Sunday, 3 October 2010

Waltz therapy

"Let him HOLD you! Trust him," I finally shouted at the screen in utter frustration as Patsy Kensit yet AGAIN refused to let go and let her professional partner, Robin Windsor, lead. Her refusal to do just that meant she'd lost her frame any number of times and in this particular moment, as he dipped her, it looked horribly awkward and jerky, as she refused to give him her weight. What made it worse is that it was clear that Patsy had a great deal of talent.

But as frustrated as I was, my heart went out to her. Her fear would have been palpable even if it hadn't shown so clearly on her face. I also knew that her marriage has just broken up and that faith in men must be in extremely short supply - and that in a dance as intimate as the waltz, a dance in which the man has almost total control as the lead, that faith is absolutely essential.

I learned to waltz informally, in the house of folks who were so into ballroom dancing they built a ballroom onto their house instead of a garage. Every Sunday night, 7-10pm, was ballroom dancing night. I was never as consistent a participant as my housemates were, but I had loads of fun and learned a great deal.

One of the things I learned was that my favourite dance was the waltz. There is nothing, nothing, like letting go and just BEING in the arms of a man who can dance the's dancing on air, flying, a taste of utter freedom.

But to get there, you have to trust; you have to let him lead. And I owe my ability to do that to one of the expert dancers who insisted on holding me by the small of the back (I far prefer the waist hold for the waltz to the 'oh my hand is just on your shoulder/side' standard closed hold. I want to be held, damn it) as the ONLY hold - no hands extended, nothing. If anything happened, I had to trust him to catch me.

I cannot even begin to tell you how terrified I was. I kept waiting for the back of my head to meet the parquet dance floor, even though I knew just how good he was. It didn't.

My waltzing improved astronomically as of that episode.

Watching Patsy and being simultaneously sympathetic and frustrated, wondering why the feeling was so familiar, I suddenly realised that this was how I often feel when my counselling hat is on: I understand, but I want them to realise that at this point, nothing but themselves is preventing them from moving forward. But 'moving forward' in those terms is so abstract, so vague. By contrast, moving forward in waltzing or dancing is so much more concrete, so much more rewarding, because you can see the improvement, see that you're ready.

Would it then, be possible to make 'moving forward' in therapy more concrete, clearer? If so, how? Listening to the judges say to Patsy almost exactly what I'd yelled at the screen, pairing the awareness of just how intimate the waltz is and the sense that Patsy Kensit's problems on the dance floor arose from her head space made me wonder...

...could something like the waltz be used to help *clear* one's head space, to move therapy forward?

We do a lot of talking in therapy. We talk through ideas, feelings, experiences. We make verbal realisations, huge leaps forward in emotional and cognitive understanding. We start to heal.

But far too often, our ability to make changes in the physical world lag far behind our cognitive understanding. That might be natural. But watching the waltz, I wondered: is it?

Is it that we're missing something; we're cutting something off? That we don't involve the body? I can emotionally understand that when a man touches my hair or tells me that it's beautiful, as my uncle used to, he intends no harm, but may well be trying to compliment me or show affection. But when a man touches my hair, the reaction is *visceral*, not cognitive. It's like a spinal reflex: it doesn't go to the brain; I don't consciously process before I react.

I needed to learn to be still with men touching my hair, stroking it. To let it happen. To PRACTISE it. Over years, I did - and found the joy in it, even if I tensed first. And so, when the day came that a good male friend cheekily tugged my hair as he came up behind me, I felt nothing but surprise and 'Who?' till I turned round and relaxed into it as he teased me in greeting.

It wasn't till later that day that I realised how far I'd come - and how much of that reaction had depended on practising the physical enactment of the cognitive understanding that a man touching my hair could be a wonderful thing that represented genuine affection, not something creepy.

And so I wonder if it is the same with trusting and intimacy: even as we talk about it, understand the reasons why we do what we do, do we need to find safe ways in which to practise it so that we can learn - or re-learn - it? So that we develop what is essentially a 'muscular memory' for it?

If that is the case, then could something like the waltz - a dance that is the epitome of partnership and trust - be used to help build/rebuild those qualities in a non-threatening, almost sideways manner? Could something that is essentially play (and non-threatening, unlike 'your homework is to place your profile on an internet dating site') with someone who doesn't trip our defences against intimacy (the way a love interest might) help develop a muscular memory of being held, of not being dropped - abstractly, trust - that could then be carried into a relationship?

If we married cognitive and physical in therapy somehow - whether we send clients off for massage, dance, practising certain skills in the physical world in ways that feel like play, rather than work - would they move faster? Be less stuck? Could learning go both ways?

My inclination is to say 'yes', because cognitively processing your feelings and physically processing them are two very different things: there's a reason we use 'visceral' to describe incredibly strong emotion. One of the things Donald Kalsched, a Jungian psychologist, says about trauma is that it splits an archetype along the intellectual/affective axis - I can't help but wonder if the physical might not be a quicker, more powerful way into affect - and if, alongside talking, it might not reunite the two more quickly.

Another side benefit of this might be teaching clients to listen to bodies they may have dissociated from for various reasons. This may allow them to pick up emotions earlier than they might have done before, and allow them to know when they are going against their integrity rather than with it.

I'm not sure about this; it's only a fledgling thought. But something resonates - something feels right.


For Patsy Kensit, I hope that her time with Robin Windsor helps her heal from a difficult year, and though she's done the waltz, here's hoping that the rhumba, tango and salsa bring a spring to her step and a smile to her face again.

As for you, wherever you are - physically or emotionally, remember:

Life's a dance you learn as you go
Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow
Don't worry about what you don't know
Life's a dance you learn as you go keep dancing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not using the body seems to happen more and more as people get older. Witness the play and natural activities of young children who are unharmed by life as yet. They have no qualms about moving and touching. It's only later when less good things happen or certain customs or (lack of) values are imbibed that people begin to lose what is their by rights. They sometimes get it back by dancing (informally or formally, depending on what they know or feel free to do), but on the whole such opportunities are rare. Would I recommend dance or likewise to people who are hurting or in therapy. Almost definitely yes, because they are then able to connect up in ways that up to that moment have been closed to them. Every little bit helps, and although they themselves cannot see the difference, you as mentor and/or healer will see the healing happen (or begin to happen) before they do. As to recommending things in sessions, that, as they say is infinitely more tricky. But your instincts that you have expressed in this passage have certainly touched on an area of the truth or of healing that is often left out or ignored. How best to proceed? I do not know, but once you have the germ of such an idea, you will also have the wherewithal to let it grow in whatever way that turns out.