Dance/Movement Therapy with Refugees and Survivors

Editor’s Note: Amber Elizabeth Lynn Gray, MA, MPH, LPC/C, BC-DMT, NCC, PhD, is a pioneer in the use of dance/movement therapy with survivors of trauma, particularly torture, war, and human rights abuses. A recent nominee for The Barbara Chester Human Rights award and a featured expert on torture treatment through Tulane University’s Institute of Traumatology, Amber has provided clinical training on the integration of refugee mental health and torture treatment with creative arts, mindfulness, and body-based therapies to more than 30 programs worldwide, since the 1990’s. We asked her to reflect on her personal journey that brought her to this work.

When I was pursuing my degree in Dance/Movement Therapy, I interviewed my parents about my birth. When I asked my father the first question – to reflect on what he recalls of my birth – he paused a moment and then said: “You were born dancing and fighting. And to this day, you have not stopped.”

Embodied Staff Care Training, Khartoum, Sudan 2007

My work with refugees and survivors of torture arises from my long commitment to, and participation in, political and social activism. My parents both describe me as an advocate for justice at an early age and, in my teens and twenties, I worked domestically and internationally in international development and humanitarian response.

In 1994, I was in Rwanda as a Public Health Consultant for an NGO establishing a program there. I had already decided to return to school to study something clinical and people-centered and the range of possibilities extended from acupuncture to clinical psychology. I had visited the campus of a DMT graduate program and was very interested in potentially becoming a dance therapist because dance has always been my passion, refuge and first love. But I wasn’t really sure how practical it would be for my ongoing work in complex humanitarian emergencies and with those who suffered human rights abuses.

On a needs assessment mission in Rwanda, we had to drive through a recently demined region and I was working with a colleague who I, not so affectionately, remember as a “Rambo” type humanitarian worker. Often ignoring security warnings and seemingly over-confident that we humanitarian workers had some great force of protection around us, he broke many of the security rules. After a grueling drive, during which he ignored several checkpoints and joked about driving off the demined area through the minefield (and almost did), we arrived at our site, unnerved, to be greeted by a small group of very frightened children. They immediately pointed and gestured to the areas we should not walk, due to mines, and then began to gather small scraps of cans and other objects. These objects quickly became makeshift rhythm instruments that some of them played. Others clapped, danced, and sang. My interpreter told me it was a welcome song and that they — the only survivors in this village where all but a handful of adults had been massacred — were thanking us for traveling a long way to help them. In that moment, I had a flash of the campus I had previously visited and knew I would pursue dance/movement therapy. The potency of that heartfelt, welcome dance inspired and informed me of the power and immediacy of dance as a way to connect and communicate, even in the most horrific of circumstances.

I’ve learned a lot about the power of dance/movement therapy in 17 years working with survivors of war and torture. The most valuable lessons have been those that taught me to adapt this work. A survivor I worked with many years ago begged me to “ be careful with my body, because it is a minefield of horrible memory.” While expressivity and creativity are our birthright, how any of us show up in our bodies, create, and express ourselves is deeply informed by culture and context. The fear that experiences of war and torture embed in body memory necessitates deep listening, respect and discernment in using dance/movement therapy with survivors.

And, as another survivor once said to me: “Show me where laughter comes from. I don’t need to be reminded of how much I suffered; I will never forget that. I want to be reminded how to sing and dance, and where to find beauty.”

Dance/Movement Therapy Training for Torture Treatment Program in Tyre, Lebanon, 2010

The courage of every refugee and survivor I have been privileged to work with has guided the work I do in the United States and globally and has shown me that every human being has the right to inhabit her/his body in the way s/he chooses. This is the rationale, the invitation, and the call for dance/movement therapy anywhere there is suffering.


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This post was initially published on the ADTA Blog on January 19, 2015.

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