Dancing your way through life

Published On: April 13, 2018 07:32 AM NPT By: Anweiti Upadhyay

Neha Christopher always loved to dance but it was actually her mother who steered her towards exploring the therapeutic side of dancing. Now a certified dance and movement therapist, Christopher came to Nepal sometime in August 2017. Since then, she has already facilitated six different workshops in collaboration with six different organizations including Rupy’s International School, Pushpanjali School, and Katha Ghera and she is all geared up for an upcoming four-month long workshop with The British School students. 

Currently, Christopher is a consultant and supervisor at the Elijah Counseling and Training Centre (ECTC), a nonprofit organization that works to enhance the psychological, emotional and spiritual health of the country. Christopher declares encouraging ethical practices of therapy as her main motivator for working as a dance and movement therapist. Something she has noticed in Nepal is that although people are passionate about helping others, they are not necessarily given the skills to do so, especially on issues surrounding mental health. 

And that sums up her role at ECTC. “I provide them with the resources, teach them how to deal with certain situations and how to keep in touch with the relevant therapy. I think it really enhances the client’s experience because dance therapy is not your usual sit and talk therapy,” says Christopher. ECTC apparently also doubles as an agency for her – matching her up with other organizations where she carries out workshops on related topics. “I work full time but it’s through one organization (ECTC) that sends me to different places. It’s kind of hectic,” she says adding that she is also affiliated with patient navigation system, Sundar Dhoka Sathi Sewa (SDSC).

Bangalore born Christopher got her Registered Dance Movement Therapist (RDMT) certificate from the American Dance Therapy organization that is a globally accredited institution. She likes it that it allows her to practice dance therapy anywhere she wants. However, she says that she has not met any other certified dance therapists in Nepal and emphasizing the importance of such certification, she says, “To grasp the full functionality and knowledge of how it works you have to be certified and well trained. I have met a few people who practice it in Nepal through their experience but just that is not quite enough.”

Before starting her first term-long workshop at a school after she came to Nepal, Christopher was slightly apprehensive about how students would react to it but her concerns proved to be pointless when she realized that not only did these students like it, they were pretty receptive to it too. Her take on it is that dance therapy’s use of tangible creativity engages people and strikes them in a way that makes them think the concept is quite cool. She confesses she works with this strategy according to her client’s age. For instance, she tries to capture the fun element when working with kids and for someone a bit older – say, a teenager – she goes with something that radiates self-awareness.

Christopher is not sure how long her residency in Nepal will last but she plans to make it as constructive as possible both for herself and her clients. She plans on staying for six more months, at the very least, but she admits she cannot confirm for anything beyond that period of time. Talking about how she came to Nepal, she says, “My husband, who works for an INGO, came to Nepal right after the earthquake and he is still working here. I was working and volunteering at different organizations in Brooklyn in New York at the time. I came to Nepal to essentially be close to him.” Her mother – who is still living in Banglore, India – is ecstatic about this arrangement because Christopher is closer to her than she was while living in New York.

Her move to Nepal has proven to be good for both professional and personal reasons. Here Christopher also mentions that she appreciates how Nepalis own their language and even when they are –for example – giving a speech in English, a couple of Nepali words manage to slip their way into the speech. She likes how connected Nepalis are to their roots, she says. Even through her sessions, clients sometimes talk in Nepali – which she understands to some extent because of how closely it is related to Hindi – but she does not stop them because she feels it is important for them to candidly express whatever they are feeling at the moment in whatever form they prefer.

Though dance therapy is basically about movement and expressing oneself through their bodies, Christopher believes being vocal about things while at it, every once in a while, doesn’t hurt either. “And that’s the essence of dance therapy. It gets you to open up,” she concludes. 

What is dance therapy?
It’s a form of using your body to get to your mind. The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) defines dance and movement therapy as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive and physical unification of the person. You use your body as a tool to look into your mind and its functionality. When we are talking about mental illness it’s not just a mental condition but it affects you physically and socially and your interactions are hampered as well. So in dance therapy, we backtrack and address it through the body. We analyze how you can release the frustration through your body and get to what feeling that is and how that is affecting your mental health.

Is there a certain age group or any other groups that you prefer working with or that are more prone to dance therapy’s effectiveness?
The beauty of dance therapy is that anyone can partake in it. There is no particular group that is best suited for it. We can work with kids or their moms. We can also start with prenatal development to postpartum depression to the end of life. In every step of life, dance therapy can be used as an intervention. Even towards the end, like in hospice care, it helps you gain closure and understand how you can transition. In terms of limitation for or to an age group regarding dance therapy, there is none. It can be used by people of all ages, sexual orientations, gender identifications, and social groups. It is very accessible to all because everybody moves and everybody uses his/her body in some way or the other – it’s a universal thing.

Is this is a relatively new medium of therapy?
It’s actually not since dance has been part of all cultures and people have used dance to express themselves from the beginning of time. There are practices like folk dances and there is so much movement in traditional acts in the East. (I can’t and won’t talk about the West here because I’ve grown up in India so I only know about the East’s traditional link with dance.) And that is the crux of dance therapy. In practice, dance therapy has been used for centuries but dance therapy as an academic principal and practice is relatively new. The ADTA was established about 52 years ago. That should give you an idea of how long ago the academic and theoretical side of it was initiated.

You have talked about personal development that people go through from dance therapy. What is your take on that? How have you grown as a person through this practice?
Dance therapy has taught me to check in with myself time and again. I’m a hustler and I love my work. So I take up as many appointments and clients as I can and I’m someone who just works and works and works without stopping. Since taking up dance therapy, I have learned to take a breather, stop giving myself a hard time for trivial things and to look at myself with self-compassion. I’ve learned to analyze my actions but not to chastise myself in any way. It has helped me find a balance between pushing myself and taking care of myself. That’s something I did not do before taking up dance therapy.

Is there anything about dance therapy that you do not like?
It is hard work and, at times, I wish it were easier. The thing is it’s not easy to be empathetic all the time and remind yourself that the world is bigger than you. Sometimes the easy way to do things is to look at it in a selfish way – like how it’s affecting you and cultivate an attitude of if ‘it’s not affecting you then it’s not your problem’. But that is not how dance therapy works. Dance therapy has exposed me to so much that I can’t turn a blind eye on injustice and people feeling inferior because of their mental health stigma or other people making them feel so. While it’s a good thing, it is personally very taxing as well. It takes a toll on me and how much I am able to do and I just want to do more. Here is when we go back to balance.

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