I am writing this article because I wholeheartedly believe in the power of movement and dance in therapy. This belief is based both on my own personal experience and on my experience of working with clients.
I was first introduced to Gabrielle Roth’s Five Rhythms Dance about six years ago by Caitriona Nic Ghiollaphadraig. I remember how self-conscious I was, how rigid my body was, how awkward and clumsy I felt, and yet there was also for me a glimpse of freedom. Another two years went by when the business of my life with family, work and study prevented me dancing. For the past three years however movement and dance has been a major part of my life and my personal growth. And because I have learned so much about myself and because my creativity has been reawakened through the dance, I began to think of how I could also bring this to the clients I work with. And I need to say that while it is early days yet for me to write this article and I would feel much better equipped to write it in a few years time, yet I also believe that our learning and observation at the beginning of a project is often fresh and clear and just as valid as those based on many years experience.
My first memories of dance were going to Irish dancing classes when I was about four or five and being compared unfavourably with my older sister. I felt deeply ashamed of my inability to dance and hated every minute of it. At boarding school, ballroom dancing formed a major part of our recreational activities, and I enjoyed that. In my late teens and early twenties dancing became linked with meeting a suitable partner. The dance hall was the only place to socialise and like many others I travelled the ballroom of romance circuit. Dancing then became associated with being sexually attractive and the selection of a mate and as such the joy of movement became secondary. The freedom to move our bodies was also associated with the consumption of alcohol.
I mention all of this as I know that my experience in this is not unique and that many of these issues still affect our freedom of movement and many of the people attending dance workshops express these same reservations.
The dance/movement work that I do is based loosely on Gabrielle Roth’s Five Rhythms. Gabrielle Roth trained as a dancer where the focus was learning other people’s steps and dancing became tied up with the right and wrong way to do it. As a student she taught dance and drama to children, senior citizens and patients in psychiatric hospitals. She began to realise that rather than trying to teach steps she could facilitate spontaneous creative movement and dance out of the energy of the group. She realised that she had to start where the group energy was and to lead by following that energy. And this was how she discovered the rhythms through which our energy flows.
Injury prevented her becoming a dancer and moving through this trauma she saw that the dancing path led to physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. She discovered that our bodies get locked into patterns, that we become stiff with repetition. We become numb and insensitive to what we feel. She realised that when she danced she bypassed her personality, she broke free and more importantly she saw that the body never lies. She saw that very few of us truly inhabit our body. Many of us live outside ourselves, in our heads, our memories, and our longings. So our first task is to become embodied and I know of no better way of doing this than through the ‘Body Prayer’, a body awareness exercise through movement.
The Body Prayer
Before we start the “Body Prayer” we need to check out our energy level and then to move our bodies with this energy. We allow our body parts to speak to us through their movements, allowing their story. The exercise begins with a still body, feeling the breath rising and sinking and feeling a deep connection to the earth through our feet. Then we bring our awareness to the head, feeling its weight and gently moving it in the way it needs to and then we move gently through all our body. When we take time with this exercise there usually is a huge release of tension and an acute here and now awareness of how the body is feeling. This exercise can be done daily with or without music and can be done individually or in the group context. It is particularly useful for people who find it difficult to be embodied and is also good to ground people who are living a busy head-focused life. When we are fully embodied then we can begin the Five Rhythms.
The Five Rhythms
The Five Rhythms offer guidelines for expressive creativity and for self- exploration. Gabrielle Roth looks at the Five Rhythms: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness, as a wave, a continuous flow of energy. We realise from physics that everything is in motion and the best way to understand reality is to think in terms of motion, rhythms and constant change. So our challenge is to become conscious of and fully experience these rhythms in our lives. We can become aware of the Rhythms that we are most comfortable with; we can sense the rhythms of others that we come in contact with and how the different rhythms are complementary or discordant. We can become aware of the rhythms which we bring to the different parts of our lives and which one predominates in us.
The rhythm of Flowing connects us with the flow of our individual energy, our base current as it were. When we dance Flowing our inner rhythm takes over and we begin to sense who we really are. When we are in our flow we feel confident in ourselves because we are connected to the earth. Our movements are fluid, loose and flexible and continuous. There is no right or wrong way to do this, only our own way. And gradually, our unique way of being will emerge. We tend to resist surrendering to this rhythm because we prefer life to be safe and predictable. Flowing is dangerous because we don’t know where it will take us and very often in this rhythm we connect with our fears. These fears are locked into our bodies, manifesting themselves in stiff necks, shoulders, backache, locked jaws etc. As we move through Flowing we begin to loosen up our fears and recognise fear as our friend moving it rather than denying or suppressing it.
In Flowing the feminine aspect of the soul is revealed, the focus of the energy is inward, intuitive and reflective. As the Flowing rhythm builds up moving from slow to fast Flowing, the group energy builds up preparing for the Staccato rhythm. Flowing can be difficult for those of us whose energy and focus is outward, for those who hate beginnings and for those who are not in touch with their feminine and nurturing instincts.
And now the rhythm changes and we allow the strong, hard pulsating beat to take hold of us. We move into sharp Staccato where every movement has a beginning and an end. Our body moves in lines creating all sorts of angles and edges “like geometry in motion”. This rhythm emphasises separateness and boundaries. Staccato is not only about getting in touch with our energies and our passions but about expressing them to others and projecting ourselves into the outside world.
In this rhythm we encounter our anger – the fire within. Bottled up anger has a catastrophic effect on us and on society. Its telltale body signs are clenched fists, stiffened backs, locked jaws, tightened muscles, raised voices. When we dance Staccato we move this anger clearing away the blocks and allowing fire energy to move freely within us. Staccato connects us with our masculine energy, the active, practical, protective part, the part that sets goals and plans for the future.
As the Staccato energy builds up we move to the edge of Chaos. Staccato is often a difficult rhythm for those of us who are afraid to express anger or who deny or repress it.
The rhythm of Flowing and Staccato collide in Chaos. For many of us Chaos means being out of control. However, Chaos comes from the Greek word meaning empty spaces. So the rhythm Chaos is about emptying out, letting go and most of us are fearful of this emptiness, seeing it as negative rather than positive and full of potential. Dancing Chaos grounds the mind in the body and releases everything which blocks us from our intuition. In Chaos we are carried away, surrendering to the rhythm, letting the controlling mind go, letting the body loose, releasing the blocks, the tensions, the inhibitions. Sadness is the emotion associated with Chaos.
This rhythm is particularly difficult for those of us who like to always be in control. As we allow our bodies to relax into this rhythm we find that the rigidity in our attitudes, thoughts, feelings begins to dissolve and become more flexible. And just when we are about to collapse the music changes and we find ourselves in the Lyrical rhythm.
Lyrical is the aftermath of Chaos. If we don’t completely let go of the physical resistance, the emotional baggage, the mental barriers, we get stuck in Chaos. When we have cleared all the baggage in Chaos the body naturally moves into graceful, light, playful, exhilarating movements. When our psyches take flight in the airy dance of Lyrical our imaginations are liberated and our spontaneity is awakened. Lyrical is the rhythm of the soul and in this rhythm we feel our connectedness with the whole universe. The joy Associated with Lyrical is an expansive energy of dynamic well being. Lyrical is the most intricate and elusive of all the Five Rhythms. Nothing is fixed, our identities and fluid and unfolding . This rhythm touches the innocence and playfulness of childhood and as such can be particularly difficult for those of us whose inner child has been severely traumatised. In this rhythm we may have to discover, explore and express these childlike qualities for the first time. Lyrical moves more and more slowly into Stillness.
The movement in Stillness is inward, a feeling of empty fullness, full of being – being alive. It is a feeling of intense vitality in the present moment. The emotion associated with Stillness is compassion. Compassion comes as a result of moving through our fear, anger, sadness and joy. Many of us experience deep emotional release in this rhythm as the empty space created by Stillness allows our feelings to emerge.
In this article so far I have briefly described the Five Rhythms. I will now outline the movement and dance programme at the New Day Counselling Centre and describe some of the benefits of Movement and Dance in Therapy.
We run workshops approximately every eight weeks and I also use movement/dance during individual sessions. However, the energy changes dramatically in the group context. All the usual group issues are expressed in an embodied way and the group can provide a framework for practising new behaviour. In the workshops the focus is both inward on self and outward. The various exercises used focus on: How we are in a group? How we are in relationships? How we are in the different rhythms in our relationships? Do we lead and/or follow? Do we take centre stage and/or stay on the periphery? Do we give more than we take? etc. The participants work individually and with partners. All the usual issues of projections and transferences are present in obvious and physical ways and can be dealt with both in the group context and also in individual therapy sessions after the workshops. The integration of all these issues both during and after a workshop is very important. The artwork or poetry create d during the workshop is a useful link between the workshop and individual sessions.
Benefits of Movement and Dance in Therapeutic Context:
1. Regular practice of the Five Rhythms brings about a dramatic improvement in physical and emotional well-being and increases our levels of energy.
2. We become fully embodied and grounded when we dance the rhythms. We become aware of, explore and expand our ways of expressing ourselves and grow in confidence in their use. Many of us have great difficulties being seen. With the dance we begin to take risks in being witnessed in a safe setting and realise that our feelings of fear, shame etc. are not unique. Seeing someone else’s process, their way of expressing themselves can give us courage to explore new ways. We slowly begin to reclaim our own space and the more we dance the more comfortable we become in our bodies. We become more aware of and delight in our sensuality and our sexual energy is awakened.
3. We can unblock, move through, express and release feelings such as fear, anger, sadness and joy through dancing the wave. We realise that it is acceptable and safe to express our feelings in this embodied, grounded way. And we find out that we can move through a whole range of feelings, no matter how painful they are without getting stuck without being swamped. Healing takes place with the release of old tension and body memories and space is made for manifesting more of our inner potential.
4. Dancing the wave opens us up to our creative energy. We allow the body to move from the inside out and we express the beauty of our soul through our movements. As our bodies become loose and flexible we are more open to change and more in touch with our intuition. Regular practice can lead to ecstatic dance connecting us with our spirit and with the universe. During the workshops we also access and express our creativity through art, poetry and drama. Regular workshops add another valuable dimension to the therapeutic process and relationship.
5. When a group has been together for a while a group consciousness is formed which can be encouraging and supportive and which allows the development of sense of freedom to try out new ways of movement and of being.
6. Finally for me the greatest benefit that the dance brings is that it allows us to embody and experience joy, compassion and occasionally blissful experiences which are healing and are all too often missing in the therapeutic process
Ways to Ecstasy, Gabrielle Roth.
Sweat Your Prayers, Gabrielle Roth.
Barbara Meade Collins works as a psychotherapist in the New Day Counselling Centre and also in private practice. She has done most of her dance training with Caitriona Nic Ghiollaphadraig who runs dance workshops throughout Ireland.