by Valeria Lo Iacono
A few years ago, I attended a one day introductory course on dance therapy, organised by Bristol College and an organisation based in Bristol, called Dance Voice. Since I first heard about dance therapy, I have always been interested and fascinated by this discipline and I have wondered if some of its principles can be applied to belly dance.
There is no doubt that movement in every form, whether it is sport, dance or a game which involves physical activity, is beneficial for the mood and the mind. Dance movement therapy uses dance to help people with their emotional, social, mental, physical and spiritual development. Dance therapy is usually aimed at people with disabilities, or mental health groups, older people and any other group of people in need of help. However, I believe that there is no reason why dance therapy activity should not be beneficial to the average person and to dance students, including belly dancers.
Dance movement therapy is based on the work of Rudolf Laban, a dancer and choreographer who established a discipline of dance analysis and invented a system of dance notation called Laban Movement Analysis. Laban’s approach emphasises the fact that the movement is self generated, thus expressing the inner state of the dancer. Dance therapy uses a lot of activities, to be carried out individually or in groups with or without props, some of which could also be used during a normal dance or belly dance class.
During the one day workshop I attended, the teacher guided us through a series of different activities, such as us trying to express a state of mind through movement, working in pairs or in groups, using props to create dances etc. At the end of that day I felt very happy and relaxed and I felt that I had bonded with the group a lot, definitely much more than I ever had in any other ordinary workshop, including belly dance workshops. I definitely think that some dance therapy activities could be included to belly dance classes, to help performers connect with their creativity, bond with the others as a group and also enhance the various benefits of this form of dance.
As I started practising contemporary dance, I also noticed that dance therapy uses many techniques which are used in some contemporary dance styles. For example, contact improvisation, which is a technique developed in the 1970s in America, where dancers improvise leaning against each other and using each other’s weight to generate movement, by giving into the other person or pushing against each other. In short, by exploring weight, gravity and dynamics created by more than one person interacting. As contact improvisation is based on trust and cooperation between dancers, I can see how its techniques can be useful for dance therapy, where people learn to interact, communicate, rely on each other and open up.
Also, breathing techniques and the idea of contraction and release can be used for dance therapy. If we concentrate on movement as guided by breath, it can feel quite liberating. After all, breathing techniques have been used for centuries to relax and meditate, so associating breathing with movement can be very useful. Another technique I remember from the workshop in Bristol was that one person acted as the ‘sculptor’ who positions other people’s bodies together to create a shape. This technique I also did during a contemporary dance class on improvisation. Also, in the workshop we tried to dance with our eyes closed, which helps you connect with your body and your feelings. Props were then used a lot including foulards, balls and other items.
The fact that belly-dance is a type of dance that leaves a lot of room to improvisation, leads me to think that it also leaves more room than other types of dance (such as ballet that relies on choreographies) to self expression and also allows the dancer to somehow express her inner state. Also, some dance therapy activities can be useful to create a bond between a group of belly dancers and to help dancers connect to their creativity. Certainly ,expressing emotions is very important, especially in Egyptian style belly dance in general and specifically for dancers such as Dandesh. So, there is a lot of room in belly dancing for emotions in a way that is almost cathartic and therapeutic. Another dancer whose work is based on expressiveness a lot is Sara Farouk, a British dancer who lives in Cairo and who was originally trained in contemporary dance and acting (so this maybe ha influenced her interest towards expressiveness in dance).
Dance therapy, in order to be practised, requires training in psychology as well as dance and it is a complex field. However, I think that any way in which we can express our creativity freely is therapeutic and certainly dance helps in this. Indeed, especially in the UK, community dance is becoming more and more popular with the government helping to fund projects of community dance if the organisers can prove that the project helps develop a community and is inclusive of people of every age, abilities, financial means and physical conditions. Belly dancing classes are also done in the community and they definitely help boost mood and self esteem.
For more information on dance therapy, there are a few books available on Amazon, such as, among the others, ‘Dance Movement Therapy’ or ‘Creative Movement and Dance’ by Helen Payne.