Move to Change: Using Dance to Ease Conflict

Throughout our lives, we learn contextually appropriate ways to maneuver our bodies in relationship to the world. Children, for instance, are often given more social permission to move about, jump, and play with fervor. However, the body-politic does not offer equal access or freedom to move for all; in some cultures certain forms of movement may be against the law or push against the boundaries of cultural norms.

Yet our bodies need to move to live, and to change.

Dancers seem to understand this need to move on a cellular level. For them, dancing serves as a form of communication. Sometimes, it is a refuge.

Our bodies know rhythm. Heartbeats from our mothers are our first universally shared rhythm. Whether you notice or not, rhythm is no further away from us than the rising and falling of the rib cage during breath. Note your breathing now. Notice the tightness of the diaphragm, and its influence on the oxygen intake. It is influencing homeostasis, your life balance. Indigenous wisdom tells us that a balanced life is a good life. Yet unfortunately, many of us experience realities that thwart our equilibrium. Dance offers us to embody our inner ecological integrity, find our equilibrium, and nourish our inner rhythm.

Dancers connect to the practices of their foremothers, preserving language, sounds, and rhythmic traditions. Across many traditions, folk arts connect kinetically with the dream and spiritual realms, garnering the wisdom and bringing it back for use in the material realm. Dance forums were then used for healing and conflict resolution. But let’s be honest; dance is not likely your first go-to-tool for resolving arguments and strife.

Thankfully, there is revived interest in returning to folk arts and dance as a healing tool. This increase in popularity has helped dance find its way into the world of conflict mediation. Take a step back in time to the 1960s through the 80s; psychology was riffing off the en vogue body awareness methods of the times, and connecting the sciences and movement into new psychological iterations. Names such as Kepner, Hall, Kurtz, Murphy, Keleman, Hanlon Johnson, and Grand, were amongst the first wave of these movement-minded specialists. With them was Arnold Mindell, founder of Process Oriented Psychology (also known as Process Work) a somatic psychology. Soma by Greek definition means of the body. These forefathers are credited for birthing the field of somatic psychology.  In the beginning this tradition focused on the individual. It would be later, in the early 2000s, that Martha Eddy argued for somatics to take a turn outward toward social applications. They then predicted the next wave would be Social Somatics or Socio-Somatics.

My entrance into the field came in 2001 when I was first introduced to Arney and Amy Mindell; founders of Process Work. Later they would become my teachers. It was through their lessons I could finally answer the question, “How can dance inform our conflicts and help create peace?” I desperately wanted this answer to be more than a metaphor. I needed to see that the solution was deeper than social dances. And while I had seen its application in de-escalation techniques such as breathing exercises, I needed to see dance “dissolve” intractable differences. And I did.

How it works

I mainly pull from two methods, Process Work (previously mentioned) and Biodanza. Biodanza is a dance meditation form created by a Chilean Expressive Arts Therapist Rolando Torro. This form was created to serve memory recall in dementia patients. Biodanza uses “encuentros” or dance encounters to build rhythmic entrainment. Movements are intimate and often use mimicking or co-improvisational gestures and movement forms. They are always non-verbal which is one reason they have such impact. When we bypass words, we go straight into feeling. There is no hiding. Through this non-verbal connection, the whole group experiences vivencia — a somatic sensation of vitality for life. One way to think about what these practices offer is to say these are embodied practices for peace and liberation. More simply, we are relearning to live in our body once again: Embodying harmony with one another.

How to do it

Following are two dances explore.

• Biodanza’s: “Power/Love”
a balancing dance

In this exploration you are doing a solo dance. There are two moves to this choreography, thus the name. First start with a gesture of either love energy or power energy. Second, take the gesture into a full bodied movement. Let this movement find its natural completion. Now repeat these steps with the other energy. Finally, take the two energies and combine them. First feel for this blended energy inside your body, then taking that into a gesture, and completing that into a movement phrase. In this method you don’t discuss your analysis after. This practice prefers you allow thoughts to emerge as a secondary byproduct. As with many movement meditations, this works best with practice over time. Also it is useful, after building your chops first, to bring a specific issue into the dance to work on. You can use this dance to work with that content directly.

• Process Works: “Vector Walk”
a decision making dance

This exercise engages you in a transformative approach to inner work. In this dance you bring a specific decision with which you are grappling. You walk about in a triangle of your own formation, and placing an item on the ground where you start you bring your awareness to the problem you brought. Using your body’s mind-state, you turn to face a direction. This will be where you start the walk for the first leg of the triangle. You will know when you land on the “correct” direction, because your body will shift. Walk the first leg of your triangle. You will know when to stop, for the same somatic reasons. A symptom shift might look like an exhale or muscular release. Keeping on the triangle, form side two. Mark each point of the triangle with an item, so you know where to go. Now the dance is twofold. First, move the body’s mindstate into a felt place of ecstasy. Imagine that energy to the degree that you feel it support you. Then bring awareness back, slightly, to your decision/ problem. Keeping this mind-state, take a lap around the two sides of your triangle. Side A stands for one perspective, side B stands for another. Complete your triangle’s third side, by deepening your ecstatic mind-state. Somatically allow your body to reveal itself. You will know when the dance is complete because your body’s symptoms will have shifted. This is your resolution. Trust that the word(s) may not come right away. Likely a body-symptom will unearth a feeling, then a memory, then words. But don’t press this. The work is authentic when the dance is emergent.

Real life examples

In Bogota, Colombia in 2015, I was part of a delegation of North Americans attending the first Process Work conference at Pontifica Universidad Javeriana. Here we vetted regional hot topics; destruction of the indigenous, gender and economics, the internally displaced, and post-war trauma. At one point, founder Dr. Mindell asked what might be a word to universally describe Colombians. “Passion?” he asked. Roaring in reply (in a tone that was arguably passionate) they simultaneously cried “Si!” and “No”! Next, the room erupted in laughter. This reaction brought to head a secondary awareness. Their bodies knew a connection to passion, one that their material minds were only partially willing to acknowledge. This was a moment of somatic entrainment. This brought a moment of resolution.

Stateside, I work with people who consider themselves non-movers. Through the guise of leadership development and non-verbal conflict coaching, I bring about the skillsets dance offered our ancestors. In 2011-2013 we held local community convenings on conflictual topics. The first theme we embraced was “Minnesota Nice.” Over 50 people spend eight hours dealing with this conditioned pattern. They came to recognize when their body contradicted their words. Using somatic mediation in our facilitation, we were able to name hidden truths. The result was increased authenticity and a deepened connection.

Final Thoughts: The Body Knows

As in all things, there is an art to mastering conflict. Using dance to replace fear with joy makes even this most repelling subject seem palatable. These days many mediation options exist, and dance is a worthy and creative consideration. Neuromotor development explains “dance skills” (movement, kinesthesia, and proprioception) that we already possess. These dance skills can be trained and employed for conflict resolution; they offer us an antidote to our reflexive habits.

In fact, we can all shift our perceptions so we can create new solutions for resolution. All it takes to make dance a tool for conflict resolution is a little healthy curiosity.


T. Zea Leguizamon, RSMT is a founding member of the Embodydeepdemocracy. com collective.

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