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The dancing cure

From treating depression to dementia, how getting in tune with your body through dance can reach the parts other therapies can’t touch.

Photography by Fredi Brinkworth

Do you ever dance like nobody’s watching? Personally that hasn’t happened to me since my last drunken night in a club, which was a looong time ago. But I do remember how good it felt, so I was intrigued to come across a therapy that uses the freedom of dance to help treat gnarly mental health issues which are such a blight in so many people’s lives. I went along to a session with Dance Movement Psychotherapist Kimberley Pena MA RDMP (yes, it’s a proper letters-after-your-name qualification) to find out more about the dancing cure.

What is Dance Movement Psychotherapy?

A registered practice since the late 1960s, Dance Movement Psychotherapy (DMP) is a therapy that allows people suffering from mental health issues to use their body, movement and dance as a means of expression. Often people find it difficult to articulate their feelings and emotions – this can be particularly acute in children and teens – so movement offers a safe vessel of communication.

Who’s it for?

Everyone and anyone suffering from a mental health illness – undiagnosed or not. In some counties in the UK, it can be accessed on the NHS; Kimberley once worked on an end-of-life ward treating the terminally ill. It is beneficial for people with dementia, those managing addictions, people with eating disorders, women suffering from post-natal depression, people with learning and / or physical disabilities and can also work as a family therapy. Currently Kimberley is doing a lot of work with people who have experienced trauma, either physical or emotional.

How does it work?

The body has an inherent ability to communicate without words. As babies we learn how to use our bodies to express ourselves, but as we grow up we lose that connection and live predominantly in the mind. In pre-modern times there were outlets for using the body as an expressive instrument as communities gathered to dance together. Much of that has been lost today with the mind taking precedence over most of what we do. Getting into your body and using movement as a means of expression takes the pressure off the cognitive process. It lets you let it all hang out, not seeking to find solutions but rather just allowing you to express and explore whatever it is you are feeling. Through this creative process, the triggers to depression, anxiety or whatever the difficulty is, slowly get revealed in a very safe, non-judgemental environment. The process is less about trying to work out why something has happened and more about learning how to manage difficult emotions and experiences.

What happens in a session?

There are no Freudian couches and all-knowing therapists in DMP. Instead, sessions start sitting on the floor having a chat which may or may not lead to movement. Kimberley and I had a long talk before getting up to move. When we did she asked me if there was a particular song I felt moved by. There was and so off we went. I can’t deny I felt a bit self-conscious to start with but because we were mirroring each other – and she started first – I soon lost my inhibitions. And it felt good! Just moving, dancing, whatever it was I was doing was really liberating and I was well up for the next exercise, authentic movement. This technique allows you to really go inside and let your body move from as unconscious a place as possible. I was on my own for this and actually forgot that Kimberley was in the room as I just moved in whatever way I wanted to. Afterwards I wrote down feelings, words, images, colours that had come to me while I’d been moving and Kimberley wrote down her observations too. We shared them and I felt released from a heavy load. I won’t bore you with what came up for me but it dug deep.

How successful is it?

While I’m not suffering from a mental illness (although I often feel overwhelmed by life and anxious), I did experience a real lightness after the session, not least because it reminded me how much I like to dance. I can see how the sessions could tease out feelings and emotions in a very gentle and non-judgemental way. Not feeling like there’s a linear journey to an ‘answer’ is quite empowering. Letting the body just move seems to dismantle boundaries about what’s OK and what’s not OK – things just are. Kimberley says it can be a massive release for men, in particular, who are less adept at articulating their feelings than women, giving them a safe space to release pent-up testosterone. Studies have shown it does have a positive impact on wellbeing; a recent one showed that DMP can increase quality of life, mood, body image and relief from depression. It’s also been shown to be beneficial in cancer care and treating people with schizophrenia.

Kimberley Pena is available for private sessions in Cheltenham, movingthroughlife.co.uk, @KimberleyRDMP

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