Like yoga, dance movement therapy helps trauma victims by reintegrating the mind and body. Pioneered in the 1940s at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, the technique aims to promote the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of individuals.
David Alan Harris is a leading dance movement therapist with clinical experience in mental health and rehabilitative treatment. Best known for his work with former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Harris discussed how dance can help trauma survivors—including veterans with PTSD.
Q: As a dance movement therapist in Sierra Leone, with whom did you work?
A: I worked in a small district with a group of about 12 former child combatants. For the most part, rebels had abducted them as small children during the civil war. In a typical scenario, rebels would assault a village by night, slaughtering the inhabitants, claiming the girls as sex slaves and taking the boys as combatants. These kids saw their families slaughtered, and in that very moment of horrific trauma—suddenly separated from all nurture, love and affection—they would have been killed if they expressed any emotion. They were forced to enter the ranks of forces that had just killed their families. One kid was forced to kill his own parents.
Q: How did the process work?
A: In our case we were using Sierra Leonean hip hop because it’s what the guys liked. We would start out dancing to a beat in unison, all of us facing inward, and one facilitator would move to the beat, maybe gesturing or punching the air, and then the dance would develop and anyone could lead. The guys transitioned seamlessly and took control of the group, and through that process they could symbolize their experience, probably unconsciously at first. We’d walk in a circle, single file to the music, and then we’d find ourselves crawling on the floor, and people would gesture as if tossing something in the middle of the room. I’d ask, “What are we doing?” and there was a consensus: we were throwing away our troubles, cleansing our troubled hearts.
Q: How does dance movement therapy help survivors overcome memories of trauma?
A: [In Sierra Leone], dance allowed the boys to create a nonverbal narrative. They were reconstituting their experience, and growing increasingly tolerant of their horrific memories.
Week after week, I observed that one or more of them would take one of my limbs and immobilize me by holding it on the floor. This action was latent with multiple levels of symbolism. First of all they were repeating their traumatic history: They had captured and detained people….I also carried an authority within the group, similar to the authority the rebel commandos had. I wasn’t mistreating them, but I think they were getting back at the rebel commandos through me. In addition, they were trying to make sure that I didn’t disappear symbolically—holding on to the caring adult who had come to play with them, the first person who offered this kind of care since their families were slaughtered. They had all experienced loss and they didn’t want it to happen again.
At the same time, their actions were threatening to me, provocative. Why? I would say teenagers everywhere are going to test our limits because there’s a part of them that wants us to give up on them, get angry and say, “You’re just a lousy person because you killed, amputated and raped people.” But we don’t do that. We have a commitment to holding them always in unconditional, positive regard, and they don’t know what to make of that. So this symbol held all of these meanings in it. Dance was a way for them to accept this unconditional positive regard, and through that process they started to change.
Q: Do you think dance movement therapy could be effective for veterans with PTSD?
A: I know there are dance therapists who work with veterans and unfortunately there isn’t much literature about it… In Sierra Leone, dance is so infused in the culture that it wasn’t very difficult to engage the boys in it. It’s likely that in our culture, the defenses people use against expressing themselves might be pretty extreme, though there are ways to engage them anyway. If these guys in Sierra Leone had expressed themselves when they saw their parents killed, they would have been shot, and they were told this again and again, but they were able to overcome the numbness…. I believe this could be replicated in other contexts with somewhat older groups.
A lot of therapeutic work in the United States is done on an individual level, and in Sierra Leone I worked in the collectivist culture of groups. But the interesting thing I would say is that in some ways, the military builds its own collectivist culture, and that strength could certainly be drawn on …. The kind of camaraderie that I expect exists in a VA hospital would be a great resource to draw on in building the kind of trust that’s necessary for exploration through movement.