Authentic Movement, developed by dance therapist Mary Starks Whitehouse, incorporates movement to promote self-exploration and improved mental health. This innovative type of therapy can be used by qualified mental health professionals with individuals, couples, or in group therapy sessions. Authentic Movement is believed to be especially beneficial for those who have difficulty processing their issues verbally through traditional forms of therapy such as talk therapy.
Authentic Movement, rooted in Carl Jung's concept of active imagination, was developed in the 1950s by dance therapist Mary Starks Whitehouse. First named “movement in depth,” Authentic Movement got its start through Whitehouse's expressive movement work with the people she treated early in her psychotherapy career. This work was expanded further with the help of two of her students, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow. The three were interested in the ways dance and movement could bring about the integration of mind, body, and spirit. All three women had extensive backgrounds in dance, which helped them realize the ways spontaneous movement could impact a person's mental health. Through their work together, Whitehouse, Adler, and Chodorow molded Authentic Movement into a therapeutic approach based on the tenets of Jungian analysis and the inner wisdom of spiritual practice.
In Authentic Movement, participants are encouraged to focus their attention on the present and act out their inner emotions through improvised dance movements while keeping their eyes closed in order to reduce distractions. The goal of this process is to allow people to connect with body and mind and let their inner experiences move them.
This type of therapy involves no choreography, music, or plan. The participants are encouraged to simply surrender to their feelings, experiences, and existence through genuine, expressive movement. The goal of Authentic Movement is to provide a safe space in which participants can increase self-awareness, focus on healing, and improve self-expression.
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Authentic Movement is not necessarily comprised of a set of exercises or interventions. It is more of a process that plays out in ways unique to each participant. The process involves a “mover,” usually the person in therapy, and a “witness,” usually the therapist.
The Mover: In an Authentic Movement session, the mover will be provided with a safe, open space in which to move. The mover can warm up, stretch, and take some time to attune to an inner experience. The mover is encouraged to pay attention to thoughts, emotions, and memories and allow these experiences to move the body in any way that feels right. The mover can choose to do so in silence or with sound. It is through this process the mover can engage with the active imagination, allowing unconscious material to flow outward. Similar to the process of lucid dreaming, the mover is in control of what is happening but is open to being moved by the process. The movement may be allowed to continue until the mover feels ready to stop, but the mover might also be asked to stop after a specified amount of time, usually 20-30 minutes.
The Witness: Throughout the session, the witness, who is usually a therapist, offers a supportive, non-judgmental presence in order to give the mover space for self-expression. The witness is typically someone who shows a receptive interest in the experiences of the mover and holds back any projections or assessments about what the mover is illustrating until the processing portion of the session. In addition to tracking the movements of the mover, the witness pays attention to personal inner experiences as well. The witness will usually sit off to the side, keep track of time as needed, and make sure the mover is physically safe throughout the session.
Although each Authentic Movement session is unique and wholly guided by the inspiration of the mover, most Authentic Movement therapists use the same basic session structure.
The basic components of an Authentic Movement Session include:
- Moving and sounding: Participants close their eyes and connect with their body's impulses. They may be inspired to move, remain still, make sounds, sing, dance, or use other forms of emotional expression.
- Witnessing: Witnessing occurs when the therapist provides participants with full, present, and non-judgmental attention. The witness offers a grounded container in which all of the mover's expression can be held.
- Drawing and writing: Many therapists build upon the Authentic Movement expression by incorporating drawing and writing activities into sessions. This allows participants to more fully engage with their experience and reflect on it further. Some activities are done with the eyes closed or with the non-dominant hand.
- Sharing: During the last portion of the session, participants are allowed time to share their experiences, drawings, and/or writings with the therapist, partner, or group. Movers are also given the opportunity to receive empathetic feedback about what was witnessed.
In an essay on movement and personality, Mary Starks Whitehouse said, “Movement, to be experienced, has to be 'found' in the body, not put on like a dress or a coat. There is that in us which has moved from the very beginning. It is that which can liberate us.” It is this sentiment that encapsulates a major premise of Authentic Movement. Through expressive movement, a person can connect with the whole self, and by trusting the body's wisdom, a person may be better able to facilitate the healing process.
Authentic Movement offers participants an experiential way to work out their issues, and this method can be a powerful therapeutic treatment. Some of the many intended benefits include:
- Heightened sense of self and well-being
- Enhanced creativity and unblocking of the creative process
- Instilled sense of hope and increased positive feelings about the past, present, and future
- Improved sense of community
- Deeper insight into one's body, mind, and spirit
The primary purpose of the therapist in an Authentic Movement session is to witness the mover in a free and open forum. This experience can foster trust and help build a relationship free of judgment. Therapists generally work with participants to identify meanings discovered through movement and help them explore ways to use their newly acquired knowledge to affect change.
Therapists typically strive to avoid making assumptions or provide interpretations of what was witnessed. Instead, they attempt to offer non-judgmental responses to the movements they observed. These responses are meant to encourage dialogue supportive of the participant's own understanding and insight regarding the experience. However, if a participant’s interpretation becomes skewed or distorted by other group members, the therapist will often step in and reframe the discussion so it is more productive. Overall, the therapist's role in Authentic Movement is to be present for participants and provide genuine responses directed toward a person's growth and progress in therapy.
According to an article in Body, Movement, and Dance in Psychotherapy, Authentic Movement was found to be a beneficial treatment for a group of women who were breast cancer survivors. The article states participants were able to address the grief associated with losing their breasts through the group process of Authentic Movement. The women were also found to experience a deep sense of connection and community with one another, which resulted in improved emotional well-being. According to Tina Stromsted, the therapist who led the group, many of the women reported their feelings of fear, alienation, and shame were replaced by a sense of empowerment, respect, and care
Though the experiences of these women may serve as a testament to the effectiveness of Authentic Movement, more research is needed. The primary limitation of Authentic Movement may be the small number of existing research studies supporting its efficacy. Because similar somatic therapies show promise, increased study of Authentic Movement might provide more scientific support. Additionally, although there are many therapists who incorporate Authentic Movement into their practice, there is not yet a formalized credentialing procedure for Authentic Movement. Potential participants may wish to verify their chosen therapist has the right experience and training in Authentic Movement before entering into treatment.
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