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Intersections of art, therapy, and dance

Nina Vidrih invited me to reflect on the intersections of art, therapy, and dance for Elle magazine. Below you can read the entire contribution.

Thank you, Nina, for the questions that sparked curiosity and thoughtful clarity within me.


Nina: How do you personally perceive the connection between art (dance) and therapy?

Nayeli: "Art, for me, represents a source of expression and provides the opportunity for an artist to tell a story of emotions, experiences, sensations, longings, etc. Whether through dance or any other artistic medium. In this way, the artist presents themselves to the world and subtly touches it, just as the world (the audience) touches them.

Therapy, for me, is not performative; it's a very intimate space of connecting with oneself and perhaps even with parts of oneself that we're not ready to show to others because they're still too vulnerable to be seen or touched.

Since I'm not a dance movement therapist, dance isn't the tool that inherently supports the therapeutic process for me. However, it certainly supports it through body awareness and mindful presence in the present moment. For me, the body is the wise one that communicates a lot during therapy. Often clients are not aware of how loudly the body speaks and communicates something. My task is not to decode that but to gently observe and encourage the client to recognize and perceive any potential messages, feelings, and sensations hidden in the present moment.

After some dances, particularly contact improvisation, I feel that it was therapeutic for me. Something within me was touched, and something changed. Perhaps in therapy, we add a bit more. We increase the bridge with a cognitive understanding of what happened and why."

Was it formal education that introduced you to the idea that therapeutic work can be supported by artistic expression (through movement, painting, writing), or did you come to that conclusion on your own, and how?

"Most of my childhood was spent as an athlete (handball player). Consequently, physical activity represented a source of strength and support for me, where I could feel and express myself. When I started to immerse myself in dance, I discovered that I could dive much deeper into myself. Not only emotionally but also somatically, and this exploration reveals entirely new worlds for me. The study of psychology was, of course, the greatest source of curiosity about the mechanisms of the human psyche. I remember a moment of personal distress when I was so deeply in grief that words could no longer find a source of support. That's when I started to dance and observe within my own dance what I feel and what my body communicates to me. Through articulation, self-perception in space, gestures, and feelings. That's how I felt more complete with my feelings. I still find it very difficult to dance in a way that others would watch, so of a performative nature. However, I much prefer to dance in a way that I am a loving witness to myself. So that I can see, perceive, and nurture everything that wants to find its expression.

Within contact improvisation dance, which I perceive as a miniature life, we also engage in very subtle somatic exercises. We learn to direct attention and perceive our body in motion (proprioception), perceive dynamics. In this practice, I have learned a lot about what mindful movement means, what it means to direct one's field of perception from the inner world into space, and thus perceive oneself as part of the connected system that surrounds us."

What actually is dance therapy? How does it work, and how do you work with clients?

"Movement can be completely invisible to our eyes. Perhaps people imagine that therapeutic approaches, that involve the body more, require intense physical expression from them. I say that the client must be ready for it. Learned physical expression or dance is not the same as the presence of contact with the body and permission for something to happen from there. Whether it's movement or a dance. What I notice in practice is that when we truly listen, our movement isn't necessarily ecstatically expressive but often very subtle and intimate. So, in my practice, I encourage clients to learn to listen, slow down, ground themselves in their bodies, and above all, listen to what is happening here and now. Because we often discover a lot of "movement" in muscles or tissues that have finally received our attention.

It's hard for me to say what dance therapy is, or it seems more sensible to define and distinguish between the meaning of the therapeutic process and the therapeutic experience first. In the therapeutic process, we will touch and recognize the inner dynamics of an individual. This process can also exclude the body or any type of expression that an individual may need at any given moment. Perhaps it's tearing a piece of paper in anger or waving a fist in the air. What's important to me is that this expression comes from the client and not from me as the therapist. Of course, I can invite the client to an "experiment," but it's important that it supports the therapeutic process and that the client agrees with it.

Dance can certainly be therapeutic because it allows us to connect with ourselves in a very intimate way. However, there can be a lot of bodily expression associated with deep feelings of shame, so I never force clients into bodily expression if they're not ready for it.

In therapeutic work with the body, I think it's crucial to have knowledge and professional development in the field of trauma work."

How does the classical form of therapy (conversation, dialogue) differ from therapy that includes body movement?

"Verbal conversation is certainly important to me. People talk about and describe their reasons for therapy in a specific way. Within this mode, there are sometimes already hidden certain ways in which individuals confront challenges in their lives. Bringing the body into it brings a dimension of mindful presence in the here and now for me and for the client, where we can observe what is alive and truly present in the moment. When clients start to talk about and describe their experiences from the body, they may use different words or speak more slowly. Verbal description can be somewhat separated from real feelings in the here and now, as it comes from ideas and perceptions about what we know. When we include the body in describing a situation, we are basing it on sensations that are not part of an idea.

In the therapies I conduct, we talk a lot. I'm curious about how an individual experiences things in their life, what meaning they give them, and what reasons there are for certain perceptions they have developed. This says a lot about their way of creating reality in which they live. And at the same time, the body carries a lot of truths that are part of their perceptions. When we don't listen to the body for a long time, I believe it starts to communicate its truth louder and louder.

As a therapist, I'm genuinely curious about what this truth might be."

You seem to have experience with both classical therapeutic approaches and newer, more alternative ones (movement psychotherapy). Do you find one more effective than the other, or is one more suitable for a certain type of people, and vice versa?

"It's difficult to talk about the most effective approach because, for me, it always depends on the client and the relationship I establish with them as a therapist. I certainly support knowledge and approaches that also involve the body. In deep emotional work, we're all vulnerable. So, my question is, which approach will support this vulnerability and help the individual, in a safe and mindful environment, to process and feel what wasn't possible to feel alone. For me, it's not so much about which technique I will use, but how present I can be with the other person. How well I can listen and hear.

Perhaps the "classical approach," which we remember from the time of Freud, places the therapist in the position of an observer and not so much involved in the process. The key in Gestalt approach work, however, is the relationship. So, in therapeutic work, I also listen to my own body and learn to be grounded in the here and now. I am an observer and at the same time a very present companion."

To whom would you recommend movement therapy?

"Engaging in psychotherapy is primarily a decision that each individual makes for themselves. Sometimes it's because they're ready, but sometimes it's because symptoms have become so loud.

What I can say from my psychotherapeutic experience is that I have changed. Sometimes I get a picture of a flower slowly opening towards the sun in spring and then opening like a bud and blossoming. It's not easy to become that bud. Nor is it easy to allow oneself to become that flower, but it's certainly possible. And in the psychotherapeutic process, we don't go through this process of growth and maturation alone. Rather, with someone who will notice all those "obstacles" on the way to blooming and help us water the soil.

Certainly, I recommend therapy to everyone. The way I conduct it is very tailored to the client. The therapeutic process also includes somatic practices that help clients establish a more comfortable connection with their bodies."


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