need to reclaim my love of dance and my creativity as separate from my identity as a DMP. I love moving with my peers in the dance studio, which we try to do on a monthly basis, but just lately, I have desired to move, create and perform, reconnecting with aspects of myself that I allowed to fall away while I was studying/working, and exploring surprising new avenues.

This has manifested in me revisiting my love of Argentine tango and attending weekly classes (and the occasional milonga), and I am also learning how to play drums. As a result of this, I’ve also reconnected with a former love – long-form and physical comedy improvisation. I performed last year at a burlesque show, which I was obviously very careful to keep separate from my professional work as a DMP, and this has revived my love of performance. However, I do incorporate elements of improvisation and storytelling in my workshops and clinical work, so while my identity as a performer is separate from my identity as a DMP, the relational aspects of Argentine tango, the rhythm and co-ordination that drumming develops and the spontaneity and creativity of improv all feed into the bigger picture and I consider myself a more well-rounded practitioner as a result of giving myself permission to follow this creative path. It’s an exciting journey – who knows where it will lead…?

I am going to be very honest and truthful here, I have not been dancing in my life right now because it is not what I have needed. I have been breathing, being still, listening, being mindful, doing Reiki, doing yoga, and walking. Does this not make me a dance/movement therapist then? Does this not mean I am an artist or that I am bringing my creativity to my clients? I wrestle with that question on a daily basis. Those things listed above are what bring creativity to my life right now and that’s ok because that is where I am. Do I feel that I can be present with myself and my clients in session? Absolutely because the body-based principles I am practicing are helping me to be more embodied. I have often wrestled with the dance in dance/movement therapy as I am not sure dance is what most people need when they come to see me. What I do believe people need is to connect to their bodies and personally I believe dance can take people out of their bodies if they have severe trauma as that is what most of my clients come to me with and lets be honest – almost everyone has some form of trauma or another. So, we begin with the breath which is what we were taught to do but often I get the sense from DMT that we need to go big or go home. At least that is what I felt in my training and I believe that is very damaging. I do not believe dance is always necessary and actually I am starting to believe that maybe the field needs to evolve to see this.

My relationship to dance is essentially my relationship to life, hope, vitality, strength, vulnerability, creation, surrender…. Keeping my artist self alive and vital is essential for me to work sanely as a DMT. The more time I spend dancing and listening to my artistic muses, the more resources I have to tune into what is going on under the surface in a therapy group or with a person. This allows me to trust my inner knowing so that the therapeutic process is inherently a creative process. I trust the unfolding rather than feeling a need to make something happen.

Dance is ever – present, I carry it with me always, it is never not with me. I don’t know if I found it or it found me, but I held on tight and never let it go. It may have suffered an identity crisis a time or two, played the role of picking out the “just right dance studio” for my girls, and it definitely enjoyed being a patron. Dance has shaped my life and will continue to. It is a part of me just like any other and has grown by leaps and bounds, evolved, raged, matured, softened me and revealed my truth.

At the moment dance is in my life a few times a week. I like to be in a dance class that provides structure and invites choice. I like to work hard and move from sensation, be conscious of form and alignment. I enjoy interacting with others. Recently a teacher asked the class this question before it began,” is there anywhere else you want to be at this very moment?” I thought to myself, absolutely not! I am grateful to be in my body, to enjoy and be present for each moment I am given and give myself, and to know I am home.

Where is your artist self?

My artist self is on fire, but contained. My body feels full of creative potential, juicy with ripe ideas, overwhelmed with choice, so many directions to go in, how to manifest. My mode of operating right now seems to be create, put into the world, see what happens. This has been my nature to some degree, but DMT has strengthened my appeal.

My artist self is thriving on finding truth in movement and using it as a vehicle for art. Becoming a DMT has opened up this portal.

My artist self is deep into facilitating many different creative arts groups and doing a fair amount of art on my own despite my limited mechanical ability.

My artist self is rehearsing and performing in June

How do I integrate?

My creative ideas (from my artist self) give birth to workshops, sometimes in the middle of a class. The more I take class the more embodied I am, the better DMT I am (better kinesthetic empathy).  The more I take class, especially after my training to become a DMT I get to keep falling in love with dance and movement over and over again, but with a new kind of sensitivity, gratitude, sacredness, appreciation, wholeness and honor for the distinguished role dance and movement play in our lives and it’s inherent healing capacity.

Dance is playing a minimal role and I miss it, however my sense is that if I opened back up to it, it would be all I’d want to do and I have too much invested in licensure to abandon it now. Actually that’s not entirely true – I’ve always been after finding the right fit and balance for dance in my life, because as much as I love it – doing it full-time exhausts me and makes me too emotional. So I’m still seeking balance there. My artist self is on hold too – it has been less and less present over the years. I’m preparing for exams, so until those are squared away I don’t feel I’ll be free enough to allow my artist to play. I miss her though. Until I get the income part dialed, I won’t feel free to make art or dance. I don’t think it has to be like this necessarily, but it is what it is currently.

Where is dance in my life right now?
It is everywhere and nowhere. I do not intentionally seek opportunities for formal dance training, choreography, or performance. I enjoy observing movement, that I consider dancing, in my daily life: interaction with others, viewing the choreography and improvisation in nature, the pedestrian beauty of relationship, and my own quiet moments of movement to process all that I take in.

My artist Self is present in most things that I do. I embrace creativity and improvisation in my work role, and very much enjoy the balance of being sagittal and a good amount of free flow in the day-to-day. I do not often specify a time, place, or activity when my artist self is front and centre. She is always welcome and does well to grace most of my life with her influence.

I am grateful to have found a profession that allows me to embrace and honour all parts of myself both inside and outside the therapy session.

Where is dance in my life right now?

I continue to perform and make three or four dances a year. I have created a dance company and continue to nurture it and its members now for the past 12 years. When not creating dance for performance, I continue to think creatively about dance and go out dancing at the clubs each month to let myself go into the trance of the music and the club scene.

Where is my artist self?

I think the last answer answered that one. I do also hang with some visual artists who keep me thinking visually about the world and also engage in conversations that revolve around art and life.

How do I integrate the artist into my profession?

As a teacher and a supervisor I try my best to guide the work through creative process. I also do my best to keep my work fresh and reflective of my own creative process so that I am not only nurturing the student/supervisee but also nurturing my self. My work as a therapist also reflects questions that are “wonderings” for the clients process. Keeping the work imaginative and the therapeutic relationship collaborative illuminates the artist in everyone.

Dance in my life right now is exactly where it has always existed – within my own head, when I close my eyes, when I hear music, when I am inspired, when I am spring cleaning, when I am out with friends, when I am celebrating a moment.

That being said, when I think about dance in another sense – I think about a studio, I think about organized movement into a phrase then a dance. I am not currently doing any of these things BUT I have recently taken the initiative to get a ‘Contemporary Dance Group for professional dancers” here in my town, North Bay Ontario. This small town caters to the usual 2-18yrs dance crowd. There is no opportunity for dancers to come together, create, improvise, mess around, roll around etc – so I am creating that space for us. We have yet to meet (March start) but I’m excited, to say the least!

My artist self drifts in and out of my everyday. Whether its at work (Owning yoga business and teaching yoga) or being heavily involved in the artists’ community in north bay (volunteering, attending, supporting). I have been advocating for the integration of arts therapies and MORE arts in general here in our community. My role as a DMT has been slow but will soon be more established as I am creating my own business (quite the process).

Where is dance in my life right now: Actually I have been actively trying to incorporate dance into my everyday life again. Aside from daily improvisational movement to consistently reflect on my own internal processes, I am also running therapeutic dance workshops for the dance minors at Michigan State University. I was also invited to choreograph for their repertory dance concert, so my dancer and choreographer is very much alive and well. I am also currently involved in small dance projects/performances based out of the Detroit area, and currently have a show coming up in April.

My artist self is also very active these days. This could again be reflected in the piece I am choreographing for MSU. I have been incorporating DMT theory into my choreographic process which has truly evoked my artistry in a productive way. From a more concrete perspective, I am constantly creating art with different mediums (painting, coloring, sketching, writing, etc). This again is for my own self-realization and self-care. I am also currently experiencing the creative/self-reflective journey of yoga teacher training while I become certified to teach. The holistic form of both DMT and yoga are making for a beautiful marriage, and it is informing my approach to therapy and counseling.

I feel like dance is everywhere in my life right now. It is in the rhythms of my days, my relationships, in the spaces and places. It shows up differently now than it has before, but it is still there. It used to be that dance in my life meant performing, rehearsing, choreographing, taking classes. I was fortunate enough to be a part of lovely professional dancing companies and had so many opportunities to create, move, and breathe in dance. I was also living in a geographical area where these things were more accessible – people, dance companies, classes – all were available and easy to be a part of. I am living in a different area now and these things aren’t as accessible – so I have to put more effort into bring this type of dancing into my life. Now – I collaborate long distance with colleagues – creating dance films, choreography, and performance opportunities etc. I also am co-founder of a company based in New York, as well as a company member of a Florida based organization. I try to physically be there once a year to perform and interact, but my actual live performance with the company is limited. And it is different. It isn’t the same as being immersed in it. It has taken a lot of creativity and flexibility and willingness to be curious about how long distance creations/collaborations and such are able to transform and exist as possibilities. I also take classes when I am able – even if this involves traveling to cities and countries where these opportunities exist. It is a conscious and intentional process to continue to include dance (in the form of classes/performances/rehearsals) as part of my life now. I often find though, that dance exists everywhere around me – in the dances of relationships, life, time, space, energy . . . my own dance. It is almost like dance exists everywhere and I can access it anytime I want. It is in my bones, my cells, and my breath. Sometimes it looks like dance, sometimes it simply feels like the dance of my life. I feel like my artist self is very present in my professional role as a dance/movement therapist. Ironically, in my previous job, I was literally teaching dance, choreographing, performing with kiddos, and leading DMT sessions all in one. My new job is less about the art of dance as we think of it. Yet, I still feel very present and engaged in the creative process. I feel as though the dance begins the moment a meet these clients . . . in our facial expressions, breath, the moments of connection and disconnection. I am continually engaged in the creative process – listening, being present and curious, inviting exploration and play into the therapeutic process. It is the openness to allow the unfolding of whatever needs to happen that feels creative to me. It is a dance – a dance of relationships. A dance that happens when we engage and are present with one another. As we ask and answer those vulnerable questions – can I trust you? Are you there for me? Will you reject/accept me? Can I be vulnerable? Will you hear me? Inside this space, in both the physical office space and the energetic space around us, here is where we dance and engage in the creative process.

1. Dance is still a big part of my life. I dance and choreograph for a Chicago based dance company, take weekly dance classes, and sub-teach dance at a local studio. Even on days were I don’t have rehearsals or class I still find myself dancing in my living room.

2. My artist self is a part of myself that I’m still discovering and developing. I believe that aspect of my artist self does come into my professional work as a dance/movement therapist. I feel my artist side comes out as I explore and create during sessions and I invite my clients/patients to do the same.

Where is dance in your life right now?

I think about choreographing all of the time and visualize movement when inspired by music, dialogue, natural sound. I probably need to push myself a little to further develop my ideas. Or maybe not. Maybe just visualizing movement and dancing it out on my kitchen floor is good enough for right now.

As for performing, I’m doing a repeat performance (originally performed in October) of a piece based on inter-generational legacies, how they help us, how they hinder us (choreographed by a therapist named Jennifer Baldwin, not a DMT). For example, how our great great grandmothers impact our career choices on a psychological/emotional level. Based on feedback from the last performance, no one had any idea of what the piece was about or where those themes were reflected. Oh well. We’re performing again at the end of March at the Gorilla Tango theater.

I tend to see my age (64) as an obstacle and usually wait for performance opportunities to fall in my lap as opposed to seeking them out or auditioning.

But . . .

Arch of foot,
A deep curve,
Carved by decades of pointing and flexing,

Lift of torso, out of hips,
Finally finding that connection,
Was like having a first orgasm.

A plié, a relevé, a tondu, a ronde jambe,
To restore center, balance,
To lift above the chaos.

Mind tells body to keep dancing,
Body tells mind, you are still a dancer.

Where is your artist self and how (if at all) do you integrate this into your professional/nonprofessional role as a dance/movement therapist?

At times I feel that my artist self has been put on the back burner, but daily work as a therapist itself involves creativity on many levels, which we often don’t give ourselves credit for.

Lately, I’ve been questioning who I am as an artist. A dancer, a poet, a musician, a visual artist? I have bookshelves full of books about creative writing, unused sketch pads, chalks and pencils, an idle guitar, choreographic ideas that never quite come to fruition. I get impulses to buy a giant canvas and paint, but have not yet followed them.

I’ve always opted for the security of a full time job which tends to drain my energy and motivation and blocks artistic exploration. Very cliché, but gotta pay the bills, right?

On that note, here’s a beautiful quote about artistry that inspires me:

“Make visible what would not be seen without you.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson (photographer)

Dance is all around me. It is my serape, my go-to, my unconditional love. Dance is always there. Always.  As member of a dance company I am able to stay connected to my artist self outside of work which helps keep me connected to my creative healer self at work. When I have a free moment I dance in my office. When I am having a bad or good day I dance. It is vital. My connection to dance is my connection to self. To who I am.

Where is dance in your life right now?

Everywhere. Honestly, it’s in my thoughts consistently as I roll over the choreography I’m working on for my students and for performances of which I am a part. It’s in my feet as I move at the rhythmic pace of the music I’m listening to. I see it as I sit at the train station watching the interesting “dance” of people and suitcases navigating each other. It’s in my language and gestures as I talk to others about what I do. So, I guess the question might be asked, where is it not? I’d have to think really hard on that one…. and I feel blessed to say I don’t have an answer for that.

Where is your artist self and how (if at all) do you integrate this into your professional/nonprofessional role as a dance/movement therapist?

My artist-self shows up often in my response art. I process emotions and reactions to client contact there. Whether through improv or structured choreography, the artist in me helps with self-care. I also utilize performance as therapy within my work through my company, offering clients the opportunity to be witnessed should that be an avenue that, for them, is therapeutically beneficial.

The way in which I engaged with dance as my art-form had already shifted prior to coming into my program which ultimately affected what kind of dancer I saw myself as in the first place. For years leading up to my program I had been privately moving from the constricted clothing and movements allowed by liturgical dance into the greater artistic freedom and movements allowed by lyrical and only made this change public knowledge on a need to know basis. Therefore, my original audience, dance peers, and mentors all fell away immediately before entering my program. In my current life, dance does not account for as much time volume as I feel it deserves. I freeform to help me think when I’m writing papers or re-arranging a sensory experience room for a client. I re-visit an old signature solo to get past writer’s block or burnout so I can move on with my academics or paperwork. Sometimes when I make free-time appointments with myself I fall back into the pattern of listening to lyrical song lists on Pinterest, linking the artists from that list that moved me to my exploration station on Pandora, and watching new choreography and movement studies on YouTube. Within the constraints of time that come with full time work and study as well as upcoming internships I can only hope that my natural flow of networking for my academic career will result in organically developing a local tribe of dancers to which I can relate and grow with. I would say that my dance is fighting against neglect and longing for not only more time in my life but actual space as well. It may sound self-contradictory but at this time my artist self seems to be flourishing. My partner is very aware that I have a basic need for making and does his best to facilitate this around our home. That means cooking, making visual art, poetry, songs, arranging flowers, and even building virtual art on a computer game he got for me. I feel that the experience of my first year as a graduate student in this modality has ultimately led to a better rounded artist in general but also a greater hunger for growth as an artist in dance. In my professional role as a dance movement therapist I find it much easier to connect with colleagues of other modalities from both the general arts and client-focus bases. With my new appreciation for the art that lead me to my modality has come a general willingness and eagerness to jump in with other DMT’s and try what they’re trying, or do what they’re doing simply because they are part of the tribe and it’s a chance to dance. In my non-professional role I aspire to ‘take my own medicine’, that is to continue to pursue ecstatic dance as a spiritual discipline and use freestyle movement as well as movement studies and other DMT learned tools in my daily processes such as at solving work and homes issues.


About emilyadannunzio

Board Certified-Dance/Movement Therapist. Movement Analyst (GL-CMA). Researcher. Dancer. Bartender. Detroit, MI.
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