Moving towards wholeness: The healing work of Arts Therapy

If there’s one truth on display at the National Arts Festival, it’s that there are some things so profound they cannot be expressed with words. Hence the profusion of physical theatre productions, dance shows, performance and visual arts, and theatre shows that say as much with actors’ bodies as they do with scripted words.

Arts therapist Athiná Copteros certainly agrees that the body can tell stories beyond the cerebral and the verbal, and this is why conventional therapy alone doesn’t always heal traumatic experiences.

At her Think!Fest talk, Copteros, who has recently completed her PhD in Geography on embodied practice in transdisciplinary research,  provided an overview of the development of Arts Therapy. The practice grew out of ideas in the field of psychotherapy which challenged the dualism of body and mind. She suggested that this more holistic vision was particularly difficult for western cultures to tap into.

Athina Copteros
Athina Copteros

Gradually, however, there has been a recognition that psychotherapy often has to move beyond the intellectual if it is truly heal the whole person. Copteros took us on a brief journey from Freud and Jung whose ideas about the bodily ego and the collective unconsciousness laid the foundation for modern psychotherapy, to Mary Whitehouse and Marian Chace who used dance therapy as a way of expressing the unconscious.

Copteros pointed out that although all means of self-expression can be healing in their own right, Arts Therapy is neither a recreational activity nor an art lesson; the psychotherapeutic aspect is central. Arts therapy includes (fine) art therapy, drama therapy, music therapy and dance movement therapy which is Copteros’s area of focus.

Despite its name, dance movement therapy doesn’t always involve actual dance moves and is more about the psychotherapist being attuned to the non-verbal behaviour of the client. After all, we are always moving, even if we are only breathing, Copteros explained.

Copteros provided two fascinating examples of how dance movement therapy works in practice. Firstly, she recounted her work with a group of women in a psychiatric facility, who suffered from a variety of psychiatric problems, from schizophrenia to dementia. Movement allowed the women to relate to each other as they expressed themselves, by mirroring each other’s movements, by connecting to breath, and by using props such as bubbles and stress balls. Copteros explained how the women progressed and changed as the sessions went on, and became more energised and supportive of each other.

Her second example came from her work with a black minority ethnic women’s organisation abroad, providing one-on-one counselling for women. She recalled a client who came to her with severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that manifested in repetitive washing. At one point, the woman to recreated the movement of washing, which enabled her to connect to trauma that had caused her obsessive symptoms. The therapy this client underwent helped her to relate better to her community and her family.

Although Arts Therapy is clearly a deeply useful tool in psychotherapy, it is a still a developing field, especially in South Africa, and Copteros said she hopes that more Masters programmes can be developed across the country. Copteros believes that this type of non-verbal therapy is particularly needed in South Africa, partly because we do not all share the same language, but also because repressed traumas continue to afflict many South Africans.  If it is in the body that these traumas often lie, then it is perhaps only through the body that they can be healed.

By Andrea Thorpe

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