I attended a weekend class at the Expressive Arts Institute in San Diego. One can be educated and registered with the state of California as an expressive art therapist, as well as a dance therapist. In psychotherapy, we communicate with our therapist by verbal discussion. In expressive arts, we use our senses to communicate with others. For someone seeking to know oneself better, memories and “a ha moments” come to our consciousness through the five forms of expressive art (dance, drama, poetry, visual arts (e.g. photography, painting and drawing, etc.) and preforming arts (e.g. music). We wrote poetry, we danced, we painted, we wrote some more, and we worked with clay. We interacted with each other throughout the day in the various forms of art and shared our vulnerabilities. It was a spiritual experience as well as the experience of using the physical elements of art.
The studio was large with a beautiful wood floor and a giant tarp attached to one wall adjacent to the windows that looked out to the ice skating rink at Liberty Station. Dr. Greer has all sorts of objects in her studio as well as art supplies, drums, pillows, and scarves just to name a few. I had been here a couple of times, one of which was a class geared to dance therapy, called Women+Studio. The intro to expressive arts class was about different forms of art and moving from one art form to another, such as from using cray-pas to create our color block to lying on a huge piece of paper while another student traced the outline of our body, to painting a large picture, to performing a small dance phrase. There were four students so the connections to each other in the class felt safe enough to let down my walls.
It was a mutually satisfying connection with each student and Dr. Greer Essex. We started off all sitting on the floor with a center piece of yellow flowers in a decorative pot sitting on a blanket. Interestingly, a space was made for the prophet, Elijah, as Jewish people routinely do this at Passover. Dr. Greer Essex invited us to share our stories with each other. We began with our story of how we each ended up at this particular class on this particular day and we built connections from there. Dr. Greer Essex facilitated the discussion and shared some of her own story which had similarities to my own in the journey to becoming a dance therapist. But this class was not all about dance therapy. It included all the expressive arts. I learned that there are five expressive arts; Dance, Drama, Poetry, Music/Performing Arts, and Visual Arts, (eg. photography, painting, drawing, etc.). I was pleased to learn that drama was included in the field as I have some experience doing theater. I was awarded the Student Drama Award, as a senior in high school, but did little with drama past high school.
One of the activities we did was to lay on a 6 foot piece of paper and have another student trace the outline of our body. After we did this, we hung the huge pieces of paper on the tarp against the wall. We painted this figure with acrylic paints and using the same color we chose when we made our color block. The color block was just a rectangle piece of card stock and we filled in the card with one color after we had thought of ten things that a particular color had brought up in us. For example, my color was red and I wrote things like my red hair, my red Miata and a red sequins dress that had special meaning to me. We wrote a poem about one of the things on our list and Dr. Greer Essex taught a way to write a poem that was very effective. After we had used this one color on our huge piece of paper, we were instructed to select other colors to complete our individual paintings, keeping in mind all the things we connected to the color of our choice.
Throughout, before, and after each activity, Dr. Greer Essex gave us verbal suggestions and encouraged us to journal our thoughts and share with each other. We each did an improvisational dance that connected the things we wrote about and painted about. There is no emphasis on technique in dance therapy so while my previous training made this part of the day especially exciting, the other students did not identify as dancers. But it was all beautiful and each piece was unique and descriptive of the days’ experience.
One student articulated my own curiosity in what is the “therapy” in dance therapy? We each explored this in our own thoughts and realized that some things had shifted in our minds about our individual life in our journeys. I am usually very hard on myself and very self-critical and judgemental and its something I carry around with me and I desperately want to put it down and never pick it up. I felt some progress in myself in that I walked out a little lighter, having put off some personal baggage and my walls had come down during this class. I walked out liking myself better than I walked in. It is personal to each individual and my fellow students were able to express themselves in their own way and come to their own conclusions. That is the key. There is no psychological interpretation that was done by Dr. Greer Essex. Her role is to facilitate and make suggestions which can be taken or not. Our own opinions of our experience is what matters and to the extent that it released something in me, it will bring participants back to expressing themselves through art and making sense of our journey in this world.