Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Her Body Speaks: The Experience of Dance Therapy for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

Her Body Speaks: The Experience of Dance Therapy for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse

Article excerpt

Counseling and therapy have traditionally been known as "talking cures," used to relieve the symptoms of emotional distress and the problems in living encountered by clients as they progress through life. Consistent with the mind-body duality that had its origins in the teachings of Aristotle and Plato, whatever the theoretical underpinnings of the various theorists, and irrespective of the psychological or somatic nature of clients' concerns, these talking cures have all had as their goal facilitating changes in clients' thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and perceptions. Noticeably absent in most traditional approaches, however, has been attention to the body--to the embodied aspects of clients' psychosocial experiencing (Simonds, 1994). Even when clients have experienced significant physical trauma, as in the case of physical or sexual abuse or various health crises (e.g., mastectomy, hysterectomy, spinal cord injury, stroke), direct attention is rarely paid to the clients' relationships with and experiences of living in their bodies.

Yet, each individual's history is etched in their body and is reflected in their breathing, in the lines on their faces, in their eyes, and in the way they walk in the world (P. L. Bernstein, 1986; Levy, 1988; Siegel, 1995). As Alice Miller (1981/1984) aptly stated in relation to traumatic childhood experiences,

   The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can
   repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our
   feelings manipulated, our perceptions confused, and our body tricked with

      But someday the body will present its bill. (p. 316)

Vigier (1994) also speaks of the power of the "voice of the body"--a "voice inside the flesh" that is beyond interpretation, "that is simply the body speaking" (p. 236). She underscores the importance of finding ways to give voice to this "place of subtle and silent speech" (p. 236), in particular through dance.

In virtually all known cultures, dance has existed as a form of communication, ritual, and celebration (Schmais & White, 1986). However, it was not until the 1930s that dance was formally adapted for therapeutic purposes (Levy, 1988), to provide individuals with mental illness or disabilities with a means of communication. Since then, it has been used in the treatment of anxiety disorders (Leste & Rust, 1990), eating disorders (Wise, 1984), Parkinson's disease (Westbrook & McKibben, 1989), addictions (Murray-Lane, 1995; Rose, 1995), head injuries (Berrol & Katz, 1985), multiple personality disorder (Baum, 1995), abused children (Goodill, 1987), battered women (Chang, 1995), older persons (Sandel & Hollander, 1995), people who are blind (Fried, 1995), people with learning difficulties (MacDonald, 1992), individuals with physical disabilities (Levy, 1988), and survivors of sexual abuse (B. Bernstein, 1995). B. Bernstein uses numerous case examples and anecdotal material to illustrate how dance therapy can be used to work through and resolve various issues that commonly arise in therapeutic work with sexual abuse survivors. These include shame, guilt, dissociation, sexuality, boundaries, intimacy, and personal power.

Commonly referred to in the literature as "dance therapy" or "dance-movement therapy" (Payne, 1992), this approach to facilitating therapeutic change uses psychomotor expression as its major mode of intervention. On its Web page (, the American Dance Therapy Association defined dance therapy as "the psychotherapeutic use of movement as a process which furthers the emotional, cognitive and physical integration of the individual." Conducted individually and in groups, dance therapy is aimed broadly at facilitating personal mind, body, and emotional integration; emotional growth (P. L. Bernstein, 1986); and clearer self-definition (Payne, 1992) The movement component of dance therapy can include rhythmic dance, spontaneous and creative movements, thematic movement improvisations, unconscious symbolic body movement, group dance, and range of movement and relaxation exercises (P. …

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