Sometimes the Universe steps in and reminds us where we’re supposed to be going.
On Thursday last week, I finished my first aerial hammock class and said to Denis on the way back to our camper, “That makes me feel really happy.”
He said, “You always feel happy when you’re moving.”
This meshes nicely with last week’s (umptillionth) heretofore-unannounced revision to my long-term plan, in which I first discovered that one does not necessarily have to effectively complete a second master’s if one first completes a stand-alone master’s program and then goes for a doctorate, then decided that maybe doing a DMT Master’s (or a counseling or clinical psych Master’s with concurrent DMT cert) first would be a good idea after all, rather than diving directly into a doctoral program and attempting to do the alternate-route certification concurrently.
PlayThink was yet another reminder of the things that make DMT such an ideal fit for me: I love moving; I love helping other people connect with themselves through movement; I don’t want to sit behind a desk; I don’t want to have to wear normal clothes (seriously, if you’re choosing a career path, that’s something worth thinking about: Do I want to spend my entire day in khakis and a tie, or in lycra? As much as I like getting dolled up in a sharp suit, I’m happiest in dancewear).
There’s another point, though, that I didn’t quite get until this morning. I’m going to take the long way ’round to explain it, because words.
Last night, I was pondering and feeling strange about an experience I had at PlayThink; about how a guy (Brandon, if I didn’t hear him wrong) who I barely knew embraced me and just held me for a long moment with a singular intensity and, strangely enough, it didn’t freak me out (that was the part I felt strange about — the not-freaking-out part). I’m still, generally speaking, quite protective of my own body, but for whatever reason, in that particular moment, I was able to just let go and experience and enjoy that physical connection, that closeness (for which, if you ever happen to stumble across this blog, thank you, Brandon!).
I wanted to talk to Denis about it, but was struggling with how to explain all the feels (in fact, I still can’t really articulate how I felt or still feel about that particular experience). I said, “I want to talk about something, but I’m having a hard time explaining it.”
Denis smiled and said, “I always kind of think it’s funny when you say that, because it’s always hard for you to explain things.”
I laughed, then, because he was right: I really struggle to explain anything (even my blog posts get a lot of revision, most of the time), especially abstract concepts.
Feelings are the hardest. I have trouble figuring out how to describe them using the abstract vocabulary of emotion — but I can dance about them … and, oddly enough, often moving my body helps me figure out which words to use.
Moreover, moving with people makes me feel connected to and comfortable with them in ways that nothing else does. The sense of instantaneous trust I felt towards Brandon resulted at least in part from our participating together in an activity that involved movement, cooperation, and spontaneity. It reminds me of nothing so much as the first group improvisation warmup that we did in Linnie Diehl’s Intro to Dance-Movement Therapy intensive last November at the ADTA conference!
I suspect that connection, that sense of trust that stems from moving together, may be one of the greatest tools that DMT can offer. For those of us who struggle with language and for those of us who struggle with trust, there’s a profound potential there.
That trust is a sacred one. In a way, that same sacred trust suffeses the work of dancers, of aerial artists, of acrobats. There’s a connection that runs deeper than words that we can find when we move together.
It all sounds very mystical, but even mystical experiences occur in the realm of neuroscience (and, in fact, the domain of the liminal, mystical mind is one in which neuroscience as a field is very interested!).
I don’t know, yet, precisely where my journey is taking me, but that is ground I very much hope to explore: first, in the experiential sense, connecting with other dancers, with other artists, and someday with other DMTs and with DMT clients; second, in the scientific sense, trying to understand how our experience of that physical, movement-based connection which bypasses words takes place on a neurobiological level.
DMT as a modality is a good one for me to practice because it takes advantage of my own native language: I’m a physical being first and a cerebral one second, and that’s okay. I realize that this is a huge part of why I am much more confident and social in the ballet studio; why I felt so confident and social at the 2014 ADTA conference; why, at the end of PlayThink this year, I didn’t hesitate when more than one near-stranger bypassed my proferred handshake and went in for a hug.
As for the present tense: maybe I’ll stop trying to describe my experience with Brandon and, instead, I’ll try to dance about it.
…And I am being a Delinquent Danseur. So I’ll open with some super-brief Class Notes:
Another new student this time (with amazing feet!). She shared my barre, and I proceeded to do the degage combination wrong because muscle memory (it was almost identical to one we use frequently in more advanced classes, but with slight differences — closing the balancoire front where it would normally close back, etc). I hope I didn’t confuse her too much! My grand battement was also wigglier than usual in the middle at moments, but not horribly so.
My balances were much better today. I am basically practicing nothing but balances at home. I am ridiculous. Need something in the fridge? Open the door. Coupe. Balance. Need something in the cabinet? Open the door. Passe. Balance.
Because Louisville is one very Catholic town and it was the day before St. Padraig’s, we learned a couple of Irish dance steps (in the famous words of Willem DeFoe: “Kinda makes ya feel like Riverdancin’!”).
It wasn’t “ballet proper,” but it was fun; ridiculously so. Sometimes it’s good to mix it up a little and relax.
One step was basically a very kicky, bouncy, fast-traveling Pas de Basque; the other was sort of like saute-passe, only the working knee points straight ahead instead of straight out to the side. Fun stuff, and a nice change of pace. Of course, being Dancers Who Try Very Hard, we all tried to do them with our arms in correct Irish Dance form, and hilarity ensued (because, you guys, that involves fighting every Ballet Instinct you have ever cultivated).
By the end of class, we were all grinning like a pack of six-year-olds in a Pixie Stix factory.
Interesting note: it’s amazing how light you suddenly feel when you relax a little — which is, as always, something I need to work on (“Don’t make it happen, let it happen!”).
…And that was it. My leg was fine (I kept the little traveling jumps low), and I had a great time. Denis predicts that this will be my last week as a rehab student; while I’ll need to continue re-strengthening my calf, I’ll probably finally get permission to do big jumps for real next week. YAAAY! I miss my grand allegro! (Okay, so I may or may not have practiced tours-in-the-air a couple of times in the kitchen…)
Okay! Now onto the whole Creative Arts Therapy Thing!
So it’s Creative Arts Therapy Week! That means we get to celebrate everything about Creative Arts Therapy!
You’ll notice that there are now seven accredited DMT Masters’ programs. Sara Lawrence has been in the process of gaining accreditation, so it’s good to see that they’ve made the cut. For a number of reasons, I’ve got my sights set on Drexel in Philadelphia, but it’s always nice to have more options.
Not so long ago, I really underestimated the value of the creative arts therapies — I like to tell people about how my knee-jerk response to Denis’ suggestion that I become a DMT was, “Dance therapy? …That’s for hippies.” It turns out that the more we learn about how the brain changes in response to experience, the more value we begin to see in things like art therapy and dance therapy.
However, the neuropsychological potential of DMT is only part of the picture (you guys, it’s hard for me, Mr. Neuroscience-Is-Everything-And-Everything-Is-Neuroscience, to write those words!).
To be brief: I know that for me, even outside of the formal context of Dance-Movement Therapy, dance is a critical part of the therapeutic process in ways that reach beyond measurable changes in levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor and so forth.
Ballet has boosted my confidence immensely. Spending several hours every week moving while barely clothed in a room full of mirrors and near-strangers has really forced me to think about my relationship with my own body (this hasn’t always been easy or comfortable, but it has been valuable). Learning to regard my body as capable (in some ways, exceptionally so) and trustworthy has also done wonders for me.
The class schedule adds order to my sometimes-chaotic life and gets me out of bed on my worst days. Numbering myself as a member of the broader communion of dancers bolsters my identity in ways that I can’t begin to express or explain. Knowing that I have class in the morning (or evening) is, likewise, protective against some of my less-helpful impulses: we have established that drinking can really hose things up for me, mood-wise, and ballet class bears such powerful emotional salience as to override the desire to go out and get hammered (or, well, have three beers, if you’re me).
We don’t yet really know how to measure things like that empirically with the tools of neuroscience, but their value is immense — even, perhaps, immeasurable. The process of healing and growth involves both discrete, measurable, empirical factors and factors that remain far more subjective and mysterious.
As a culture, we might not put much stock in those subjective and mysterious factors — but that doesn’t mean they’re not real. It’s likely that we’ll figure out how to measure them with the tools of neurobiology some day, but I don’t think that really matters. Growth and healing are evidence in their own right: when a paralytically-shy kid begins to emerge from his shell, or a hostile young lady learns to trust other people a little more, we may not always really grasp what’s going on a biological level — but we know for sure that something’s going on.
I can say that the little experience I’ve had with DMT in action — the practical portions of Linnie Diehl’s introductory intensive at 2014’s ADTA conference — has been transformative. There’s something magical about the process of moving together as a group, and there’s another level of magic involved in doing so under the guidance of a wise and experienced therapist. Literally never in my life have I seen such a bond of trust and fellowship blossom so quickly among a group of strangers.
I’m sure that, too, is something we’ll eventually figure out how to measure empirically with the tools of neurobiology. However, even if we never do, the value inherent in that process must not be underestimated.
I am not someone who naturally feels comfortable joining a group — I harbor a lot of distrust leftover from a childhood in which I was a perpetual outsider. Within the framework of DMT, however, dance is an amazing tool to combat that bred-in-the-bone distrust of groups: when you move together under the guidance of a qualified Dance-Movement Therapist, it’s not like distrust evaporates — it just tends to slip away when you’re not looking.
Once you give yourself to the process, as a participant, you can’t hold onto distrust. Connections get made before you realize it’s happening, and you become part of a whole greater than yourself.
That’s the feeling I love in ballet class — there’s a part of me that just absolutely grooves on that thing where we’re like ten or twenty or thirty little cells in this animal that is Class; another part that loves the sense that what I’m doing right now is the same thing that every ballet dancer, everywhere, does and has done since the dawn of the art (not that I usually think about that in class: there’s no time for philosophizing!).
Dance-Movement Therapy can impart that same sense of unity, and its tools provide the means to invite participants to step out of their own comfort zones. I’ll be the first to say that I was wildly uncomfortable with the mirroring exercise we did at the start of Linnie Diehl’s intensive — I was afraid, some how, that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to connect; that I wouldn’t be able to follow other peoples’ movement patterns. Even though I’d done a similar exercises in acting and modern-dance contexts, it just seemed daunting, somehow.
I think I was also afraid I’d somehow do it “wrong,” and immediately be told that I had no business trying to become a DMT! (I was also afraid I’d find myself excessively hung up in the formal language of ballet, but that’s a different problem.)
Knowing that everyone else was trying and struggling, working to connect, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not, right along with me made that much easier. I was able to know that because Linnie Diehl was there to guide the process, and because afterwards we talked about how it went.
By the end of the warm-up, our little group of would-be DMTs was moving together, trusting each-other. I’m sure there are all kinds of perfectly good scientific explanations (hello, oxytocin!), but ultimately, it doesn’t matter why Dance-Movement Therapy makes that happen.
It simply matters that DMT does make it happen.
Answer by Asher Taylor:
I don’t think it's an either/or question – both well-executed "talk therapy" and well-executed Dance Movement Therapy lead to changes in the brain (as do all our experiences). The changes in question are measurable and, modern neuroscience suggests, intrinsic to the healing process.
Research has demonstrated that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) — perhaps the most – effective "talk therapy" in use today — and antidepressants lead to similar changes in the brain and similar outcomes. Research has also demonstrated that programs of physical exercise lead to increases in Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which is an important factor in neuroplasticity and brain growth. Neuroplasticity is essential to change in the brain, and it is through changes in the brain that therapeutic measures work over the long term.
DMT couples principles from traditional counseling psychology with physical movement, and while research into the neurological impacts of DMT is in its infancy, I'd be very surprised if we find that it doesn't lead to brain changes associated with positive therapeutic outcomes. In fact, I plan to do my doctoral research into this very question.
At the end of the day, DMT is another tool in the therapeutic tool kit, and it's one that works well for many patients, though it's under – utilized. Just as some people respond better to SSRIs and others to tricyclic antidepressants, for some people DMT will be a more effective tool than talk therapy — and I suspect that the combination of both might make for a very powerful therapeutic toolkit, indeed.
I apologize for the lack of peer-reviewed references here. I'm posting this from my phone. I'll try to get back and post some article links soon.
Here are a couple of good articles discussing antidepressant medication treatment, BDNF, and so forth. Whenever possible, I’ve included full-text links, but some of these are only accessible as abstracts without paywall access. There are, of course, may more; these represent a select few from a research project I completed last semester.
DeRubeis, Siegle, & Hollon. (2008). Cognitive therapy vs. medications for depression: Treatment outcomes and neural mechanisms. Nature Reviews Neurosience, 9(10), 788-796. doi: 10.1038/nrn2345
Mata, J., Thompson, R. J., Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Gotlib, I. H. (2012). Walk on the bright side: Physical activity and affect in major depressive disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121(2), 297-308. doi:10.1037/a0023533
Wrann, White, Salogiannis, Laznik-Bogoslavski, Wu, Ma, Lin, & Greenberg. (2013). Exercise induces hippocampal BDNF through a PGC-1α/FNDC5 pathway. Cell Metabolism, 18(5), 649-659. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2013.09.008