I have lived the expressive arts since I was born. In my childhood home we had very few rules. At any given time, you would find one sister painting a mural on the wall while another sister was playing the mandolin and making cheese in her closet. Mom would be making our fringe vest in the breakfast nook and another sister would be making jam… all before taking the bus to meet my big sister’s guru for chanting. Don’t forget to drink the sassafras tea my mom had brood... got to keep the immune system strong. I remember my first journal was a Virginia Slims blank book that I got for free by collecting my mom’s cigarette cartons and sending them in to the company for the prize of a lovely maroon book with a fancy woman on the cover. I would write the story of my life deep into the night while my sister hurled shoes at my bed so I would turn off my flashlight. My mother never put a border around what our souls wanted to do. There were no boundaries….no walls and no safety. Our creative expression was respected and indulged. It was simply our way of life. I would invite friends over for sleep overs by candlelight, makeovers and Mickey Mouse club. This was all pure joy in the middle of inner-city Cleveland nestled between drug deals and frozen pipes... the magic of pure no holds barred self-expression was my sanctuary.
The highlight of junior high was playing Tina Turner and singing Proud Mary, swinging my hard pressed hair, dancing wildly and rolling on the river. Expressing myself through music, writing, dance and potion making saved me from the pain of poverty, sexual assault, and eczema. When I went to college, I wanted to be a dance therapist. Not because I was a trained dancer but because dancing saved my life. As a child I would put on the Motown Christmas album and spin around until I was so dizzy with joy that it did not matter that we had no gas or lights or food in the refrigerator. As a teen I would leave work at McDonalds at 2:30 am and go out dancing until sunrise…6:30am when the club closed. It was called night flight and the rhythm would fly me to another world. I did not know at the time that I was putting myself in a trance. I simply knew that moving my body to the pulsing beat made me feel joy: I could breathe, I could do life as it showed up. So of course, I would want to dance my way through college. The catch was that they had no such major at my school. I settled on psychology as my major and fit in all the other treasures I wanted to learn and experience outside of my formal academic training.
My challenge academically and professionally was always the quandary of how do I blend my love of dance, therapy, service, travel, metaphysics, health, teaching, healing arts into some professional identity? Eclectic is how I had described myself. Holistic became a term I began using 20 years ago when I participated in a Crone/Sage ceremony (Initiation into the Wisdom years of a Woman) for a friend’s 60th birthday. The facilitator of the circle was a holistic psychologist and she embodied the sacred expressive arts. I began to see the blending of my worlds. Yet, the practicality of blending all of these aspects of myself into my daily professional life remained somewhat of a challenge.
It was 2011, I remember getting the call from Dr. Tanya Edwards at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine. “I hear you are a wonderful hypnotherapist,” she said…come join us. At the time I had not heard of Dr. Edwards so I thought it was a friend from Cleveland pranking me. I would receive 5 more messages like that before calling her back. It was not until I saw her on the Dr. Oz show that I realized this woman was real, not a prank and we looked like we could be cousins! When I returned her call she simply said, “I have been waiting for your call.” I asked did she need me to send my resume and she simply said, “I know everything about you I need to know. Come do what you do.” Perhaps I stopped breathing for a moment when she said these words because doing what I do, in the way I do it had always been a challenge in most therapeutic work settings. Dr. Tanya Edwards told me that she did not bring me to Cleveland Clinic to work with individual patients but for the creative ability and spirit I carry. “You are a Goddess High Priestess….do what you do.” Well I simply thought I had dropped into the 5th dimension of some other universe. Dr. Edwards became my dear sister friend mentor and beloved colleague. I had the pleasure of training and working with her until her death in March of 2014. My use of creativity in my work is a way of also honoring her light and life. Dr. Edwards helped me stoke the flames of my creativity and to share it with a larger audience.
When I received that initial call from Dr. Edwards I was on leave from my tenured position as a Professor of Counselor Education. I was worn out. The Chair of my Department was chronically displeased with me and would lobby against my promotion at the University. He would tell me that I was too creative and relational, and he needed someone who was methodical and organized. I was not that person. I am the one who tries every key on the key ring until I see a crack in the door… a glimmer of light shining through the darkness. Essentially, as a therapist (and a human) I have always believed in using a variety of tools to unlock the emotions hidden within a person’s heart and soul. This is how I taught, and this is how I live. Don’t do yoga they would say. Why are you meditating with your students they would say. It’s a hazard to burn that oil or hypnosis opens the door to the devil they would say. What are you doing with bubbles in your practicum class…Turn your music down...are you drumming again? Did I see you and your client hugging a tree? Creativity has been the foundation of the therapeutic process for me. The fluidity of expression is my elixir.
The expressive arts therapist certification program has given me the long-awaited structure, scaffolding, philosophy and supportive community to truly be the creative holistic practitioner that I am. I have been lovingly challenged to stretch myself far beyond my comfort. This journey has given me a firm foundation to gather the broad palette of my services under an umbrella with a solid base. When asked what my work with bees has to do with therapy and healing….I say it is a part of expressive arts therapy and certainly it is. My journey into the certification process has given me the empirical support to relay to others the methods of my practice. I was born an expressive arts therapist because it is a part of my indigenous, tribal nature. This is how my ancestors healed. This is what we do naturally and some academic and heart wise people were able to observe and research these healing ways and put it into a form. Growing up my father would always tell me not to let people know what I really do because no one would believe I had an education. He felt that my true way of practicing therapy was not legitimate because it was not a part of mainstream culture. Working roots or someone getting the Holy Ghost through sound and movement, shaking, rocking, tapping, clapping, wailing all a part of healing. Don’t tell he would say. I always know who is open to working in this way…don’t worry Dad.
My father is no longer concerned. When I began working at The Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine, he said he wished he had taken hypnotherapy serious years ago. We now drum together, do yoga and sound healing together. He is open and the closet door is wide open. All of the expressive arts healing modalities are on the table for use and exploration. In my certification journey I have gathered courage to sing in public, I have begun to use paints and not fear the blank page as much. I have gathered my napkins and old envelopes and published my first book of poetry. I have fallen into the arms of an amazing community of expressive artist and healers. I have danced more in public and shared a specific therapeutic dance within the African American community as a healing ritual for the 400 years of trauma caused by slavery. I am more intentional and clearer about using movement to heal generational trauma. Freeing my creativity and exercising new ways of self-expression has inspired more creativity and courage to go to the edge of my creative desires. All the doors are open to me and the key is in my hand. The Expressive Arts Community is a circle of healers I am forever grateful to be a part of. Ase, Amen, Amin.
If you are reading this article, then you probably already know that dancing has psychological as well as social, cognitive, and emotional, not to mention physical benefits. But did you know that our body has its own language? That each organ, vessel, tissue, and muscle has a voice and that we can use the mind body connection to become fluent in the language of our body?
This is different from body language which we know to make up about 80% of what we express. Body language is a nonverbal communication where feelings and emotions are expressed physically. This might take the form of an eye roll to express disdain, a dropped jaw to express amazement, or raised shoulders to communicate confusion or misunderstanding.
I am talking about the feelings and emotions that may be hidden, trapped, or even silenced in the body. Where does our voice go when we have been forced to silence it? What happens to our desires and needs when they are shown not to matter? Do they disappear? No, they become part of our bodies’ internal communication.
As a dance therapist, I see this in my practice all too often. A client might have a physical ailment that is not described by a physical injury or issue. Instead it seems to be a manifestation of psychological distress; a psychosomatic symptom. One basic example that most of us have experienced is a tension headache. Here is a physical symptom of an emotional trigger. Now, what about an individual who has been sexually abused? Often times, there is an inability to verbally process what has occurred. Either the words are not accessible or the person cannot confront what has happened. Take a moment to sit with the fact that the body is talking. The body has so much to say if we only give it the opportunity, but we feel the need to express verbally through formal language and if that is not present, then we must wait until it is or assume everything is “ok.”
In dance/movement therapy, we utilize the mind body connection to allow the body to do the talking. The ability to be mindful and aware of what our body is saying is not an easy task and can even invoke fear or anxiety. It’s important to know that when words are not accessible or enough to communicate the severity of a situation, that the body can speak for itself. We are all using our bodies to communicate, relate, and be in this world on a daily basis. Using the body to express what is already there can rejuvenate, uplift, and open an individual to his/her full potential.
Know that whatever you may be going through, your body is carrying it. The ability to connect the body and mind allows for a more holistic approach to mental health, greater compassion, empathy, and even safety. If dancing is your release, your path to healing, then embrace all the movement your body does every day. Finding a way to connect to your body’s internal language can free your mind to express what has always been there and create space for what’s to come.
Erica Hornthal, MA, LCPC, BC-DMT, is the founder and CEO of Chicago Dance Therapy, which is dedicated to providing dance/movement therapy and clinical counseling to individuals, couples, families and groups. Erica received her MA in Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling from Columbia College Chicago. She is passionate about helping individuals of all ages increase their quality of life by emphasizing the mind-body connection to enable growth and healing. As a movement therapist, Erica uses body movement every day with her clients to provide the means of assessment and the mode of intervention in therapy. Her work has been highlighted in Social Work Magazine, Natural Awakenings, Fox, WGN, and WCIU.
Twitter: @EricaHornthal @CHIDanceTherapy
Dr. Jamie Marich
Curator of the Dancing Mindfulness expressive arts blog: a celebration of mindfully-inspired, multi-modal creativity