Cultural competency in dance/movement therapy.

cultural-competencyAs mentioned in my previous posts I have recently relocated and I am currently in-between employment.  I’ve been trying to re-acquaint myself with my home, as it’s not completely new, but rather a return to where I grew up.  My new community has infiltrated my thoughts and has caused self-reflection.  My new home is in the process of transformation (much like myself) and the issue of culture and gentrification are palpable.  The phrase, “the new Detroit,” is charged to say the least.  My immersion in my new community and its metamorphosis has inspired me to think about cultural competency in dance/movement therapy (DMT).  How culturally competent am I as a dance/movement therapist and how culturally competent is DMT as a profession?

Before I am embark further into my thoughts I’d like to address my own cultural make up.  I am a white, American, female who grew up in the Midwest.  I come from a myriad of Eastern European descent, mostly Polish.  I grew up in a working class suburb and understand the value of a dollar.  I grew up in a nonreligious family and I still do not practice organized religion.  I identify as heterosexual and I am recently married without children.  I attended public school, a mid-sized undergraduate college and eventually attended graduate school in a large city all of which informed my worldview.  With that, I proceed with caution.

How culturally competent am I as a dance/movement therapist?  I will say that I do try my best.  I try to practice mindfully and have awareness of my own personal worldview, and dare say the prejudices that I unfortunately have.  I am a true believer in therapist transparency and this is how I navigate culturally charged moments with clients.  I have had moments of ignorance that have deepened my cultural competence.  In one instance, my clients and I were preparing for our production of “Annie” by watching the movies (1982/2014).  While watching the movie, I said in reference to the orphan costume design, “We could put brown make-up on your face to look dirty.”  I said that.  I.said.that.  The minute I said it my mouth dropped to the floor.  I also received strange looks from my black clients.  Immediately I said, “That came out wrong.  I did not mean to say that.  I’m sorry.”  Luckily for me, I had good rapport with my clients and they felt comfortable challenging and discussing my comment.  Not to mention they accepted my apology.  I think honoring my mistake and then allowing space for the uncomfortable discussion of cultural differences, in this case race, is what allowed me to be a culturally competent therapist.

I have had moments where I have felt prejudice because I was a dance/movement therapist.  During an individual’s annual team meeting I had to back away from my emphasis on DMT when discussing my work to the individual’s family. I realized that the individual’s family was not interested in DMT, but rather wanted to focus on more concrete issues like how employment options and how the individual was behaving during the day (despite the fact that this individual was in the DMT studio quite often).  I don’t believe this was because the family did not care about DMT, but maybe felt like DMT was a privilege, a frill and certainly not a part of meeting the daily necessities of life.

How culturally competent is DMT?  The short answer is I think we can do better.  The long answer, is, well, long… and leads me to more questions than answers.  When I reflect on the beginning of my DMT journey I recall that social and cultural foundations was one of the first classes I took in my coursework.  It was one week long.  I repeat, the course was one week long (although this has since changed to a full semester course as requested by students of the program).  If I remember correctly we explored and shared our own cultural make-up.  The course was following the suggestion of many cultural competency articles in DMT and counseling literature- understand your own worldview so that you understand yourself and your growing edges when working with cultural diverse clients.  If we can understand our own personal belief systems, we will then (hopefully) recognize when we experience dissonance with our clients.  We will recognize our dissonance and be able to set it aside to have compassion for our clients’ worldview.  I might not agree with a client’s perspective, but I can set aside my disagreement to wonder, explore and possibly challenge my client.

I do believe DMT education tries its best to instill cultural competency in future professional dance/movement therapists.  I do believe most dance/movement therapists try their best to be culturally competent.  The trouble I have is with the blanket statements  we make as a profession. While reading through a DMT article on trans cultural competency it states, “I am interested in how we not only recognise and bridge our differences, but also transcend them, finding unity in our common humanity.”  I agree with the beginning of the sentence, but I have trouble with the latter half.  I have trouble with the phrase “finding common humanity” because oftentimes this statement is shrouded with white privilege.  I have also heard this restated by dance/movement therapists as, “I want to wake up in a world where we don’t see color.”  Although this statement most likely comes from a good place it is naive and again, blanketed with privilege.  It has the essence of  distilling our differences into one common form, whether this is in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender, ability, social economic status, etc.  While yes it would be nice to transcend our differences this could only occur in a perfect world.  Instead, what if we lived in a world where we could see and honor our differences?

I am also triggered by another statement that is common in DMT culture and our professional work.  Often times we state that movement is a universal language, a language that we can all connect through. While I do agree that we can connect through movement, create universality and break down barriers through creative expression, movement is NOT a universal language.  Movement and dance is culturally specific, defined by cultural norms and traditions.  Movement is also specific to individuals based on personal movement preferences and experiences.  The same movement executed by two different individuals most likely means two very different things.  While it’s nice and dreamy to say movement is a universal language, this again passes over the nuances of movement in varying cultures and meanings to specific individuals.

How do we become more culturally competent as individuals and as a profession?  Openness, mindfulness, open dialogue, kindness,  listening, and awareness of our own cultural make-up is a great way to start.  It is also important to be aware of our own preconceived notions so we know when they are hindering our interactions with a client or with each other as professionals.  I also try to have kindness for my own preconceived notions, as I know they are there for a reason.  Maybe at one time the notion served a purpose, but with kindness I can let it go.  As I mentioned above, transparency is a tool I often use to navigate cultural competency.  I am a white, heterosexual female and that is who I am.  If I am transparent about who I am then I own it.  If I am able to claim my own identity I am inviting others to do the same.  By owning my identity I am also staying in a centered place while engaging in (possibly) uncomfortable discussions and interactions that can lead to transformation and healing.

Like I’ve said before, the topic of cultural competency is complex and has led me to more questions than answers.  Like, is the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) and sister organizations doing a good enough job of cultural competency?  Are we truly accepting of each other as professionals?  Are were sure we are truly representing all dance/movement therapists in all of their beautiful forms?  Are we allowing them the space to have a voice in our organization, our research, our literature?   Are dance/movement therapists continually addressing this topic and their own cultural competency in their every day work?  Cultural competency is more than posting a picture of overlapping hands of different colors, it’s about our everyday actions with each other as professionals and with the clients we work with.  While I don’t have the answer to all the questions, I do know we should always strive to do better at creating spaces where we can engage in safe and open dialogue.

About emilyadannunzio

Board Certified-Dance/Movement Therapist. Movement Analyst (GL-CMA). Researcher. Dancer. Bartender. Detroit, MI.
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4 Responses to Cultural competency in dance/movement therapy.

  1. Jeannine says:

    Amen to all of this!🌟💗

  2. Richard T says:

    Emily, I just discovered your blog. It’s awesome!!! And quite a professional record. I KNOW you are doing well. Wishing you the very best. I am reminded what my 91 year old father says constantly. “I got to keep moving.” You go girl!

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