11 things my clients have taught me about dance/movement therapy.

david and i

2011 David and I. David blogs at http://davidscornerisgood.blogspot.com/

Last week was my final week at my full-time dance/movement therapy (DMT) position at a day training program for adults with developmental disabilities (DD).  Over the past five years I have been apart of the treatment team as a DMT intern, DMT researcher and as a professional dance/movement therapist.  Most of my blog posts, maybe even all of them, are inspired by the work I have done with my clients.  Many of the clients I have known for five years and some for only a few months.  Either way, they have left an everlasting impression on me as a dance/movement therapist and on my DMT approach.  The termination process was a difficult one, one that involved an array of emotions felt by both my clients and I.  Upon telling my clients I was leaving I was met with shrugs of ambivalence, faces of disappointment and outright tears.  I, too, cycled through emotions spanning from complete exhaustion, to absolute joy and deep sadness.  I gave the termination process two and a half weeks to allow ample time for me and the clients to say good-bye.  The termination process looked different with each client.  Some danced with me, others wrote a song.  Some clients made art work or wrote good-bye letters.  Other clients, unfortunately, kept their distance from me, withdrawing from me early on in the process.  No matter how it manifested, I had to respect each individuals process and good-bye preference.  For myself, I processed termination in DMT supervision, Authentic Movement, and of course, blogging.  In my last month of work I kept a list of all of the things my clients, individuals with DD, have taught me about DMT.  Below is the list.

1. Communication is better when it’s simple and concrete.  This was a skill-set that I had to learn early on in my internship, and I truly mean skill-set.  Due to the nature of my clients’ diagnoses I had to speak simply and concretely.  Coming to the program as a DMT intern, my mind was fresh with imagery and analogies that I had learned in DMT Theory class. Yet when I asked the clients , “Where in your body do you feel sadness?” or “Use your elbow to write your name in the air!” I was met with looks of confusion. They had no idea what I was saying, and in a way, neither did I.  Instead, I had to modify my words so that what I was saying was less abstract. I spoke about what was concretely happening in group, like “Client is stomping her feet,” or, “We are moving together to the music.”  In this way I learned to say what was happening in the present moment and allow my clients to make meaning of their movement, rather than make meaning for them.  Although this skill-set has brought clarity to me as a dance/movement therapist, I would argue it has also brought clarity to my communication in general.

2. Music makes or breaks DMT group.  My former clients were motivated or unmotivated by the music played in DMT group.  If my clients did not like a song they would not dance to it no matter how hard I prompted them.  Instead, I learned to allow my clients to choose music and ultimately made it an integral part of the group process.   Clients would choose music they enjoyed and in this way expressed their likes and who they are, and were witnessed in this choice by other group members.  My clients took turns choosing music and help each other put the CD in the CD player (yes, unfortunately, I was still using CDs for my DMT groups instead of updated technology), working on appropriate interpersonal skills.  I also learned to prompt my clients to think about the quality of their music choice and how it might relate to where we were in the DMT process, such as, “Client do you want to choose a cool-down song?”  If an open invitation to choose music was overwhelming, I learned to offer two choices of music that I knew the client liked based on my observations/rapport with the client.

3. Proper boundaries are mandatory.  Some of my clients required ample amount of personal physical space while others tested my personal boundaries constantly (I wrote about this in more depth in my previous post).  One former client would cover his ears if I got too close to him, signaling for me to move back.  Whereas another client would literally hang on me or tickle my back as I walked by.  In the last five years, I have gained a deep sense of awareness for my clients’ preferences and realized that in order to be an effective dance/movement therapist I had to honor each one.  I had to honor each of my client’s personal boundary preferences as well as maintain my own as the therapist.  I had to learn when it was okay for a client to hold my hand and when I needed to declare a larger kinesphere.  Personal boundaries, whether they manifest as actual physical touch, energetically or emotionally, is subtle, nuanced and in my experience, has tailored my approach to DMT.

4. You’ll never know the impact you have. One of the most beautiful and frustrating things about DMT, is that sometimes we do not know the impact we have on our clients.  In my case, this was sometimes due to the nature of my clients diagnoses.  Some of my clients were non-verbal and could not say, “Wow, Emily, you’ve helped me so much!”  Although I would argue I could observe this in other ways, e.g. increase in movement repertoire, a deep exhalation, making eye contact with me or other group members, etc.  After years of working with my former clients I learned that it is less important to know the impact I have and just continue to do the work.  You’ll never know when a client will surprise you.  Let me give you an example.  For about a year I led a group titled, “Woman’s Movement Group.”  The group consisted of women with an array of abilities, some of who were more verbal than others.  One client member used a few words and gestures to communicate.  Even though she often sat in her wheelchair with her head down, the other group members would say hello/good-bye each time she came/left the group as a way to honor her presence.  One random day, as this particular member was leaving group she lifted up her head and gave us the biggest, cheesiest, sassy smile.  The group all smiled back and giggled. It was like she was saying, “Hello, I’m here and I’ve been listening!”  It truly was a beautiful teaching moment in how we impact group members whether we realize it or not.

Client and I on my last day of work.

Client and I on my last day of work.

5. Change takes time and sometimes it’s so subtle you might miss it.  My former clients have done me a world of service by teaching me this, especially because I am a natural accelerator (think Laban Movement Analysis’ effort life).  Anyone who knows me well knows that I like to move fast.  However, my clients have taught me the importance of not only slowing down but also the patience required to make therapeutic change.  Therapeutic change takes time no matter who you work with, but this is especially true when working with adults with DD.  Change is also very subtle.  It might be just a quick moment of eye contact or making a one word comment in group discussion. In the past five years, I have learned to sit, wait, and observe.  I have realized that even the smallest of changes is actually very huge. 

6. Providing choice is key.  My former clients have taught me that DMT groups are about providing a space that empowers clients to make choices.  Dance/movement therapy group is their time to explore, play, dance and create however they want.  This is especially true for my former clients, individuals with DD, who are often told what to do and when to do it in the “real” world.  As with most of the people that dance/movement therapists serve, many of my clients have little choice in their every day life- sometimes family or staff tell them what to wear or pack their lunch with little input.  These might be small things but they certainly can add up and result in feelings of external-locus of control (don’t even get me started when it comes to self-advocacy, sexuality or even political action).  Instead of imposing a strict DMT structure on my clients, which might further enhance that feeling, I have learned to create a safe holding environment that promotes independence, empowerment and choice.

7. I am never the expert on their experience.  On my bad days, I’ve made assumptions about my former clients’ experience whether in DMT group or in our everyday interactions.  Luckily, my clients had the courage to tell me when I was wrong.  I’ve often had clients say, “No Emily, that’s not what I mean.  I mean this instead.”  Due to their ability to correct my assumptions I have grown into a more understanding and empathetic dance/movement therapist.  They have encouraged me to not make assumptions, but rather to continue to question, clarify and listen to those I work with.

8. When it comes down to it, DMT is about connecting to the UR experience.  Over the past five years I have had to do my fair share of paperwork, such as creating client goals, completing annual Individual Service Plans (ISP) and writing group curriculum.  I’ve also had to lead an array of groups ranging from traditional DMT, meditation, adapted Authentic Movement and performance-based groups.  Yet, when it comes down to it, when you really distill down the work, I’ve learned that DMT is about connecting clients to, what DMT founder Trudi Schoop, calls the “UR experience.”  Schoop describes the UR experience as experiencing the vitality of life and connecting to others on a universal level.  No matter what DMT group I was leading (or co-leading), if I could achieve a UR experience I felt like a successful dance/movement therapist.  If the group was able to move together to music while engaged with each other and enliven their spirits, well then hell, I did my job.  All other stuff aside, my clients and I were at least enlivening our spirits, and I’ve learned that that’s what DMT truly is about.  

9. Creative art therapies are better together.  I have gained a plethora of knowledge from being apart of a collaborative creative arts therapy team.  I have gained insight from co-leading groups, collaborating on team projects and simply diving into conversation filtered by our unique lenses.  The clients were also better served since they had access to DMT, art therapy and music therapy.  I am truly thankful that I worked alongside amazing creative arts therapists who value DMT.  I believe that the different creative arts modalities complimented and enhanced my own work as a dance/movement therapist. An individual is only as good as the creative arts therapists he/she works with.

10. The unapologetic expression of self. One of the most valuable things my former clients have taught me is how to truly accept and honor myself.  I go on and on in my blog about how I try to promote authentic expression in DMT group, when in fact it is my clients who have taught me this all along.  Every day they are fearless in their self-love and expression.  In DMT group, they invited me to dance freely and wildly without any judgement.  Oftentimes we would all dance along to Beyonce, stomping our feet and waving our hands, without a care who walked by the DMT studio and saw us. As much as  I was able to witness them in their authentic expression, they also witnessed me.  They have taught me the importance of unapologetic expression and acceptance of self, with or without disabilities.

11. They’re going to be just fine without me.  The sucker punch and the silver lining is, that ultimately, my clients will be just fine without me.  Unfortunately, many of my former clients are used to the notion that staff moves on and have had to transition many times over because of this.  It’s a part of life.  Although I’m sure they’ll miss me from time to time (I can hope, right?), they’re going to continue on their path of healing.  Another dance/movement therapist is going to come along and have the honor of dancing alongside them.

Although I have moved on from my position at the day training program, I will always carry what my former clients have taught me wherever I go.  What they have taught me is so profound and fundamental I truly believe it will serve me wherever I practice DMT.  I have the deepest appreciation for what they have taught me about DMT, myself and life in general.

About emilyadannunzio

Board Certified-Dance/Movement Therapist. Movement Analyst (GL-CMA). Researcher. Dancer. Bartender. Detroit, MI.
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12 Responses to 11 things my clients have taught me about dance/movement therapy.

  1. bridgetdmp says:

    Good luck Emily in the next stage of your life an DMP career – I enjoy and learn from your posts and very much look forward to hearing more.

    • Thank you, Bridgette, I plan to continue to blog about my DMT path. Even though the next stage in my career is uncertain, it’s all apart of the journey. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Jeannine says:

    Beautiful and moving post. So much truth! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Charla says:

    I love this post, and following along on your blog. I am sure your career path will take you to a wonderful place next.

  4. Sheryl B. Hipps says:

    Thank you for all of your amazing work with us, Emily and for writing such a beautiful and deeply moving and meaningful post! We learn as much from those we work with as they do from us and we all move to greater heights and deeper depths having shared the experience together. We all wish you the greatest of success as your career and life journey continues. Wellness has always had a tradition of expressing our deep appreciation and of inviting those who have shared of themselves with us to come back and visit. You will be well remembered, your visits will be greatly appreciated, you will learn about how your work was integrated and built upon and you will have the opportunity to share about your work and life since working with us. Best of luck with all the experiences your future will bring!

  5. Alisa says:

    Emily, I am a clinical psychologist and owner of a group private practice in the Loop. We are planning an expansion that includes the addition of expressive therapies. If you are still in Chicago and looking for a position, shoot me an email and we can set up a meeting.

    • Hi Alisa, thank your for reading and commentating, and thank you for such a gracious offer. I have actually just relocated to Detroit but I could connect you with other dance/movement therapists in Chicago if you wanted. I am pursuing my counseling license in Michigan, so if you know any counsellors in the area let me know. Again, much appreciation.

  6. Freda says:

    I love this post and this blog, I’m starting my training in dance therapy in September at goldsmiths, so it’s nice to read about a dance therapist experience, I feel like I’m getting prep lessons!

    Thank you x


    • Hi Freda, thanks for reading and commenting. Glad to know you feel Liked like you’re getting prep lessons, haha. Good luck to you with your DMT training, it’s quite a journey!

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