Dance, a therapy for body and mind, is gaining ground in the health care field

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Dance, a therapy for body and mind, is gaining ground in the health care field

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In these troubled times, our attention is more than ever focused on our health care system. The world of culture, for its part, is called upon to renew itself and to move the lines in order to continue to exist. Essential service? Non-essential? Culture and health are presented today as two very distinct, almost opposite worlds. Between creation and care, however, there exists an ancient link, that of art therapy.


Dance therapy, from its birth to the recognition of the movement

In November 2019, the WHO studied for the first time in a detailed report the links between art and health. Bringing together scientific data from more than 900 sources from around the world, it is one of the most comprehensive studies on the subject to date. It officially recognises art as beneficial and acting on two fields: mental health and physical health. On the latter level, the performing arts, and dance in particular, are considered as real treatments. In the case of patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, it has been scientifically proven for several years now that dance can significantly improve patients’ motor skills.

It is surprising that such a WHO study should come into being so late in the day. After all, art therapy experiments are not in their early stages. Dance therapy was developed as early as the 1940s, and is intrinsically linked to the birth and emergence of modern dance. In the United States, it was Marian Chace, the pioneer in this field, who founded the Dance Therapy Association in 1960. She experimented with her therapeutic work first at St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., then in a psychiatric institution. Her methods quickly proved their effectiveness and became recognised and recommended by several psychiatrists. In Europe, it was around the same time as the birth of the movement in the US, that Rudolf Laban, the forerunner of modern dance in Germany, and Mary Whitehouse took an interest in it. Mary Whitehouse created the “authentic movement”, a technique that invites patients to combine movement and emotion, and to let themselves be guided by their feelings and their bodies. This process of internalization and self-awareness is particularly present today in the United States.


Reinventing hospital care through Dance

So what about today? who are the heroes that use dance as a tool for well-being and health? They invest hospitals, retirement homes, and prisons and democratise an art form that seems out of reach for many.

Far from the traditional choreographers’ methods, Thierry Thieû Niang makes children, teenagers and seniors who suffer from Alzheimer’s dance. It was while working with the autistic children’s psychiatry department of the 3bisf hospital in Aix en Provence that he merged dance and care for the first time. He then continued his work in other hospital units and in other environments far removed from the world of dance. In the documentary “Une Jeune fille de 90 ans” – “A young girl aged 90 years old” – broadcasted on Arte, the choreographer led a dance workshop in the geriatric ward of Charles Foix hospital in Ivry. This feature film allows us to witness with emotion and delicacy a real “awakening to the lives of women and men, the rediscovery of a deeply buried sensuality” thanks to the practice of dance. But the choreographer does not want to be compared to a therapist or a caretaker: “I do not heal anything, but I accompany a gesture that brings out the present, and this present is life.”


Dancing nurtures body and mind, and helps us learn how to let go


The positive impact of dance as a source of dignity and well being for patients is no longer questioned. Since the early 2000s, collaboration between the Ministries of Culture and Health has led to the creation of missions such as “Culture in Hospitals”. Since then, a call for projects has been launched every year to encourage the emergence of a cultural policy within Ile-de-France health establishments. For Lazare Benaroyo, Professor of Philosophy of Medicine at the University of Lausanne, the integration of art and culture into the life of the hospital makes it a profoundly ethical and humanistic space. This humanisation offers patients a parenthesis, a bubble of freedom.


Dance as a tool for resilience

Spirits and bodies mistreated by life, damaged … It is this suffering, the post-traumatic shocks that several professional artists have chosen to confront themselves with.

Bolewa Sabourin, is a talented Franco-Congolese dancer. His encounter with Dr. Denis Mukwege, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, led him to rethink his favourite playground – dance – as a tool for resilience. Denis Mukwege, or “the man who mends women”, has received worldwide recognition for the care he has provided to many victims of sexual assault and mutilation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a region torn apart by conflict and armed groups using rape as a weapon of war. Upon his contact with him, the dancer decided to help these women with psychological reconstruction and created the “Re-creation” programme. He goes to meet with these women and teaches them to reclaim their bodies through dance. Beyond the beneficial effects on their psychological state, the psychologists and health professionals found that the dance workshops had a liberating effect on them, helping them to express themselves and to put words to their traumas.

This mental reconstruction, this liberation of the body and speech through dance, is what choreographer Angelin Preljocaj chose to experience in prison. His wife, Valérie Muller, followed him for several months in the corridors of Les Baumettes, a prison in Marseille, France, where he led dance workshops with women inmates and discovered for the first time the harshness of the prison world. She thus made the documentary “Danser sa peine” – “Dancing your sorrow”, in which she aptly describes the imprisonment of bodies, and above all the putting of the senses on standby: “In detention, the body is in a straitjacket. In detention, the body is in a straitjacket. It’s a deprivation of freedom of movement, and dance is just the opposite. Even between the bars, you can have this kind of freedom.”

Angelin Preljocaj teaches these women to regain confidence and self-esteem, to emancipate themselves and to discover a discipline that they thought inaccessible. The documentary filmmaking project and the dance workshop were perfectly complementary: the liberation of speech nourished the liberation of bodies and vice versa, allowing the inmates to gain confidence in front of the camera and on the dance floor. This project resulted in the show “Soul Kitchen”, which they presented at the Pavillon noir in Aix En Provence and then at the Montpellier dance festival in the summer of 2019.

A clear curative power, a late but growing interest, dance therapy seems to have the wind in its sails, and so much the better. It nurtures body and mind, and helps us learn how to let go. More than just a therapy medium, Ohad Naharin, the famous Israeli choreographer, describes dance as a true movement of life. “I dance every day. Everyone should do the same.”


Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 France License.

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