dance therapy

Dance therapy – releasing the body

When we were children we danced, skipped and jumped for sheer joy. We sang and shouted, drew and painted with a total lack of self-consciousness. It wasn’t “art”, it was sheer creative expression – and it felt fantastic. So how come, as we get older, we leave the dancing, the drawing, the poetry and song to “professional” artists and children and enter a world which is sensible and grown-up – but precious little fun?

“We are all artists,” insists Caroline Born, a movement therapist who is seemingly on a one-woman mission to introduce some fun and freedom into our dull lives. “Creativity is part of being a whole person,” she continues, “A lot of people say “oh, but I can’t paint or dance” but it’s just a belief system. Someone once said you can’t and you believed it. But once you want to change it you can.” She promises that if you can only trust enough to let go and move freely, you can release hidden reserves of energy and vitality and, moreover, come to a greater personal awareness, a clearer sense of who you really are.

At Harbour House, overlooking the quay in picturesque Kingsbridge, South Devon, a small group of us are waiting to start one of Caroline’s workshops – an afternoon which aims to take us out of our frenetic, stressed, overworked minds and plug us directly into our bodies through movement and art.
I’m more than a little nervous: dancing is something I generally only do willingly when I’ve had a copious liberating dose of alcohol. While I’m happy to follow a fitness class or practice the precise poses of yoga or Pilates, I’m not so sure about letting it all hang out and giving my body free rein. I guess, at heart, I’m scared of making a complete fool of myself.

I’m not given much chance to worry about it. Caroline firmly believes that our bodies are our best teachers so she doesn’t waste time with introductions or explanations but immediately asks us to move around the room, noticing the space, feeling how our feet touch the floor, letting our fingers explore the walls, sensing how our bodies want to move rather than how we feel they should move. Caroline is a clever teacher – and very sneaky: within ten minutes I’m rolling on the floor and stroking the walls without quite knowing how I got there. There’s simply no opportunity to get nervous: every exercise segues into the next so seamlessly that you’re hurling yourself around the room like a whirling dervish before you know it.

Nothing is forced, nobody is pushed beyond their limit – you just follow the one and only rule: “Don’t force the movement and don’t hold it back,” insists Caroline. Sometimes people just sit quietly in a corner, until they feel the urge to move. Those movements might be tiny or might be huge and expansive. “You can’t do it wrong,” she continues, “you just have to learn to listen to your body and then follow it.”

We work through a series of exercises to loosen up the pelvis and take attention into the lower body. It’s feels good: grounding and earthy and makes me realise how often we forget that we’ve got a body below our necks, let alone below our waists. Once we’ve spent some time getting in touch with our bums and thighs, feet and ankles, Caroline swiftly hands out paper and crayons and asks us to draw our impressions of the lower body. She insists she’s not asking for a literal interpretation – just marks will do. I find my hand inscribing frantic circles, desperately covering the paper with orange and red. Then, without warning, I feel a surge of sadness for my body which went through hell during childbirth. I realise how I retreated into my mind while shunning and condemning my poor body.

About ten minutes later we push our drawings to the side of the room and start seeking connection with our upper bodies. I’m still enjoying my lower body connection and find myself becoming resentful and petulant at the shift. I get a growing feeling that I don’t want to be here and start telling myself it’s silly and a waste of time. Everyone is leaping around and looking, to my jaundiced eyes, ridiculous. I just slope around on the edges and wonder what the time is. Then Caroline’s voice cuts through, reminding us to listen to our bodies and not hold back any movements that want to come. It’s as if she’s talking directly to me and I stop for a moment and tune in. My body seems to want to kick and shuffle, to drag its feet and turn my face into a sneer. Before I know it, I realise where I am: I’ve plugged back into the body of a seven year old: indignant, angry and petulant as only a seven year old can be. I kick and mooch my way round the room and feel much better. This time my drawing is more jagged and spiky.

The final step is to integrate upper and lower body, to experience the whole body as one piece, all working together. I follow my inclination to become very quiet and lie on the floor, hugging my knees to my chest and suddenly feeling close to tears. Then my toes start twitching and a wonderful surge of energy powers through my entire body and I get to my feet and stretch as if I’ve never stretched before. My final picture is of a figure bending in an almost circular movement – with a very prominent spine begging for attention. It’s a bit obvious but I realise I need to become more flexible, to find ways of bending and stretching myself – both physically and metaphorically in life.

Over the years I have done a lot of psychotherapy and bodywork, also several years of art therapy – but I don’t think I have come across something which can contact deep inner feelings and forgotten times quite so swiftly and effectively. The others are equally impressed: Donna Ladkin, 41, a university lecturer and writer, smiles broadly and says, “It’s wonderful to get out of that constantly analayzing thinking machine and listen to the intelligence from one’s body. I lost every sense of self-consciousness and it was just great!”
Helen Loxton, 56, a natural health therapist and teacher is also full of praise: “What I like is that it’s okay to do whatever you want to do – there’s no pressure. I was stunned by how different everyone’s movement and art was and how wonderful it was that people felt able to reveal their innermost feelings through their bodies.”

Caroline is pleased, but not surprised, by our enthusiasm. She’s been doing this work for twenty years now and, apart from teaching workshops like this has worked with children and people in psychiatric hospitals. She has even taken movement to men’s prisons – with remarkable success. “Amazing things can happen when you let the body do what it needs without your mind getting sucked in,” she explains, “We think that, as adults, all we are allowed to do is walk, stand, sit and lie…occasionally we run for a bus. Very few adults climb trees any more and that’s sad.”
I ponder whether the very people who would most benefit from this work might find the whole idea just too uncomfortable. “Yes, it is challenging,” admits Caroline, “and you can’t force people to do it. But you have to ask ‘Are you prepared to take a creative risk to be yourself?’”

As people leave the room they have a brightness in their eyes and a bounce in their step which I certainly hadn’t noticed before. Personally I feel good, full of a relaxed energy and curiously at ease in myself. But I’m also aware that this is just a beginning. Now I’ve let my body have a chance to get a word in I have the sneaking suspicion that there’s a lot more it wants to say.

Find out more about Caroline Born’s workshops here.

This feature first appeared in Woman & Home magazine

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