POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists
Words Observations

Dance Movement Psychotherapy in Ireland: A Journey

Published on Jan 25, 2020 by Bernadette Divilly

This article was originally published in IACAT Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2016, pp.33-46.

This article traces the emergence of dance movement psychotherapy in Ireland. The author reflects on her own journey towards becoming a dance movement psychotherapist and developing her profession based in Galway. She tracks her development through childhood, psychology, psychotherapy, dance, health education and women’s studies, somatic psychology and dance movement therapy. She investigates the physical and cultural conditions that shape her practice. Divilly looks at the common ground that links dance movement psychotherapy to other disciplines. Our body, movement, nature and culture are relevant to health education, architecture, urban design, dance, cultural studies, and landscape practices.


Figure 1. 'Siúl' Photo Credit: Kevin McNicholas


Movement is the first language in human development, healing and well being throughout our life cycles. This knowledge is both ancient and trans-cultural (Dosmantes-Beaudry, 1997, p. 1). Rooted in this principle, dance movement therapy refers to the professional practice of psychotherapy through movement. Grounded in the premise that body and mind are inseparable, the ultimate goal of dance movement therapy is to support the experience of wholeness through integration of body, mind and spirit. (Levy, 1988, p. 1)

In this article, I will use the terms dance movement therapy and dance movement psychotherapy interchangeably [1]. Dance movement psychotherapy is central to my understanding of what it means to be at home – to being human on a shared planet where sentient bodies are connected and resonate within a physical world. Body mind and spirit are experienced through the template of the physical body. Movement is a shared language for all life. It is the language of creation.

Body Place Culture

As an eight-year-old girl, on holiday at my grandmother’s home in rural Leitrim, I was not conscious of influence. However, I was in the process of initiation. What gave me a sense of being connected included: my naked feet touching a fresh cut meadow, and my delight in the smell of hay. I moved in the fluid rhythms of the natural world from outside in. I danced and was danced by the shifting sounds of the rain, the lapping water of the lake and my tin bucket collecting water. As a young girl I felt ease when dancing, walking, running and climbing. I learned a sense of my intelligent physicality through action. Warmth, kindness and stories also nourished my young soul and gave me a sense of belonging.

In the stillness of night, deep in the countryside, my imagination was animated by the presence of place regulated in relationship with my maternal grandmother.

Some of her stories were steeped in cultural loss and my body tuned into that collective sadness. The landscape of the West of Ireland, silent spaces, memories, the comings and the goings of my people influenced me deeply. Here the seeds of artistic inquiry through dance, as a way of relating to nature and culture, took form. Here in this place with my maternal grandmother, my journey towards a career in somatic psychology and dance movement psychotherapy began.

As a psychology student at University College Galway in the late 1970s, I attempted to make sense of human suffering and felt some optimism about contributing to shaping the world I was part of. The suffering that I was connecting to was culturally specific and connected to my experiences of being a woman in a society ruled by social systems of domination. In the late 1970s, there was a second wave of the women’s movement in Ireland challenging the policies of Church and State, particularly on issues related to women’s rights to the control over their own bodies.

My concerns were amplified by the existence of a Magdalene Laundry at the bottom of the hill where the psychology department was situated – my bones chilled when I passed the large wooden gates.

The Magdalene Laundries in Ireland were institutions, generally run by patriarchal religious orders that operated from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. They were a place of confinement used to control women who were deemed unfit by these unkind systems to parent their children. Many of the women and girls who ended up in these institutions were pregnant, poor or labeled troublesome by their families and society in general. Roughly 30,000 women experienced this in Ireland. The stories of public shaming, separation and loss touched every breathing cell in my being. I was connecting to a deep cultural wounding in the landscape experienced in my own body.

There were not words then to describe what I sensed so deeply – how women’s bodies were systemically objectified and how the public abuse by Church and State of some women wounded many.

Academic life provided a structure for intellectual engagement through the study of the psychology of gender, women’s education, power relations and systems of patriarchy.

I longed to bring ease to my physical body, emotions and thoughts. The separation of body and mind was part of my academic experience. Cognitive intelligence was ranked as superior to emotional and physical intelligence and this was reflected in my own psyche. On a personal level, I struggled with my own tendency to override my feelings through over-thinking. Because of this, I needed a more integrated approach to understanding the psyche.

Another Rite of Passage

I began humanistic integrative psychotherapy training with the Creative Counselling Centre in Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, in 1989. My training was body orientated and included theories and practices from Reich (Totton, N., ed., 2005) and others. Here, my interest in dance movement psychotherapy grew alongside my interest in feminist models of psychotherapy practice. Both body and strong female presence connected me to a passionate engagement with both fields.

Discovering Chodorow’s book Dance Therapy and Depth Psychology: The Moving Imagination was one of the most exciting experiences of my life; every page connecting me to something I recognized despite living in a different culture and society.

This influenced how I approached becoming a psychotherapist deeply. My approach was articulated through awareness of movement and creativity.

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Figure 2. Dancing with Brigit’s Cross. Edited from original photo by Kevin McNicholas.

I researched and became familiar with approaches to psychotherapy that described how sexism was operating within the dominant models of psychotherapy and articulated how the personal is political when it comes to working with psychology and power (Divilly, 1992). I was particularly influenced by the theorists connected to the Stone Centre, Wellesley College for Women in MA, US. I liked that their approach paid particular attention to developing a comprehensive understanding of the psychological issues experienced by women. 

Pioneering Dance Movement Therapy in Ireland

Modern dance was first introduced to Ireland during the Second World War by Erin Bradley (Mulrooney D., 2006). This was choreographic work based on the body as a vehicle for emotional and spiritual expression. However, dance movement therapy in Ireland seeded later, around the same time it was beginning to develop in Europe and Australia. During the late 1980s and for most of 1990s, I was working with the Western Health Board under the management of Dr Jacky Jones. Jones had an innovative attitude and was using experiential learning to develop health education. She employed my services as a psychologist to provide assertiveness training. This expanded into community dance classes that I specifically designed to cover health topics such as communication skills, body image, self-assertion, sexuality and developing a healthy attitude towards the expression of feelings such as fear, anger and grief. There were weekly classes and monthly workshops that went on for seven years.

In the 1990s, Joan Davis was training in the discipline of authentic movement with Janet Adler (USA). She provided training for others in Ireland, including psychotherapists like myself, who were interested in the healing aspects of movement and witnessing. Davis also introduced me to Body-Mind Centering, an integrated and embodied approach to movement, the body and consciousness developed by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.

I was pioneering dance as an art form that could be applied to health education with some support from the Arts Council of Ireland. This work was made possible by my training with the Laban Guild (www.labanguild.org.uk) in dance leadership and short courses with dance movement therapists Marcia Letheval (USA) and Kedzie Penfield (Scotland), who are third generation dance movement therapists originating from the US, and Gabrielle Roth, an urban shaman.

I approached the former Women’s Studies Centre at University College Galway (now NUI Galway) with a series of courses and collaborative movement projects aimed at exploring issues such as sexuality, power and work through dance.

This work happened over a period of three years under the co-ordination of Ann Lyons through a programme of engagement with the wider community (Divilly, B., 1996, pp. 157-166). This was a practical form of raising consciousness that included verbal discussions, but was primarily based in the creative movement of the body. This was an early attempt on my behalf to bring about empowerment by using movement to work with the challenges of oppression.

In 2000, Fran Burns, who was registered as a dance movement therapist by the American Dance Therapy Association, got a post as a pediatric physiotherapist where she instigated a pilot project using dance movement therapy with teenagers who had experience of long-term disabilities. At the earliest stage of my interest in dance movement therapy in Ireland, I was leaning towards America for most of my training and influence.

Recognition of Influence

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Figure 3. Contemplative Dance, Walking Wisdom project.

The question of influence is useful. Contemplative dance is the life work of Barbara Dilley (Dilley, B., 2015). It brings a contemplative approach using the four pillars of mindfulness; sitting, standing, walking, lying and contemporary dance practice involving improvisation to working with being human. Dilley, whom I met at Naropa University in the late 1990s, contributed to my thinking as a dance movement therapist and also as a socially engaged choreographer. Dilley describes how “Influence is a strong force in society” and asks “When are you aware of being influenced?” (2015, p.100). The influences that have shaped my professional practice over three decades in the field of psychotherapy, health and wellbeing include understanding the evolution of my cultural body.

Dance movement psychotherapy engages with the issues of our times and, in order for me to pioneer dance movement psychotherapy in Ireland, I have needed to be versatile and flexible in developing partnerships across many disciplines.

The integration of dance movement psychotherapy with other disciplines, such as health education, human rights, Irish studies, architecture and landscape studies have been central to my survival.

Landscape studies and the studies of our physical body as a cultural landscape have many intersecting sites of interest to me. Landscape studies promotes the interdisciplinary study of landscape in its physical, cultural, social and ecological aspects. Dance movement psychotherapy also engages with the physical, cultural, social and ecological aspects of our body-psyches in relationship to our environment.

Origins of Dance Movement Therapy

The first wave of dance movement therapy appeared in the middle of the 20th century. Modern dancers in the United States of America, influenced by European dancers, initiated the form of psychotherapy titled dance movement therapy. However, its deeper influences were trans-cultural and significantly connected to ancient practices of dance as healing among indigenous people all over the world. Dance movement therapy was an offspring of modern dance and emergent theories of psychotherapy (Levy, F. J., 1988, Bernstein, P.L., 1974).

Marian Chace is credited as one of the mothers of dance movement therapy. She introduced dance to modern medicine as a language for communication. Mirroring and attunement was the core of her work at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington DC. She used her ability as a dancer to communicate with people who were suffering and disconnected from themselves and society. In 1966, she established the American Association of Dance Movement Therapy. She understood that she was working with people first, not patients, and that people needed to dance (Sandel, S.L., Chaiklin, S. & Lohn, A., 1993).

Chace knew that the body and mind are one, connected by feelings.

Mary Whitehouse is accepted as another mother of dance movement therapy in the US. She created movement in depth, an early form of dance/movement therapy incorporated into treatment plans by some therapists. She recognized that the body is the physical aspect of the personality and that movement makes the personality visible. This form has now been developed into the discipline of authentic movement (Adler, J. 2002).

Whitehouse integrated her experiences in Jungian analysis into her development of movement in depth (Pallaro, P., ed., 1999). She was aware that the known and unknown, the conscious and unconscious aspects of who we are, can be sensed and seen in the experience of how we live in our bodies and how we move with them. She stressed the difference between moving and being moved and connected her work with Jung’s theory of small Self and big Self and the role of active imagination in the process of healing. Jung engaged with many layers of the psyche, including developmental and transpersonal aspects. The small Self he described refers to the body ego and what the psyche identifies with in terms of personality and culture. The big Self describes the transpersonal and spiritual aspects of the Self (Chodorow, J., 1991). Whitehouse’s foundational work has been developed. It has applications both in the field of dance movement therapy and Jungian analytical practice in the form of moving imagination and depth psychology (Chodorow, J., 1991; Adler, J., 2002).

Somatic Psychology and Dance Movement Therapy Training, Colorado USA

As a graduate student with the Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado from 1998 -2001, I immersed myself in three years of full-time training in somatic psychology, a form of healthcare that focuses on somatic experience and the embodied self, including therapeutic and holistic approaches to body. These studies were based in practices of mindfulness and included the traditional and evolving theories of dance movement therapy and somatic psychology.

During my graduate studies at Naropa, I became culturally alert. I explored the physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual forces that shaped my perceptions of the world. The imprints of cultural habits and how they shaped my movement became more conscious. I become aware of the quiet tone of my voice, habitual movement patterns and routes I took to regulate my passionate responses. Movement assessment studies and developmental patterns and stages are a large part of dance movement therapy training and they were a very satisfying part of my learning, as I got a deep insight into how the mind is expressed in body movement. Movement assessment included Kestenberg, Laban analysis and developmental patterns (Kestenberg-Amighi, J., Loman, S., Lewis, P., and Sossin, M., 1999) and body mind intelligence (Aposhyan, S., 1999). During a movement assessment class with Susan Aposhyan focused on neurological development patterns, I began to reconnect with buried feelings.

I can remember exploring crawling and my whole body became unified in deep sobbing coming from the depths of my being. My central nervous system, my gut, my heart and my head connected and I felt transformed.

Afterwards, I remember walking across the car park, sun high in the sky over the Rockies, and I felt tall, aligned and well. I was developing knowledge and skills I would be able to share with others.

Dance Diversity

I wanted my work in dance movement psychotherapy practice to align with the philosophy that holds that sustainable communities are created. They are a living process. They are possible when all parts are allowed access to their own expression. I wanted to make space that was safe enough for the disowned to be welcomed – in this matrix, my theoretical approach as a dance movement therapist was birthed.

I became curious about the collective shame carried by Irish people about historical struggles for survival as a nation; economically, socially and politically. In Ireland, women were politically active in the demanding of our independence as a nation, but were disappointed by the politics of Éamon De Valera and John Charles McQuaid [2] in the drafting of the Irish constitution in the 1930s which wrote in women’s fate, “The state recognizes that by her life within the home” (Article 41.21.1, The Irish Constitution). This was a very conservative constitution that conflicted with the values of many of the women and men who had been active in the struggle for Irish independence. This constitution continues to be problematic in terms of women’s lives and relationship to the wellbeing of our own bodies.

I was acutely aware then of the Irish women who left Ireland to give birth to babies who weren’t acknowledged or accepted because their parents weren’t married, and the Irish women who continued to seek abortion abroad. The Ireland I left in the late 1990s was actively being renovated into an urban global matrix for neo-liberalism, a political theory of the late 1900s holding that personal liberty is maximized by limiting government interference in the operation of free markets. National universities, the media, State, Church and development agencies in relationship to US multinationals were engaged in the development of this new Irish identity (MacLaughlin, 1997).

From the late 1990s, there was a significant increase in immigrants coming to Ireland, which included a number of asylum seekers from the African continent and Eastern Europe. People arriving in Ireland from, particularly, the African continent, were met by a hostile media and fears of being invaded and jobs being taken. Paradoxically, at a time when Ireland had more work to give, people seeking asylum ended up for many years waiting for refugee status in Direct Provision.

The presence of peoples whose stories were reminiscent of the Irish story of emigration for survival touched me deeply and evoked buried memories. This became the motivation for wanting to develop a theory on applying dance movement therapy to working on diversity issues and towards developing relationships of mutuality.

My research thesis, titled Dance Diversity involved theory building about the development of mutuality through exploring diversity using the discipline of authentic movement. A group of health professionals working in rape crisis, nursing, management in disability services, professional dancers, psychotherapists and somatic practitioners engaged with me in creating a theory about how mutuality arises in the context of addressing diversity. These differences included religious, gender, nationality and sexual orientation. Authentic movement and witnessing were central to researching relationship dynamics that arose within a group context.

Moments of mutuality were experienced between participants:

  • When awareness of conflict was accepted.
  • When power differences were owned.
  • When needs were acknowledged.
  • When feelings about rejection were processed.

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Figure 4. Dance Movement with Bernadette Divilly. Walking Wisdom Lab. Photo Credit: Elodie Rein

My research was exclusively qualitative and included a grounded research approach using a feminist paradigm of qualitative research aimed at supporting social change and justice. My research supervisor, Dr Anne Byrne from NUI Galway, described reflexivity, which is central to feminist research practice, as a kind of conscious-making process that reveals how knowledge is made. It is similar to authentic movement in terms of how the presence of the witness helps to bring the unknown to consciousness.

This research experience continues to guide how I work as a dance movement psychotherapist but also as a socially engaged choreographer more than a decade and a half later.

The Slow Dance

Working as a dance movement therapist in Ireland is sometimes a lonely experience, like I am digging a garden with a lot of heavy rocks in the soil that have to be taken out one by one. There is no infrastructure, including statutory recognition, for the profession of dance movement psychotherapy in Ireland. I am constantly outreaching and explaining what I have to offer as a dance movement psychotherapist.

The population of professionally trained dance movement therapists in Ireland is very small. We have all received graduate training abroad. Work opportunities are self-generated and most of us are working across different disciplines. Fran Burns, for example, works as a pediatric physiotherapist with the HSE – her work is influenced by her training and experience in dance/movement therapy and child and adolescent psychoanalytic psychotherapy (Burns, F., 2015). Anna-Fiona Keogh works as an editorial assistant for the International Journal of Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy. She is assisting Joan Davis in organising the materials and text of ORIGINS [3]. Keogh describes that she sometimes feels isolated working as a dance movement therapist in Ireland and that she needs to connect more internationally for support. This challenge of working on a small island is echoed by Maria Scanlon, who is taking a break from practicing as a dance movement therapist. “I don't have a strong support network from a creative arts therapy point of view and don't have financial resources to invest more of my time, money and energy at the moment” (e-mail communication). Keogh participated in ORIGINS training. Joan Davis’ work over the years has been an important source of support for people interested in dance movement therapy and somatically based psychotherapies.

All creative arts therapies, with the exception of dance in Ireland, have graduate level trainings in Ireland. The IACAT (Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists) is the professional body, which provides structural support for the development of dance movement therapy in Ireland. Irish-based dance movement therapists have been consistently active within this professional body since 1998 as a way to further our profession through an alliance of other creative arts therapists. Angela Knight was the first dance movement therapist to join the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapies in Ireland and to include us in the organization. Later, I became involved with the organisation and was chairperson between 2002 and 2004. Anna-Fiona Keogh spent four years from 2009-2013 on the IACAT Council, and Fran Burns also sat on the council. Maria Scanlon, who graduated from UAB Barcelona in 2013, was involved in making a short video for IACAT on dance movement therapy, with Burns, Keogh and myself, which is available on the IACAT website (www.iacat.ie). In more recent years, the infrastructure for dance in Ireland has grown stronger.

When I am asked for advice by dancers and others interested in developing a career in dance movement therapy, I tell them they have to be capable of really moving outside the box and engaging deep self-reliance in evolving a career. Dance movement psychotherapy is certainly not an easy option, but it could be one of the most needed professions in our time. They need to be able to be trans-disciplinary in their approach to generating work.

One of the ways that I have managed the isolation is by working across disciplines and engaging with other forms of psychotherapy and dance movement practices. I have worked both with the Irish Humanistic Integrative Psychotherapy Association, providing continued professional development programs, and provided dance movement therapy inputs in other creative arts therapy academic trainings.

I work in private practice as a dance movement psychotherapist. Part of my work has been done through organisations working on human rights violations and trauma, such as domestic violence. I also run introductory dance movement therapy courses looking at developmental issues throughout the life cycle. They now include a yearly winter retreat called “The Dance of Conception and Birth”, which explores the creative matrix of primary imprints on how we express ourselves in the composition of our lives at different points. “The Dance of Conception and Birth” has been running since 2007. It’s a yearly four-day therapeutic retreat involving one Sunday a month where the participants work on how their earliest experiences are inherent in how they approach everyday transitions and creative composition in everyday life.

This winter retreat has been particularly influential for me and has generated powerful creative projects such as “Siúl” 2011, “Walking Wisdom Woodquay” 2014 and “The Ciúnas Project” 2016/2017 through NUI Galway Arts Office [4]. “The Dance of Pleasure” explores rites of passage experienced from five to sixteen years old. Other teaching work includes authentic movement and the nervous system, as well as contemplative dance (Dilley, B., 2015).

'Siúl' at Town Hall Theatre Galway July 2012

I applied my learning from Dance Diversity research in secondary education, working within the context of a physical education class consisting of young people with special needs. This cutting-edge experience gave me deep excitement about how powerful differences can be in terms of extending our capacity to understand human intelligence and adaptability from a variety of experiences. It was also very powerful in terms of using physical and emotional cultural differences themselves as a valued resource to increase relationship skills through mutuality. A young dancer who is experiencing strong emotional challenges finds her delight through supporting a wheelchair user. The wheelchair user is an emotionally skilled student and is able to connect easily with the support offered by the more able-bodied dancer. These two young women are able to use their differences in the dance to create through relationship not one, not two but one and two. They can facilitate each other and engage mutual support by leaning into each other’s strengths.

The lack of infrastructure within the education system to support dance movement therapy made development of the work difficult. One of the reasons was a lack of funding. There is a deep challenge in finding a way to develop work in the current economic climate where little money has been invested in developing new infrastructures and responses to our changing cultural crises. Many of these cultural crises are arising in the context of privatization of services. For example, services such as banks, health boards and universities provide short-term counseling to their employees, which has been provided by outside tenders. This is happening right across the public sector and across services. The new cultural matrix of Ireland makes it very hard to create sustainable structures for the development of dance movement therapy.

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Figure 5. Walking Wisdom Project.

Expanding into Socially-Engaged Choreography

During a residency as a dance movement therapist with the Galway City Council, I developed “Moments of Beauty” at the Galway City Museum in 2008/2009. This project was also inspired by my experience of Dance Diversity. I was looking to create safe ways to develop inter-cultural communications about place. I created a movement-based exploration on the eight senses, exploring perceptions of beauty in Galway city. What I was interested in was bringing awareness to different perceptions of beauty and creating mutual respect. For over a year, I had an open group that welcomed all. We would work for three hours once a week. Each week we would explore one of the eight senses. We would explore the biology of each sense, for example we would explore the anatomy of listening and hearing or tasting and touching alongside hard-wired perceptions. Small groups would go on short research walks in the city using that dominant sense. On the return of the groups, there would be creative sharing which included movement. The groups varied from ten to nineteen people of different ages and with different cultural backgrounds. At the end of the year, we created a public performance on the theme of Water and invited a large audience to experience what we had learned. We were focusing on the fluidity of the body and psyche in healthy communications. This was followed by some narrative research on the process.

Getting involved in socially engaged work brought my skills as a dance movement therapist into the public realm and created a bridge between my private practice and application of dance movement therapy principles to some of the social issues of our times.

It brought dance movement therapy into dialogue with socially engaged choreography. The way I approached socially engaged choreography was nourished by the in-depth psychotherapeutic practice that I had been engaged with for almost ten years. In private practice, I worked in-depth with clients who were highly resourced and mostly involved in pursuing careers in healing professions and the arts.

I find myself on an interesting bridge where choreographic work is inspiring my therapeutic practice and the therapeutic practice is inspiring me to create socially engaged work focused on cultural well being and health by addressing cultural issues of our times. My choreographic investigations on a project called “Siúl” [5], which was about the walk of survival and transcendence inherent in the human gait, really inspired my therapeutic practice and helped me to deepen my integration of developmental movement while working with clients. (Divilly, B., 2015).

Siúl, Bernadette Divilly

Potential Possibilities

As dance movement psychotherapy unfolds in Ireland in the 21st century, it appears that trans-disciplinary and intra-disciplinary relationships are key in bringing the core principles of dance movement psychotherapy to the service of the larger community. I was very excited to be a contributor to a conference called “Wounded Places” because it brought artists, activists, academics and others into a conversation connecting wounded places and people internationally (https://theplaceofthewound.wordpress.com). The connection between people is that there is no place or time where our body is not the template of all experience. At this conference, the body was deeply included across landscapes including urban, rural and imaginative. It was articulated through a strong female voice and engaged across the partitions generated by ruling ideologies including class and race.

I feel deep commitment to the “Dance of Conception and Birth” and the pre and peri-natal psychology and embodied anatomy that support this work (Aposhyan, S., 1999; Brook, A., 2014). This work initially appealed to people with a strong interest in movement, psychology, the art of dreaming and the body. However, more recently, the participants are coming from a broader base, including law, geography and landscape studies.

This shows that in these challenging times that we live in, the one thing we have in common is a body, in a world stressed by crises of war and the complexities generated by huge numbers of people being made homeless. The necessity of coming home to our bodies and recovering our sense of relationship to our own body, to each other’s bodies and the earth body as a living entity, matters across disciplines. It is crucial to our survival.

The development of the human gait and walking as a natural mode of investigation, thinking, integration and pleasure and also as an environmentally friendly mode of transport are all central to my work practices. Contemplative dance practices, pre and peri-natal, developmental psychology and walking all influence how I think about the possibilities for the development of dance movement therapy in Ireland. Also, it is essential that we engage with a trans-disciplinary and intra-disciplinary approach to well-being and health, including many approaches to the body, from the fields of dance, sociology, neuroscience and psycho-geography. Also, the principles of dance movement therapy are useful in working with international conflict – the language of movement is our first language and one that can be used to quickly engage with the ground we share.

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Figure 6. Walking Wisdom. Galway City Museum. 'Dance Dates'. Architect students and local community.

Through a contemplative-based movement practice, called “Walking Wisdom” [6], I have been exploring and mobilising memories and how they can reveal alternative awareness of contested urban spaces, particularly through walking, mapping and the creation of community 'dance dates'. “Walking Wisdom” opens up discussions as to applications of urban design, cultural heritage, and the engagement with diverse and storied histories associated with urban landscapes in Ireland today. 

Gaitway to Woodquay, by Bernadette Divilly

Though dance movement therapy is still a marginalized profession in Ireland, with no professional training available in any of the academic institutions, it has to move and grow with the times we are living in. Over the years, I have had teaching input through dance movement therapy modules in the creative arts therapies and play therapy in Maynooth University, Crawford College and All Hallows College. I have also contributed to the Body Mind Soul program [7] in Ireland with Marian Dunlea, a Jungian analyst, in 2012 (http://www.mariandunlea.com). Bringing specialist dance movement psychotherapy knowledge, specifically connected to movement and the body, to other psychotherapeutic trainings as well as crossing disciplines is important in terms of promoting work opportunities as a dance movement therapist.

Dance movement therapy is closely attuned with somatic practices that support an understanding of developmental psychology (Brook, A., 2014). The development of the ORIGINS training programme by Joan Davis has provided a community of somatic educators now providing in their own communities and in their own professions. Providing care to parents and children through an education on early developmental opportunities and challenges is key to bringing our work to a larger community. In other countries, this is happening largely through private practice but it would be a wise strategy in preventative healthcare practice.

This is also useful in looking at relationships to place. I have initiated early conversations with Davis, Brook and LeBaron as I begin to research themes of implantation in utero and how they are relevant to relationship to place and displacement (Davis, J., 2007; LeBaron, M., MacLeod, C.,  & Acland, A. F., 2013; Brook, A., 2014).

The international and economic crisis that we face globally, where so many people are experiencing displacement created by war and disasters relating to climate change, demands a different type of professional response.

As a dance movement therapist, I have engaged in social choreography to explore issues relating to motherhood, to urban design and to making urban spaces places for social engagement between people of different ages and cultural backgrounds.

In current global conditions, we are responding to dilemmas and to the unknown at a new speed. Keys to our survival include learning to deal with the unknown and responding to life-threatening conditions by staying with the present moment. The fundamental principles of dance movement therapy, which include integration through working with oppositional energies and bringing the body mind spirit into alignment, can be promoted across disciplines. Bringing a humanistic approach and new types of mobility and integration through movement and relationship work is needed in our times.


As a child visiting my grandmother in rural Leitrim, I was not aware of the influences that I was absorbing from the physical and cultural environment. Nor was I aware of the impact of the landscape on me and the stories of the people who had come and gone for many generations from this place in the west of Ireland. These stories included surviving the Irish famine, colonization and a brutal Irish civil war. They also involved the fundamental betrayal of women by the Irish constitution. My journey through cognitive psychology in the 1970s, women’s studies, humanistic integrative psychotherapy, somatic psychology and dance movement therapy, would return again and again to referencing these influences. Fifty years later, at fifty-eight, I still work with the landscape, with relationship and with the present moment experience, engaged through our senses but referenced against the conditioning of culture that we can make conscious. In my professional experience, transformation happens at a level of bringing awareness and connection to our body, mind and spirit. In my “Walking Wisdom” project, the mobilization of the community through silent walking, community mapping and 'dance dates' connected both landscape and culture beautifully. According to Patrick Sheeran, the co-founder for landscape studies, NUI Galway, “landscape, like text, is a social and cultural production as well as an instrument of communication” (1999, p. 289). The Heritage Council of Ireland indicates in a report in 2015 that Irish people value heritage and landscape equally. (Collins, T., Kindermann, G. Newman, C. and Cronin, N., 2016. p. 11). Walking, putting one foot in front of the other, helps us to ground our social and cultural communications. Walking alongside each other, sharing viewpoints and differences becomes essential in remembering who we are and what texts we are imprinting on the landscape.

Dance movement therapy in Ireland has its origins with contemporary dancers, psychotherapists and health education practitioners who understood the necessity of seeing the body, mind and spirit as interconnected. They challenged the dualistic paradigm of seeing the body and the mind as separate, the emotional intelligence as inferior to rational thought and the body as an object, as opposed to a unified ecosystem.

As an approach, dance movement psychotherapy in Ireland is both delicate and robust as a profession. Its delicacy rests in poor employment possibilities for dance movement therapists and marginalized understanding of the field. As yet, there is no infrastructure such as statutory recognition, designated dance movement therapy positions within public health services, public education system and government bodies, such as city and county councils. Dance movement therapists in Ireland have to generate their own work and work across different disciplines to survive, bringing their knowledge from dance movement therapy to new contexts. The robustness of dance movement psychotherapy rests in the principles that it has been developed upon, which provides a response to the development of our times.

These principles, which include acknowledging the body, mind and spirit as a unified system, challenge injuries generated by dualistic and hierarchical cultural systems, including religion, traditional education and the neoliberal production culture based on privatisation. By connecting the body, mind and spirit, dance movement therapy provides a sense of wholeness to all individuals.

Dance movement therapy, alongside the other creative arts therapies, needs to continue to articulate across different disciplines, finding the language of connection in mindfulness practices, which are being introduced increasingly into schools and academic institutions. I am applying contemplative dance practices with third level students and staff as a way of dealing with increasing isolation amongst professional staff and students working in highly competitive environments in academic settings. In the future, my skills as a dance movement psychotherapist will find a place in conversations across disciplines on international conflict and trauma.

Continuing to create meaningful trans-disciplinary connections is a central and necessary support. The challenge will be not to lose the essence of dance movement therapy and its basic principles as it grows.


Figure 7. Still from ‘Woman on Water’ Dance Film. Ciúnas Project. NUIG. 2016. Directed by: Bernadette Divilly. Videographer: Maria Gibbons, Dancer: Doireann Carney 

Bernadette Divilly

@75DPI Bernadette at Nuns island

Bernadette Divilly is a Senior Somatic Psychologist and Dance Movement Psychotherapist working in private practice. She has an MA in Somatic Psychology and Dance Movement Therapy from Naropa University Boulder CO and an Hons BA in Psychology from NUI Galway. She is an accredited member of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapies and the Irish Association of Humanistic Integrative Psychotherapy. She also works as a Choreographer and socially-engaged Dance Artist. Divilly is a professional member of Dance Ireland, a founding member of Galway Dance Project and an affiliated member of Ómós Áite: Space/Place, Irish Studies, NUI Galway. Specialisations include: Socially Engaged Choreography, Contemplative Dance, Dance Movement Therapy, Somatic Psychology, Humanistic Integrative Psychotherapy and Urban Design.


POSTER workshop@75DPI ready


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[1] In different parts of the world, the terms dance movement therapy, dance movement psychotherapy, movement therapy, and dance therapy are used (Payne, H., 2008).
[2] Éamon De Valera (1959 – 1973) served several terms as head of state and led the introduction of the Constitution of Ireland. He worked closely with his long-term friend John Charles McQuaid (1895 – 1973), Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland.
[3] A somatically based training in developmental and evolutionary process from pre conception to standing (http://www.gorsehill.net/origins.htm). They have also contributed a chapter on “Cultivating the felt sense of wellbeing – how we know we are well” to the Oxford Handbook of Dance and Wellbeing (Keogh and Davis, forthcoming). [4] https://bernadettedivilly.com/videos/; https://bernadettedivilly.com/walking-wisdom/      
[5] Translation from Gaeilge to English, Siúl means walk.
[6] “Walking Wisdom Woodquay” was a collaboration I created with Galway City Architect, Rosie Webb’s project, “Design with Communities”. This investigated body intelligent, inter-generational, and culturally diverse design while honouring the ecological, geographical, and sociological history (www.bernadettedivilly.com).
[7] www.mwoodmanfoundation.org/body-soul