By Nicole McDermott | Photo by Deanna Smith
Seventeen patients fidget in a circle of maroon plastic chairs. Some stare at the floor, others focus on the stark, white ceiling, analyzing the 2×4 tiles. A few chat. “I’m getting a new sweater for Valentine’s Day,” says a younger patient as she twirls a vibrant curl in her hand. One woman gently rocks, hands clutched between her knees. The therapist, Megan Lortie, wears black leggings and black dance shoes. She addresses the group members, most of whom are twice her age. “This is a judge free space,” Lortie says. The patients have an array of mental and mood disorders, from bipolar disorder to anxiety. While holding hands with a shut-eyed, shaking woman who clings to her tightly, Lortie announces that the group they will stick with “gentle touch” for the next hour.
Lortie then turns to her iPod, stationed in a speaker dock. “I’ll take requests,” she says. The other therapist, Deborah Welsh, suggests a song. An instrumental beat begins. Most of the group stands up. They shuffle around, tap their feet, and rock their hips. A handful of patients gaze out of the nearly ceiling-high windows. A brave few propel their arms in the air.
Time for Tina Turner.
“Big wheel keep on turnin’, Proud Mary keep on burnin.’” Lortie asks if anyone would like to join her in the center of the circle. One patient obliges. Linking hands, the two slow-jive while the rest of the group graduates from toe-tapping to full-on hip undulation. “And we’re rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.” Next it’s Bobby Day’s “Rockin’ Robin.” One patient swings her arm in full 360-degree rotations on her air guitar. The others clap, snap, and twist like sock- hop attendees in the opening sequence of American Bandstand.
Dance therapy, also referred to as dance movement therapy, uses the movement of patients’ bodies to ease tension for those with developmental, medical, social, physical, and psychological impairments. It’s an alternative therapy that is gaining popularity. The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) has members in 48 states and 30 countries, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of dance therapists will increase 15 percent by 2018. Still, only two board-certified dance movement therapists work in Syracuse: Deborah Welsh and Christine Matteson. Lortie leads dance therapy sessions, like this one at a local psychiatric center*, in hopes of becoming Syracuse’s third credentialed dance movement therapist.
Lortie slows down the tempo. “Ooh, child, things are gonna get easier.”
“We’re all going to be dancing with scarves,” she says. “I want you to think of the scarves as an extension of your arms.” She yanks orange, pink, and green chiffon squares from a cardboard box and moves around the harshly lit room passing one out to each patient. “This one’s orange for Syracuse,” explains one patient. With an aggressive whirl of the wrist, the patient whips the neon fabric above her head. Another patient retreats to her seat and diligently wraps her scarf into a neat head wrap. “Do you like my doo-rag?” she asks the patient next to her.
“Ooh, child, things’ll be brighter.”
The ADTA defines dance therapy as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual.” Since its founding in 1966, the association has sought to understand how the mind and body interact. It was Marian Chace who pushed for this new form of therapy and would eventually serve as the ADTA’s first president. Chace succeeded in working with “untouchable people” when other more conventional forms of therapy failed, primarily those who favored talk to movement. Dance therapy utilized patients’ bodies in a way that music and art therapy had no means of doing. Dance therapists today lead clients of all ages, individual, couples, family, and group therapy sessions. They help with everything from mood disorders like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, to children with trauma issues and patients with eating disorders. While few scientific studies have examined dance therapy’s full effects, clinical reports suggest it improves patients’ self-esteem and acts as a stress reducer. While it also doubles as a form of exercise, the main goal is bringing patients’ innermost emotions to the surface.
Lortie searches her iPod for a John Denver request. Amanda** really wants Taylor Swift, but Lortie says she doesn’t have any Swift songs. Then Amanda giggles, avoiding eye contact with others through her slipping glasses. “I just love to dance,” she says. While twirling and swinging their neon scarves overhead, patients cluster in small groups and begin to socialize. Welsh, who’s only observed up until this point, asks the group to please listen up for a minute. Cheryl** wants to share something. Clad in an oversized black hoodie, hiding behind thick brown hair, Cheryl keeps her eyes fixed on the heavily waxed linoleum floors. “I just wanted to say,” she starts, “I can only dance because of the group.” She explains that the group setting gives her body total freedom. She can do things she never has before. “I’d like to continue to use my time in a positive manner,” she finishes.The group claps and Lortie extends a “thank you.”
“It’s infectious, isn’t it?” Morty**, one of the older gentlemen in the group, blurts from a table in the corner. All eyes are now on Morty. He hasn’t spoken all session. In fact, he decided to rest outside of the circle during the last song.
“This next song has a lot of energy in it,” Lortie says as Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud” opens with a rapid beat. Morty decides break time is over. In his collared dress shirt, V-neck sweater, and Levi’s, he joins the outskirts of the circle and enters his own dance zone. With his eyes shut, seemingly unaware of those around him, his grin stretches across his face. On the perimeter of the circle, Lortie and Welsh work as a team to engage a patient that won’t peel away from her seat.
Music plays an integral part in dance therapy. Sometimes a session’s music will stick to a specific genre. If the class takes place during spring, Welsh might choose songs that evoke themes of evolution. Yet Welsh quickly discovered that using popular music sometimes distracts clients because they focus too much on familiar lyrics. Instead she opts for unrecognizable worldbeat music. Welsh and Lortie find it challenging to play a tune that patients actually want to move to. ”You can never go in with a plan,” Lortie says, “You assess the mood and what everyone needs.” Lortie looks to explore patients’ emotions and how each individual feels in that specific moment, a major facet of the alternative therapy. If, for instance, a patient says, “I’m feeling tense,” then Lortie looks for that tension in the body. “I have a lot of girls say they’re anxious,” she says. “Then I ask them, ‘Where are you feeling anxious in your body?’” The therapy works to release that anxiety from specific on the patient.
Chairs and table are pushed back to widen the circle. A woman with long Janis Joplin hair and patriotic socks bounds out of the circle and dances her way around the remainder of the cafeteria-like room. J.Lo fades from the speakers. The group looks exhausted. Lortie asks everyone to go to their seats. “Let’s take some deep breaths,” she says, “In through your nose, out through your mouth. And next time you inhale I want you to bring your ears up to your shoulders.”
“You mean your shoulders up to your ears,” Welsh interjects. The group laughs, then follows the instructions.
“Okay we’re going to do a slow song now,” Lortie says. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” emanates across the room and Lortie asks everyone to join hands. They sway side-to-side, then rotate like a slow moving gear. One direction, then the other. They broaden the circle, arms taut, slowly moving into a crouch. Hands still clasped, they release the tension and raise their arms up as they move in towards each other. All their bodies cluster into a giant anemone. One patient squeals with excitement. “Hi, Deborah!” another patient shouts.
The session closes with Celine Dion’s “My Heart will Go On.” Some of the patients ask why the hour had to go by so fast. They stand in an even circle again, and Lortie invites everyone to think of one wish for him or herself. Everyone rests both hands on their hearts. “Now, think of one wish for the group,” she says. They release their arms laterally to share the positive energy. “See everyone next Wednesday.”
*The psychiatric center wishes not to be named for the protection of its patients. **Patient’s name has been changed to protect his/her privacy.