This article explores my personal experience of dance movement therapy using words, photography and stills from a film I produced and displayed for the IACAT ‘Unravelled’ Symposium at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in 2019. The film is not of the therapy itself but a personal artistic response to the overall experience of attending dance movement therapy, filmed in various locations of personal significance to me, after therapy had been completed. I have interspersed these film stills within the text of this article to try to illustrate or amplify certain written thoughts in a more embodied and physically expressive manner.
‘…deep down below the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice says to us, something is out of tune.’ C.G. Jung
Time Lag: Something Left Behind
The above quote reflects just how I had been feeling ‘out of step’ with myself for some time prior to contacting a therapist nearly three years ago now. Considering the problem, I envisaged what seemed like a ‘time lag’ between my body and my psyche. My own small quiet inner voice suggested a need to 'move something' within, an internal block or boulder. I had aches and pains, most especially in my lower back, and I frequently felt tired and low in mood. I’d had a new baby some months prior and was carrying the emotional, psychological and physical impact of that, alongside a certain mid-life career weariness around the challenges of working as a sole art therapist within more medically based psychiatric settings, with little job security and few of the perks enjoyed by my colleagues on permanent secure contracts. Bearing all this in mind and considering professional ethics and my duty of care towards my future clients, I understood, somewhat reluctantly, that a return to personal therapy was a must for my overall health and wellbeing and the good of my clients when I would return from maternity leave. Yalom (2003) suggests that therapists need to have a long experience of their own personal therapy, recommending too that different kinds of therapy be explored, at different life stages.
Leading up to therapy, I realised I wanted to explore in-depth why I was feeling so out of sync with myself. I reflected on my therapy whilst in art therapy training, much of which had covered my experience of being the eldest sibling of a childhood cancer sufferer and my role as mediator and emotional container within my family of origin (Slater, 2007). Returning to therapy again approximately 10 years on, I considered burnout (Freudenberger, 1974) and even postnatal depression as a possible working hypothesis for myself. I later came to understand all this more in terms of ‘primal wounding’ ‘survival self’ (Firman & Gila, 2002) psychology and a natural healing response to unresolved or ‘unfinished business’ (McGuirk, 2012) from my past, combined with normal life stresses and the strains of mid-life. My reading of psychosynthesis theory (Firman & Gila, 2002) has helped me to integrate and understand my therapeutic journey cognitively, but this could only occur, I believe, by having had a body based experience to begin with and by going through feelings and emotional states in therapy, before attempting to articulate my journey through the written word.
The Invisible Internal Implosion Made Visible
Here for you; self to self, managing the slump
I began therapeutic work in Dance Movement Therapy by re-covering old themes initially, but quickly moved into navigating previous and current developmental hurdles and some deep rooted emotional pain left over from vulnerable periods in my life during infancy and adolescence. Doing so, I could re-experience and feel cut off emotions in a totality; connecting mind, heart and body in an embodied way, in order to feel relief and release from constricting and numbing effects. I will explore this in more detail later in this article.
In 1974, Selma Fraiberg, alongside her psychology and social work colleagues from the newly formed Infant Mental Health Development Program wrote the now infamous Ghosts in The Nursery. Having observed and worked with babies in distress and their parents, using psychotherapy at home and at the clinic, the authors gave life to a whole new way of considering the emotional and psychological world of infants as being interrelated, connected and dependent upon the minds of their parents, most specifically their mothers but also their grandparents and possibly even great grandparents before them. Indeed, our aliveness and selfhood may emerge only through the experience of being seen and reflected in the eyes of our primary caregivers, and how our own parents have been seen and held by their parents in turn effects their parenting style and ability to deal with the overwhelming emotional states babies may experience from time to time as they develop and grow. Winnicott (1971, p114) states it clearly as "When I look, I am seen, so I exist. I can now afford to look and see", and therefore flourish into my own unique being, primarily because of the secure base (Bowlby, 1988) created for us by our parents and carers. Fraiberg et al. (1974, p387) emphasised, however, that "In every nursery there are ghosts. They are the visitors from the unremembered past of the parents, the uninvited guests at the christening" that may impinge upon the healthy development between parents and baby, leading to relational trauma (Schore, 2009) and potential adverse lifelong effect on our ability to thrive and relate well to others in the world (Gerhardt, 2004).
The work of these early pioneers is increasingly backed by compelling research demonstrating that infancy is a critical period for psycho-social development.
It is now well documented that this neurological blueprint is laid down most dramatically from pre-birth and in the first year of life, but with significant opportunities for amazing synaptic growth again in adolescence, and continuously to a lesser extent though middle age and across the life span (Weatherston, 2002; Siegal, 2003; van der Kolk, 2003; Schore, 2009).
Film Still ‘New Beginning’
Attachment theory, working with ruptures and repair and the concept of the earned secure (Siegal, 2003), has influenced my work as an art therapist for the last 10 years. Working primarily with children and teenagers as part of my local community mental health team, and also adults within a secure psychiatric inpatient setting, my focus has tended to value the relationship and therapeutic alliance over the art process or product, where befriending the ghosts and traumas of the past (and present) can occur within the safety and containment of the therapeutic relationship, art-making process and art product. More latterly, there has been a slight shift in my professional practice towards a kind of equality between art process and relationship, alongside a reclaiming of my own personal artistic identity, which paradoxically re-emerged only once I had reclaimed my own primally wounded self.
I now describe myself (to myself and others) as an artist and an art therapist, and this is a very significant and joyful personal development for me. This article and video seek to express some of the evolution of this theoretical, personal and practical shift in my practice, which has occurred in tandem with my experience of a kind of rite of passage of mid-life, which began in earnest once I began Dance Movement Therapy.
The French poet Charles Péguy said, “Forty is a fearsome age. It’s the age when we become who we are.” This is a concept I can most readily identify with. Lachman et al. (2015, p.20) cite Jung (1933), who "saw midlife as a critical period (the afternoon of life) for linking earlier (the morning) and later (the evening) periods", and Erikson (1963) as identifying "the main challenge for midlife as generativity". This represents what Lachman et al. (2015, p.20) call "the pivotal nature of midlife in terms of negotiating and regulating growth and decline and integrating youth and old age, within individuals and across generations". For me too, midlife encompassed an unravelling at a crossroads or intersection of old and new, personal and professional, past and present explorations. Alongside the birth of my new baby, who turned two years old a week after my 40th birthday, I began to really consider my own mortality and sense of responsibility towards others. Unfortunately, this mid-life crossroads became at times more akin to a muddy labyrinth (with pram in tow!), where being a new mum again, alongside the transition into the midlife developmental hurdle, meant that I often felt a sense of being frighteningly ‘lost in life’. Through the busyness, I’d also forgotten about my own art-making, and its necessity in my own self-care. Emotionally, at surface level, I appeared to be coping, but underneath that false self (Winnicott, 1988) or survival self (Firman & Gila, 2002) I was sad, anxious and confused. This crisis or passage of identity prompted an extended maternity leave to give me time to process and work through the meaningfulness of these life developments.
Life stages Shoe Labyrinth
I chose Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) since I had a deep felt sense that there was a strong physical component to how I was feeling in the here and now, which connected to having a new baby, but also to other previously ghostly or vulnerable periods in my life, intruding into my present in ways I couldn’t fully understand or integrate easily. I felt quite "at sea" and indeed this metaphor was something I came to again and again in therapy in order to "find my sea legs" and navigate my stormy emotional terrain. Other metaphors such as "flying a kite" and "pumping my heart back to life" emerged through the movement, especially when supplemented with scarves and fabric. Undertaking sessions in Dance Movement Therapy sparked the beginning of a journey through primal wounding, acceptance of and compassion for my survival self, towards being in the world with more truth, wholeness and authenticity, personally and professionally. By embracing the notion of a community of selves that exists within me, indeed within us all, I discovered that I could tolerate my strengths and vulnerabilities together simultaneously and allow a dance of selfhood to begin, which facilitated a liminal space from within which apparently dichotomous self-concepts could be held. Specifically, at the time it felt as if I were able to draw upon more masculine energies within myself. Here I found Jung’s (1969) animus/anima theory useful, where the psyche is understood to contain both feminine and masculine aspects, regardless of our gender.
My movement initially appeared willowy and ethereal. As I progressed through sessions, I felt myself become stronger, both psychically and emotionally; more decisive, with an enhanced ability to "cut through the crap". In finding myself initially in a sea of uncertainty, I began to move from being tossed about to making large chopping arm movements, possibly swimming. Falling, slumped movements became protective arms. At times, I felt distinctly wild and free; indeed there were aspects of dancing the storm that were exhilarating and liberating. Yet, strangely, I also I felt a greater connection to the ground with my feet; it was no sinking sand, no dark hole to fall through, but a hard dance floor, giving my feet a good solid ground to land upon. The work was emotionally upsetting at times, yet fun and playful too and very rewarding. A simple body tapping warm-up exercise brought me to tears on one occasion. I had gently touched the side of my face with my own hand. It felt as if I was showing myself the most tender and kind parental caress, which was very satisfying and reparative. At times, I danced with abandon, not caring that I was being observed. There was a wonderful freedom and release in those large gross motor body movements. Instead, perhaps, of telling my "stories from the shadows", as I had done before (Slater, 2007), I could move centre stage and criss-cross through the movement space as and how I wished. This felt empowering and expansive, to be seen in these powerful and strong growth moments, in which I felt as if I was also growing myself as a person. Being witnessed by another in this movement felt like honouring my "lived experience of the individual body-self" (Lock & Scheper-Hughes, 1987) (cited in Koch, 2006).
Film Still ‘Gentle Touch’
Cold Shoulder, Eyes Closed
I See You Reach Up
Working in an embodied manner challenged me to try to embrace a more pluralistic self-existence, not an ‘either’ ‘or’ binary identity but a self-concept which embraces complexity and multiplicity, coalescing in a more integrated sense of self. Not ‘therapist’ or ‘artist’, ‘mother’ or ‘worker’, ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, ‘straight’ or ‘gay’, ‘happy’ or ‘sad’, ‘nurturer’ or ‘destroyer,’ ‘vulnerable’ or ‘strong’, neither ‘adult’, ‘adolescent’, ‘child’ nor ‘infant’, but all of these at once in totality and wholeness.
Ultimately, entering a mid-life therapy process has shown me that an integrated ‘community of selves’ can co-exist in balance with one another, not in opposition, but in synthesis, which is indeed complex but also nourishing and expansive.
Barker and Iantaffi argue that "polarized thinking can often be a response to trauma" and that "to consider life from a non-binary perspective is about shifting our framework away from rigid either/or perspectives, towards both/and possibilities, which embrace paradox and uncertainty"(Barker, 2019, p.67). This ethos, or way of being in the world, reflects my deeper and truer understanding of myself at mid-life, and dance movement therapy has been the catalyst for this meaningful unfolding. This expansion of self to include a greater complexity and depth, I believe will have a positive impact on the next phase of my life personally, and also professionally, for my clients.
Towards a Self Mirror
Attunement vs Misattunement’
This Way, It’s Okay
Many of these film stills I chose to visually explore concepts such as mirroring, attunement, reciprocity and playfulness in my sessions. As Bowlby describes, "when a mother and her infant … are facing one another, phases of lively social interaction occur, alternating with phases of disengagement … a sensitive mother regulates her behaviour so that it meshes with his … thus she lets him call the tune and, by a skilful interweaving of her own responses with his, creates a dialogue" (Bowlby, p8). Surely, this is symbolic of the therapy process at large, which encourages a deep dialogue with the self, and, as my experience of Dance Movement Therapy can attest, holds up a self-made mirror to the truly whole embodied self.
Myself and Dance Movement Therapist AnnaFiona Keogh ‘Cross Rhythms’
Exchange and Contain
Jennifer Slater is an artist and art therapist working in Co. Louth. She previously worked in Art Education, before completing her Art Therapy training at Queen’s University Belfast in 2007. She has over 10 years’ experience working in Child and Adolescent Mental Health services, maintains a private practice and offers a weekly Open Art Therapy Studio within inpatient Adult Mental Health Services. She is also member of AAEX (Art as Exchange) and Creative Spark Print Studios.
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