For many women in recovery, the act of dancing comes with negative charge. Although native peoples have harnessed the power of dance as a healing art since the dawn of time, dance can be anything but healing for many women struggling with recovery. Think of women who spent a great deal of time in their addiction at clubs, needing the fuel of alcohol in order to get moving. Consider the women who resorted to exotic dancing in order to finance their addiction. The demons of dancing may even trace back to earlier experiences of embarrassment in a basic ballet class, or not having anyone to sway with at the junior high dance.
So imagine a dance class where people can gather to reconnect with dance in a spiritually supportive environment…this is Dancing Mindfulness.
I’ve spent the last two years formally developing the Dancing Mindfulness practice, although in reality, I’ve been doing it since I was a girl. Growing up, I held sacred the evenings I’d spend in my parents’ basement, cranking up a playlist of music that made sense to no one except me. I simply moved with the music. Sometimes I would dance just to dance, other times, I would use the dance as an expression of a major dramatic scene that I conjured up in my head. Regardless of my intention for dancing, my routine was a very non-judgmental process; it was just for me. As a figure skater who took a great deal of dance lessons in my youth, dance outside of my house was very performance-focused, it was about making things just soin order to create the ideal performance. However, the practice inside of my house was for me, and it helped me to survive many emotional peaks and valleys during my youth.
When I had about seven or eight years sober, I traveled to the Kripalu School for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts on a retreat. At this world-class facility, I discovered that classes were held that encapsulated the experience of those sacred “basement dances” of my youth. The broad category of practice is called conscious dance, and there are a variety of conscious dance forms being offered in the country today, the most popular being 5Rhythms ® created by the late Gabrielle Roth. Conscious dance classes, usually facilitator-led, are “come as you are” experiences where copying specific steps is not the focus. Rather, going with the flow of the music, finding your own dance, and sharing in the communal spirit of dance reign as the healing mechanisms. The first conscious dance class I experienced, as a student, was such a transformative, healing experience, that even after a decade in the human services profession, I was struck with the Eureka experience of “I have to teach this!”, “I have to bring this to recovering women!”
As I began creating the Dancing Mindfulness practice, I had two major goals. The first was to simply offer classes in it out of my hometown yoga studio so that I could have others in my own community with whom to practice. Like with recovery, you can dance on your own, but it seems to take on a more special quality when you’re dancing with others. My second goal was to present Dancing Mindfulness sessions at academic and clinical conferences. It struck me that if I got my fellow professionals up on their feet and moving, then perhaps they could tap into insights about the role that movement can play in the healing and recovery process.
Dancing Mindfulness classes use seven primary channels to access mindful awareness: breath, sound, body, mind, spirit, story, and integrated experience. Mindfulness, the practice of being in the moment without judgment, has demonstrated wonderful benefits for both physical and mental health in the last several decades. Breathing and meditating are only two ways to practice mindfulness; indeed, anything can be practiced mindfully if it is done with utmost awareness. In Dancing Mindfulness, the channels employed constitute a person’s conscious dance. Mindfulness practice has special relevance for recovering people because instead of just demanding that people live in today, mindfulness actually teaches people how to stay in the moment. According to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the seminal figure in bringing mindfulness work into mainstream psychology, there are seven primary attitudes that can be developed through the practice of mindfulness: acceptance, trust, letting go, non-striving, beginner’s mind, non-judging, and patience. These are all qualities that can describe healthy recovery.
Classes generally begin on the floor with a few moments of deliberate breath practice and stretching. Before people realize it, they are working their way to their feet and moving in a way that can only be described as dance. The music used in Dancing Mindfulness classes fosters movement through the seven recovery-friendly attitudes, and people are given an ample chance to explore the space, move freely in their bodies, and work out emotional material if need be. Participants are also given the chance to opt out at any time, to sit out and meditate if they are not comfortable with a certain part of the flow created by the facilitator. Part of the spirit of safety generated in Dancing Mindfulness classes is inviting participation, not forcing it.
In my hometown of Warren, Ohio, where I regularly teach Dancing Mindfulness, our classes routinely draw many women in recovery. Interestingly, I did not plan it that way, but the practice of Dancing Mindfulness seems to be a natural fit with the recovery process of women. Indeed, women who come with the baggage of all three “dance states” I described at the beginning of this article show up; former clubbers, former strippers, and the generally insecure populate my classes. As Joan (not her real name), a regular Dancing Mindfulness participant shared with me, “I couldn’t believe that I could move so freely without alcohol, it was a very liberating experience.”
According to Shawna (not her real name), a regular attendee at Dancing Mindfulness classes with more than three years of sobriety:
“When I first started taking Dancing Mindfulness classes, I noticed a lot of emotion coming up and at the end of the classes, I actually cried a few times due to the sense of gratitude I had. I have noticed that I am able to ‘notice without judgment’ more in my everyday life. The most important thing I have learned is that I can express and deal with emotions through dance, and if I set an intention before a practice, I can also use it as a form of prayer and meditation.”
Dancing Mindfulness, in its present form, is not a clinical practice, rather, a community practice. It is my hope that other communities, or even treatment centers, can pick up on the idea ofmovement as medicine that indigenous cultures have subscribed to since the dawn of time and offer Dancing Mindfulness or other safe, fun opportunities for dance into their offerings.
My second goal of taking Dancing Mindfulness into conference settings to get the wheels turning in professionals’ heads has also come to fruition, and I had the amazing opportunity this year to certify my first class of other professionals to facilitate Dancing Mindfulness. One facilitator, Abbey Carter Logan, MA, LPCC-S, CDCA, first experienced Dancing Mindfulness at a conference. Said Logan, “What I appreciate about Dr. Marich’s approach is that it integrates the research we know about breath, mindfulness, and movement into an experiential activity that allows you to explore and gain self-awareness and relaxation.”