Dance/Movement Therapy | Sunday Observer

Dance/Movement Therapy

19 April, 2020

Dancing since she was 4 years, Ashley Fargnoli has fostered a keen understanding of the intrinsic healing elements of dance. Today as a certified Dance/Movement Therapist, she has worked in many countries around the world including Bosnia, Herzegovina and India. Engaging in the fields of community building, rehabilitation and empowerment, her work has enabled her to successfully combine her passion for dance and humans rights.

Ashley is currently based in Sri Lanka.

What is Dance/Movement Therapy?

As defined by the American Dance Therapy Association, dance/movement therapy, or DMT is based on the body-mind connection and is the “psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual, for the purpose of improving health and well-being.” (ADTA, 2014). In the United States, dance/movement therapists have 2-3 years of Master’s level training in both dance/movement therapy and counselling, and are able to become licensed mental health professionals upon completion of their degree.

In a DMT session, we are not teaching dance steps or dance technique; it is an improvisational movement experience between the therapist and the client, in which the therapist is constantly attuning to the needs of the client. You don’t need to have dance or movement experience to participate. The ‘movement’ part of DMT is especially important as movement can be found in subtle ways such as, breath, shifts in posture… Dance/movement therapists welcome all movement into the therapeutic space. In working cross culturally, many of our clients bring their own dances and music into the space, which helps establish safety and builds the connection between client and therapist

From your experience, in what ways is dance therapy most useful?

There are many people who don’t have words to express how they feel and what they have been through. Dance/movement therapy provides an outlet to express oneself non-verbally and to tap into emotions that have often gone unnoticed or that haven’t had a way to be acknowledged. For young children with autism or other developmental disabilities, or older adults who have lost their ability to communicate, DMT provides a wonderful opportunity for expression.

Additionally, for people who have experienced trauma, which is stored in the body and often manifests through somatic symptoms, particularly among refugees and immigrants, such as headache, severe and unexplainable pain. Through movement and attention to the body, we are able to assist people to move in ways that promote feelings of safety in the body and help address underlying symptoms. Dance/movement therapy is also implemented in people dealing with stress, loss, or are wanting to improve their overall wellbeing and deepen their understanding of themselves.

How do you determine what type of therapy a person needs?

I always do a comprehensive mental health assessment when I first meet a client which helps me to understand the client’s needs and what they are looking for in therapy. This includes detailed social and family, medical and trauma history. Sometimes clients come to me already knowing that they want to do dance/movement therapy. For those that are not familiar or have never had therapy before, which is often the case for many refugees and immigrants coming from countries where mental health is stigmatized or not available, we have an in-depth conversation about various forms of therapy and provide a lot of psycho education on how therapy can be beneficial. (I am also trained in sensorimotor psychotherapy and yoga-informed psychotherapy). Even if I use a more traditional approach such as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, I am always looking through a movement lens and find ways to merge these various therapies

Is dance therapy better than other therapy methods?

I think so! Dance/movement therapists are trained as verbal psychotherapists as well, so we have the ability to switch between movement and verbal processing as needed. Movement allows for additional ways to process what the client is experiencing and can access emotions and implicit memories that words often cannot

How important is our emotional connection to our body?

Our emotions live in our body, and not just in our minds (hence the body-mind connection!) so that connecting to our emotions is pertinent. When you have felt sad, happy or stressed, you may have noticed that the body responds in various ways, through tension, heaviness, lightness, fluttering sensations etc. It is important to constantly check in with our bodies on a daily basis. In the field of self-compassion focused therapy, this is called ‘self-compassion breaks.’ I like to apply this to my daily routine and encourage my clients to do the same.

How exactly does dance/movement therapy help your patients?

DMT is wonderful for helping people reconnect and feel safe in their bodies, which is the most important first step in trauma work. The body awareness that is intrinsic in DMT is essential in helping refugees cope with the re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD that so many people deal with. DMT is also essential in helping people reconnect with others.

As trauma is very isolating, DMT groups are a great way to promote social interaction. Also, DMT is very effective in addressing the chronic pain and somatic symptoms which is a common presentation in refugees. Dance/movement therapy is firmly rooted in neuroscience and through movement, we are able to help re-pattern and build new neural pathways in the brain while increasing mobility.

Based on your experience, how receptive are people to dance/movement therapy (as an alternative form of therapy and in general)?

I have always been pleasantly surprised at how receptive people are to dance/movement therapy. Of the hundreds of people I have worked with, I can honestly say that almost everyone wanted to give it a try. I often share the story of a 60-year-old refugee from the Middle East that I worked with who was incredibly receptive to DMT, despite my own preconceived notions of how he would respond. I have worked with people of all ages (age 3-94) and am humbled by the positive responses I have had. Even in Sri Lanka, where the field of dance/movement therapy is new, I have had great success in encouraging women and men of all ages to move in the workshops that I have conducted.

Does dance/movement theory work for everyone or does it depend on certain things such as behaviour or cultural background?

Cultural background does come into play, but as dance/movement therapy is based on the non-verbal connection between the therapist and the participants I have found it incredibly accessible cross-culturally.

In working with refugees and immigrants in the United States from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, as well as implementing and teaching DMT internationally, I haven’t found a population yet that hasn’t been open to DMT. We do of course need to carefully assess the appropriateness and readiness of our clients to engage in movement, particularly if they have experienced trauma.

Finding safety and stability in the body is a priority for all populations and we need to be mindful about how we introduce movement into the sessions.

Is there any particular advice or an experience you like to share that would be informative?

In our current situation of the world (COVID-19 pandemic) with increased panic and anxiety and many people needing to self-isolate, I would like to share a few tips to stay calm and reduce social isolation. (Based on tips from CDC and the ADTA)

  •  Acknowledge that there may be different feelings arising related to the outbreak, including, fear, anxiety and stress
  •  Focus on what you are able to control such as proper hygiene and social distancing
  •  Move: Keep your body moving by putting on music and dancing, stretching, practising yoga or tai-chi
  •  Spend time in nature as much as possible
  •  Avoid excess exposure to media: watch the news or go online once or twice a day to stay informed, but try to not overwhelm yourself by constant exposure
  •  Stay connected to loved ones through whatsapp video chat, Facebook chat, Skype

Ashley Fargnoli is a Board-Certified Dance/Movement Therapist and Licensed Clinical Professional Counsellor from the United States. She works as a dance/movement therapist with refugees, immigrants and survivors of human trafficking and is currently a visiting Fulbright Scholar at the University of Peradeniya, Department of Fine Arts in Sri Lanka.