Moving Through Trauma

In the spring of 2001, I sat in a room at the VA Hospital in New York City, surrounded by five war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

I was a member of Tamar Rogoff Performance Projects, and we were working on a dance-theater piece about the psychological effects of war. These men told us stories about dropping bombs over Vietnam and being held in POW camps during World War II.


I was terrified. What did I—a 23-year-old dancer—have in common with them, and how could I gain their trust?


The process wasn’t easy, and the veterans were occasionally resistant. But over nine months of get-togethers and interviews, I became very close with John McCarthy, the WWII veteran I was “paired” with. He told me about being blown out of a plane and being held over a cliff by an enemy soldier, stories he had told almost no one. And while the piece wasn’t meant to be therapeutic, it was healing for both the veterans and the dancers. John died a year later, and his nephew asked me to dance at his funeral. Never had I felt the transformational power of dance so strongly.


For decades, choreographers have been making work with—or about—victims of disease or war; and teachers and dance therapists have been using dance to help people heal from trauma, torture, and abuse. I spoke with three choreographers who have worked, respectively, with children living in post-war Bosnia and Rwanda; survivors of domestic abuse; and ex–child soldiers in Sierra Leone. While the three have very different approaches, they all agree on a few points: Know why you want to work with a specific population, what you have to offer, and why you think dance would be of service. Educate yourself before entering a community: What have these people been through and what are they facing now? It helps to be guided by social workers and/or an elder in the community. And lastly: Be flexible. That said, all three concur that this kind of work is tremendously challenging and rewarding.


Rebecca Davis became interested in teaching children in war-torn areas after choreographing a work about Darfur for her company, the Philadelphia-based Rebecca Davis Dance Company. “When I made Darfur, it was very fulfilling to see an issue that I cared about transform the dancers and audience,” she says. “But I wanted to understand on a deeper level how genocide can come about.”


In 2008, she traveled to Rwanda with Global Youth Connect, a human rights organization that held seminars for the volunteers before they worked with them.


Davis taught jazz dance to boys who lived in a child-headed household. (All of the childrens’ parents had been killed in the 1994 genocide.) Twenty boys, ages 10 to 17, were living under one roof. Despite the tragedy of the situation, Davis says, “What’s so shocking and powerful and optimistic is that you walk in and see these kids—some are Tutsi and some are Hutu—being forced to live together, because it’s their only chance. No one will take care of them.”


Davis admits that they were surprised to see a white woman put on jazz shoes and lead them in a warm-up (women do traditional dances in Rwanda but not contemporary styles) but says the boys loved it. “You put on music and everyone starts moving,” Davis explains. “It’s how they’re able to handle their aggression and channel their emotions. Dance is a part of their culture.”


A master’s student in international relations with a concentration in peacekeeping at the online American Public University System, Davis says she “gained an understanding of how important dance is in post-conflict countries. Working with these boys, I learned that dance is what they do: They go to school and then they dance.”


The trip inspired her to go to Brcko, Bosnia, last summer, where she developed a program for students 4 to 18. Fourteen years after the war, ethnic tensions are still high, and Serbs, Croats and Muslims rarely interact beyond what is required. But Davis found that the two best dancers in her teens class were a Serb and a Muslim. The girls had to dance together so much that they became friends. At the end of the workshop, the Serbian girl asked the Muslim girl to celebrate Christmas with her family.


Gina Gibney and her company, Gibney Dance, have been providing movement workshops to survivors of domestic violence in shelters for over 10 years. But Gibney was very clear from the get-go that they were not doing movement therapy. “My interest has been to take what dancers are naturally good at,” she explains, “and apply it in a broader more inclusive context.”


Gibney developed a program in conjunction with Sanctuary for Families, which assists survivors of domestic abuse and their children. “We identify the women’s needs and issues,” Gibney says, “and figure out how those dovetail with the skills that are intuitive to dancers.” The company members go through a rigorous training program, learning everything from what these women have faced to what life is like in a shelter.
Once trained, each company member travels alone to undisclosed locations around New York City. Most of the time the dancer works with a support group that has a trained mental health professional on-hand to address anything serious that comes up.


“The class gives the women tools to open and inhabit their bodies and to overcome resistance they have from being physically traumatized,” Gibney says. It starts with a gentle warm-up, which helps the women uncover where they are tense. “It gives them a chance to think about their own lives—where they’ve been and where they want their feet to take them.” It also gives the women a sense of self-worth: “These women have been told the worst possible things about themselves,” Gibney reports, “so to hear a room full of women shout what is great about them is an unbelievable experience.”


For most of the 15 years that David Alan Harris was dancing and choreographing in New York City, he also worked as a writer for Human Rights Watch, a national group dedicated to protecting human rights. “I remember sitting at my desk one day, and having the idea to become a dance movement therapist to work with torture survivors,” Harris says. He imagined that dance could be healing to survivors because they often undergo a mind/body “split.” When a torturer inflicts bodily pain in order to gain access to the victim’s mind—and thus gain control over him—the pain is often so unbearable that the victim will divorce himself from his body (what clinicians call “dissociating”). “The task of healing for torture survivors is reintegration,” he explains. “I intuited from years of focusing on my own body and working improvisationally, that reintegration would mean working at the body level as well as the psychic level.”


While pursuing his degree in creative arts therapy at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, he worked with a group of resettled “lost boys” from Sudan. He asked them to teach him their traditional dances. “I put them in the role of expert and me in the role of recipient,” he explains. “It helps to undo the stigma.”


Four years later, he traveled to Sierra Leone and worked with ex–child soldiers. “These teenage boys had lived in a unit under a commando where if they did the wrong thing, they’d be shot,” Harris says.


Harris began the session in a circle, with Sierra Leonean hip hop playing on a little battery-operated stereo. He asked the boys to follow his movements. As the warm-up progressed, leadership would change hands organically, encouraging the boys to stay attuned to the group and trust each other, which is particularly difficult for ex–child soldiers.


“In the first session, we found ourselves on our stomachs looking around,” Harris recalls. “I said, ‘What are we doing?’ Somebody replied, ‘We’re hiding from our enemies.’ This is five years after the war! These kids are orphans—they’ve been shunned and they live on streets. But they found a way to symbolically reenact the central conflicts of their existence. I believe that in doing so, they find a way to tolerate their memories.”


Harris worked with the boys for several months. Although the emphasis was on process (and healing), the boys decided they wanted to perform for the commu­nity. Most of the village watched the boys reenact the roles they had played in the war; they even depicted a scene in which a boy is ordered to shoot a gun into the corpse of his father and sister. “One boy who had been forced to kill his parents went to the village elder and asked to be welcomed back into the community,” Harris says. “At the end of the perfor­mance, the elders stood one after the other and welcomed the boys back. People who had feared these guys said they weren’t afraid anymore. It was the most amazing thing that’s ever happened in my life.”


Harris feels that this work required everything of him—in the same way that dancing once did. “It involves the integration of mind and body, passion, spirituality. It’s holistic. It gives me a sense of hope, of creatively building a new future.”





Abigail Rasminsky is an MFA student in writing at Columbia University.

 

Illustration by Tifenn Python.

The Conversation
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Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Cover Story
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Clad in her signature loose black T-shirt and baggy gym shorts, Emma Portner is standing in a cavernous industrial space in downtown Los Angeles. A glass box—big enough to fit five dancers with only a little room to maneuver inside—sits in the middle. The five performers, Portner included, are standing inside it, side by side, palms on the glass.

"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"

She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.

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"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
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Health & Body
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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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When Catherine Wreford found out that she had brain cancer in June 2013, with doctors predicting she had only two to six years left to live, there was one thing she knew she wanted to do: dance.

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