Movement/Dance as Transformative Art

By Daria Halprin


My life as a dancer began in early childhood. It was when I danced that I felt most connected to everything in my internal and external life, to what could be seen and what couldn’t.

Movement evoked a particular sense of, and creative play with, the myths and metaphors of my life, bringing me into contact with a vast human narrative. I danced to feel and express what was beautiful in life, to survive what was destructive, unknowingly walking a path of movement/dance as art, medicine and meditation.

As a young adult, I became interested in psychology, drawn to it by my own demons and difficulties.  Later, bridging my history as a dancer with my studies of psychology, I became a movement teacher and therapist. 

In 1975, I started defining an approach to work with others based on the ways in which I myself had experienced dance as a healing medicine and transformative medium. My interest was in how movement/dance could be applied to our personal, interpersonal and group issues, and to a process of restoration. The central principle of my work was based on the application of metaphors in order to use movement/dance to process unconscious and conflicted material into higher degrees of consciousness and creative expression.  

In these contexts, I have experienced how dance is a moving bridge upon which we are able to cross from an individual to a collective story, transmuting and elevating the mundane and grievous to the extraordinary and uplifting. It has an expressive and a reflective capacity, revealing what we know and what hasn’t been fully realized. It can be a medicine and a meditation, an expression of self, of community and of universal truths. For both the witness who observes and for the dancer who is authentically connected with her feelings and story, dance/movement can bring us into direct sensory and emotional contact with our most human and collective narratives. When we dance, we inhabit our bodies in non-ordinary ways, we are lifted out of our small proprietary selves and narratives. We dance to connect to others, to celebrate, to express our suffering, to heal our pains, to get in touch with ourselves, to connect with an enlarged sense of ourselves beyond personality or patterned ways of being. Such a dance experience opens us to another realm of experience, to what we might call a felt sense of the divine, the sacred, the holy. 

This heuristic research has been conducted in the Tamalpa Institute Studio with students from diverse backgrounds and cultures, through private practice, and with students of somatic movement and expressive arts therapy at various universities. 

Dance has been linked with religious rites, healing and spiritual traditions throughout time. It has kept a sense of spirit alive for individuals and communities in celebration and crisis. The ways in which the shaman, the spiritual teacher, the therapist, the educator and the artist utilize dance as a transformative medium share the same intrinsic principles. It is the medium which interconnects body, mind and spirit, reflecting and transcending personality, history and culture. 

Some approaches to transformative experience seem to ask us to remove ourselves from daily life concerns. There is an implication that by ascending to something above or outside ourselves we will connect with a spiritual source. I propose that by becoming more embodied we gain greater and more meaningful access to transformative experiences of self, others, the world, the infinite source. The dance I am suggesting has us go inward and downward as a way through, forward, up or beyond. The metaphors that animate this journey are the body as home, instrument and temple. Rumi gives us the image of the body as a guest house, reminding us to welcome all who arrive. (p. 109) Movement is the body’s language. It is our way to enter into the house, meet with all that we contain—-cleanse, restore, tune, play and transmute.  

Movement is intrinsic to who we are as human beings, and dance is movement made conscious. When explored and shaped with intention, it is an individual and collective medium that expresses and transforms all the material of our lives. Movement/dance can also be a way to experience and sustain our connection to things larger than ourselves, to enlarge ourselves beyond mundane and ordinary life, and beyond what restricts our sense of self and other. Like clay for the sculptor, dance shapes the mover in ways that express the full spectrum of who we are physically, emotionally and mentally. In this dynamic interplay, transformative experiences are evoked. Dance serves as spirit’s muse and guardian, providing inspiration and refuge, keeping us moving with all of life’s circumstances.  

Movement/dance transforms our sense of self, other and world through a multi-step process which I have evolved over many years of working with people around the world. The movement/dance that I am suggesting gives full expression to our stories without binding us to disabling histories and ways of defining ourselves. It uplifts without bypassing, transforms without discounting and brings us strongly into contact with our embodied experiences. The anatomy of the body and the psyche reflect each other. Movement expresses and reveals metaphors and meaning beyond our intentions or conscious awareness. It acts as a mirror reflecting the breaks that need mending, discordances seeking harmony, and the potentialities that await us patiently. It connects feeling to image and makes spirit visible, ensouling, enacting and entrancing the body. 

With the phrase movement/dance, I wish to connote the significant relationship to dance when non-stylized movement is made conscious with the intention of creative expression. Non-stylized movement offers the mover and her witness an opportunity for a physical, emotional and spiritual expression unconstrained by set conventions of dance or the body.

Excerpt from Dance, Somatics and Spirituality ; Intellect Press UK

Daria Halprin, MA, CAGS, REATH, RSMTH, originally trained as a dancer and performance artist. The co-Founding Director of the Tamalpa Institute , she is a teacher, therapist and author, directing training programs in movement/dance and expressive arts education, coaching and therapy. Among the leading pioneers in the field expressive arts education and therapy, her work bridges the fields of somatic psychology, movement/dance therapy, expressive artstherapy,  community arts based health education, leadership development, and performance. Published writings include : Coming Alive { 1989} ; The Expressive Body in Life, Art and Therapy {2003} ; contributing author Expressive Arts Therapy: Principles and Practices {1999}, Poesis: Essays On the Future of the Field; Dance, Somatics  and Spirituality, {2014] Body Enacted, Entranced and Ensouled. She has served on faculty at European Graduate School, California Institute of Integral Studies , JFK, Alanus University, UC Berkeley, as guest teacher and keynote presenter at numerous conferences, in educational, health and art centers throughout the world.

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Posted in authentic Movem, Dance, Sacred Dance

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