After months of searching for a placement, I was overjoyed when I found out that I would be able to carry out my internship at the Women’s Center in Stockholm – to me it was like a far-away unrealistic dream that I never thought would come true. I’ve known for a while now that a big part of mission on this planet is to be of service to, help heal and uplift women. That being said, it is true that I know very little about what it’s like to be a woman that is denied her basic rights, and I don’t belong to any marginalized group. I am a white Western woman with double citizenship and I understand that I carry that privilege wherever I go, more so now than ever before. I’ve also come to realize that these handed down ‘’advantages’’ give me the opportunity to use my gifts and resources for the betterment of my life and those of others. However, the image of what a woman is supposed to be, endure, look like and behave that was passed down to me as a child was deeply broken. I come from a place where it is normal for women to sacrifice everything, whether that be health, the body, their integrity, their own happiness, dreams, and even safety. I was sensitized at a young age by my mother’s deep-seated interest for women’s rights; ironically she was suffering from decades of physical and psychological abuse and self-neglect herself. In a way, you could say that witnessing her lifetime of hardships and struggles while she tried to meet our needs is what continues to motivate me everyday. Growing up in North America, a woman is supposed to be able to do it all without ever asking for help; get a higher education, cook and clean, raise a family, take care of sick members of the family, have a career, make money, look fit and certainly not ask for help because she got this. This super-woman-motto (or ego) may have given us a kind of independence but if you ask me, it means nothing if it leaves us empty and burned out. Throughout the years, I’ve worked in several schools, dozens of studios, meeting and teaching hundreds of women from teenagers to the elderly and I see that so many of us haven’t managed to escape the plague of martyrdom or perfectionism. To add to it, many women and people are feeling disconnected, isolated and anxious. I’ve recognized, even before beginning my internship, that there is not only immense power in women gathering with each other to learn and share but more of a need for this age-old tradition than ever before. Everywhere I go, women are seeking for support and connection – it’s encoded in our DNA. This is nothing new, women have been gathering and building communities for hundreds of centuries, sharing and passing on wisdom, traditions, medicine, and much more. Though we didn’t practice any ‘’woowoo’’ rituals around the fire, the Women’s Center in Stockholm offered us the space to meet, exchange stories, hopes, dreams and sorrows, to dance, celebrate and laugh together. Throughout this time at the Women’s Center, I learned a great deal about myself, about this population and why dance and movement is such an important part of community and healing. There is no way I could summarize everything I learned here but I wanted to share at least 3 powerful lessons that I want to take with me and would like to share with you.
Kvinnocenter i Akalla (Women’s Center in Akalla)
First, let me introduce this very special place. I undertook this 3-month adventure at the Women’s center in Stockholm, which is a division of the Salvation Army; a Christian based organization involved in many social and charitable projects. The center is located in a segregated area of Stockholm and has existed for over twenty-five years in order to serve a very vulnerable population: asylum seeking women and their families. At this very home-like center, women from all over the world meet several times a week to learn Swedish and Swedish culture, gain a sense of community, to pray, participate in group activities and events and seek out counseling and legal advice. It was made clear by the staff members that every ethnicity, culture and religion was accepted. It is a sacred space, to some, the only space, where they can finally relax, feel welcomed and safe. The Salvation Army is also well-known for its music, its bands, choirs as well as other creative expressions like dance and drama springing from the movement, so it wasn’t such a surprise that they were open receiving their first dance movement therapist in the making, me!
How Can Dance Therapy Help?
The goal was to carry out group and private sessions in dance movement therapy to assist the women in coping and dealing with stress, anxiety, depression and trauma. Honestly, I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to deliver. Many of these women are fleeing and still dealing with unimaginable circumstances and trauma; some juggling families, multiple responsibilities, and loss while facing the continuous precariousness of their future. How could dancing possibly help with any of that? Somehow, I had to keep faith that I had something to offer, even if it was just a platform of expression. Some of the women were just arriving, barely understanding a word of Swedish or English, while others could speak more fluently. That’s when I realized the advantage of working on the bodily level; the body is our primary vessel of expression, continuously painting a portrait of whom we are, where we come from and how we think, feel and see the world. Many past traumas and patterns are held in the body until we become aware – or embodied. With dance and movement, we can express and release emotions, tension, stress and our deepest wounds. I used my body to communicate and show compassion. Empathic mirroring of another person’s movements, posture, and affect is at the heart of a dance movement therapist’s work and helps others to feel seen.
Lesson 1: It Takes a Village
At the Salvation Army, they say ‘’soup, song and gathering’’, underlining the importance of addressing practical needs, artistic expression and the power of community. Healing is a long-term process, especially when there are multiple deep-rooted traumas involved. Every person on site, whether it was a volunteer, a teacher or the counselor, played an important role in contributing. This isn’t a place where one just puts on their blinders and ‘’gets the job done’’. One has to be as fluid and adaptable as possible to the most pressing needs in the moment. I was amazed at the level of kindness and generosity the workers showed the women and me. Some distributed food and supplies with enthusiasm and others helped translate the myriad of languages being spoken. The staff would often cheer loudly when they would see someone walk through the doors for the first time in a long time. Group activities were always put at the forefront, whether it was excursions, putting together meals, events, and distributing food to those in need.
I distinctly remember one woman who always had a sad smile on. She loved to dance even though she had a lot of aches and pain in her body. At times she would ‘’fly away’’ in her movements; opening up her arms and chest towards the sky, as though she was floating away from all her worries. She told me that we, the people at the center, were like a family to her and this is why she keeps coming back.
There is a lot of wisdom in the Salvation Army’s saying ‘’soup, song and gathering’’. Healing is a complex long-term project that requires basic needs being met alongside community; the proximity of a group that accepts and supports you in several ways. Once trust has been developed, your community can uplift and empower you, even in your darkest moments. Essentially, even when you feel out of place, they are telling you belong here.
Lesson 2: Here and Now Is the Place to Be
As a teacher, I had to learn to structure literally everything from A-Z; but a lesson-plan can’t replace the ability to read a room. At the Women’s Center, I never knew whom would show up that particular day and in what state the women would be. The sessions that were the most successful were actually those where I had the courage to let go of my need to control and just listen. I listened outwards and let it resonate inwards. In fact it was more the women who were guiding me in my suggestions for different movements, themes and activities. At times, I had the feeling that I had no idea what I was doing and yet something was unfolding by itself! One day, we were trying out some Flamenco inspired steps while seated on a chair. I could feel that the women were getting tired of intensively following the complex patterns. Instead, I switched tracks and suggested that we take turns letting the rhythm take over, let it guide the body to do whatever it wanted as we past a scarf around. What came forth was rapid, intense, silly and spontaneous characters. I still remember how hard I laughed that day. What they and I needed that day wasn’t to abide by a rigid plan, it was to let go and luckily, that’s exactly what we did.
Lesson 3: Compassion Is Key to Understanding
Every woman who came to the center had a story – many were tragic, some filled with hope and aspirations. Many mothers, wives, others alone, risked their lives for the possibility to live freely or for a better future for themselves and their family. At times, it could be overwhelming to hear and speak about such different realities than what I have known my whole life. I, like many others, forget that we sometimes live in a bubble, far away from unthinkable poverty and/or injustice. When we do see it, it’s through a washed up one-sided lens, which leads to so many misconceptions. What saddened me the most was actually hearing how some of the women were being treated, sometimes even exploited here in Sweden. The goal isn’t to make you feel guilty or overwhelmed. As an empathic person, I know this all to well. It’s impossible and honestly not constructive to keep track of everything going on in the world but we can be sensitive towards those suffering, even if we don’t completely understand. I truly believe that a person in distress or pain, whether emotional, physical or psychological, can only start to heal when they feel seen. To do that, we have to put aside our judgments and be willing to listen and truly see. We can offer something that is completely free to all people we encounter, especially when they seem, look, speak and act differently than we do: compassion. One woman who used to come to the center was working as a janitor and used to be a human rights lawyer in her country until she was threatened multiple times and had to escape. Every human has his or her own history, experiences, set of personal resources, values, skills and talents. When we put aside our flawed beliefs and open our hearts to others, even when we fear ‘’them’’, we start to transform their and our pain.
There is so much more I could share about this once in a lifetime experience I shared with so many amazing women at the Center but I hope that I could give you a glimpse into the potential of dance movement therapy and how it can empower even some of the most vulnerable groups in our society. Dance is an incredible tool that helps us to express our true selves, desires, feelings, pain and dreams. Getting to know someone on the bodily level requires trust and vulnerability and I feel privileged to have experienced this kind of honest relationship with so many. There is something incredibly powerful about being in a room with people of all ages, beliefs, origins, languages, and religions moving together. You don’t need to be a proficient mover, just a human!