One of the main objectives of dance/movement therapy (DMT) is to lead clients through a therapeutic process that integrates their mind and body through the use of dance and creative movement. We hope to increase our clients’ awareness of both the mind and body. How do our clients like to move? What are their preferred styles of moving through the world? What does certain movements bring up for them- memories, thoughts, feelings, certain sensations? We do this through the process of attuning to our clients movements and encouraging them to access ways of moving that may not be familiar to them so that they can become fully embodied individuals. However, sometimes as dance/movement therapists we have different hopes, wants and wishes for our clients than they do for themselves. Sometimes we feel outside pressure to get our clients to move a certain way. In this sense, the issues of aesthetics enter the DMT realm. What role, if any, does aesthetics have in DMT?
Some dance/movement therapists might be scratching their head at the previous question and thinking to themselves, “aesthetics plays no role in DMT because we must always affirm and attune to their movement.” Ultimately this is correct, but where I feel the issue of aesthetics enter into my work is when I am engaging clients in a performance as therapy process, or a choreographic process where others outside of the therapeutic process might view the work. Before I go further, it feels important to explain what I mean when I say aesthetics. Aesthetics is a person’s own preference of what movement they like to do or watch. These set of preferences act a as a guideline for a person’s artistic choices about what movement is right, or what movement is worthy.
When we engage clients in a therapeutic process of choreographing and performing, aesthetics can play a role in the work. I wrote my my master’s thesis about performance as therapy and using this as intervention when working with adults with developmental disabilities (DD). During our process, I realized I had to relinquish my own aesthetics and notion of what the performance should look like. If I truly wanted to empower my clients then I had to allow, encourage and trust their process. Instead of putting on a specific structure or teaching them a specific dance to be performed later, I held the space for them to come up with their own ideas about what their performance should be. Another dance/movement therapist, Sondra H. Malling, also researched and wrote about performance as therapy and using it as intervention tool when working with deaf adults with mental illness. In her article, there is a poignant paragraph that points to the moment when she realized she had to give up her own aesthetics as a choreographer in order to empower her clients…
“As the study began, I was very excited about the social justice, oppression-confronting elements of participatory research. I hoped that my co-researchers would latch on to my suggestion of creating a piece about their experiences as Deaf adults living with mental illness who are oppressed by the majority hearing society. However, it soon became clear that the co-researchers’ interests lay elsewhere. It was difficult for me to let go of this preconceived notion of what the piece would look like and to address my fears of doing participatory research ‘wrong.’ But I soon realized that the true spirit of participatory research (i.e. giving my co-researchers space to create whatever they wanted, regardless of the academic constructs of research) meant letting them select a topic that appeared less serious to me in my academic and social justice inspired worldview.” (Malling, 2013, p.131-132).
As with most of my blog posts, this relates heavily to my current work. While I certainly embrace the idea of checking my aesthetics at the door and supporting my clients’ artistic choices, I am feeling outside pressure from staff that surround my work. I feel as though I am attempting to balance the aesthetics of the individuals I conduct workshops with and the aesthetics of the supporting staff who work with the individuals daily. The clients are interested in choreographing hip hop dances to familiar songs. Whereas supporting staff hope clients with use movement abstractly to explore thoughts and feelings. While I absolutely understand the desire of the supporting staff (and deep down I have the same desire too), I know that what will truly empower the clients is to validate their creative choices. If I do that then I am doing the work. I am being person-centered, affirming of them as individuals, validating and seeing who they are as creative individuals. And trust me, when I do this the other elements start to seep out. My clients feel supported, are more trusting and soon become transparent when we verbally process about the work. Somehow I am trying to find a happy medium, though, attempting to honor the aesthetics of both parties.
So what role does aesthetics have in DMT and in performance as therapy as a DMT intervention? Ultimately, it is important for the dance/movement therapist to set aside personal aesthetics in the creative process. More importantly, the dance/movement therapist needs to encourage, trust, validate and support the aesthetics of the clients. Yet, sometimes, there are aesthetics or expectations surrounding the work that are outside of the dance/movement therapists’ control. Personally, I’ve had to navigate this by trying to find a happen medium while also advocating that supporting the clients’ aesthetics is truly person-centered and trauma-informed. By saying yes to the aesthetics of our clients (with consideration to the culture of the clinical placement), we’re saying yes to the clients as individuals. We’re saying yes, you are worth it, you’re aesthetics are worth it and you are valid as a mover. By embracing them in this way we are opening an opportunity for our clients to become more embodied individuals.
Malling, S.H. (2013). Choreography and Performance with Deaf Adults who have Mental Illness: Culturally Affirmative Participatory Research. American Journal of Dance Therapy 35 (2), 118-141.