The Body as Symbol: Dance/Movement in Analysis

This paper will discuss the use of dance/movement as a form of active imagination in analysis. The history of this work emerges out of two traditions: depth psychology and dance therapy. The roots of both can be traced to earliest human history, when disease was seen as a loss of soul and dance was an intrinsic part of the healing ritual.

Joan Chodorow, Ph.D., is a Jungian analyst practicing in California's Bay Area. She is a graduate of the C. G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles and a member of the C. G. Jung Institute of San Francisco. Her dance therapy training was with Trudi Schoop and Mary Whitehouse. She is a member and former president of the American Dance Therapy Association. She is the author of Dance Therapy and Depth Psychology (1991), and the editor of Jung on Active Imagination (1997).

© 1986 Chiron Publications



The dance is the mother of the arts. Music and poetry exist in time; painting and architecture in space. But the dance lives at once in time and space. The creator and the thing created ... are still one and the same thing . (Sachs 1937, p. 3)

This paper will discuss the use of dance/movement as a form of active imagination in analysis. The history of this work emerges out of two traditions: depth psychology and dance therapy. The roots of both can be traced to earliest human history, when disease was seen as a loss of soul and dance was an intrinsic part of the healing ritual.

The importance of bodily experience in depth psychology has not been fully recognized, despite Jung's interest in and experience of the body and his understanding of its relationship to the creative process. I will take up some of this material; look at the early development of dance movement therapy, with attention to Mary Starks Whitehouse and her contribution to the development of active imagination through movement; and explore the process of using dance/movement in analysis. This will lead to discussion of dance/movement as a bridge to early, preverbal stages of development.

Depth Psychology

Throughout his life, C. G. Jung seemed to listen to the experience of his own body: "I hated gymnastics. I could not endure having others tell me how to move" (1961, p. 29). "My heart suddenly began to pound. I had to stand up and draw a deep breath" (ibid., p. 108). 1 had a curious sensation. It was as if my diaphragm were made of iron and were becoming red-hot-a glowing vault" (ibid., p. 155). His visions, too, were clearly experienced in his body:

Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged down into dark depths. I could not fend off a feeling of panic. But then, abruptly, at not too great a depth, I landed on my feet in a soft sticky mass. I felt great relief. (Ibid., p. 179)

From his boyhood realization that he had two "personalities,", Jung was interested in questions about the relationship of body and psyche. His earliest psychological study included observations of unconscious motor phenomena (1902, par. 82). His work with some of the severely regressed patients at Burgholzli led him to question and eventually discover the meaning of their peculiar, perseverative, symptomatic actions (1907, par. 358). His word association studies involved measurement of physiological changes that occur when a psychological complex is touched. His later speculations about the existence of a psychoid level and his alchemical studies continued to explore the relationship between instinct and archetype, matter and spirit. In an evocative paper entitled "Giving the Body Its Due," Anita Greene (1984) writes: "For Jung, matter and spirit, body and psyche, the intangible and the concrete were not split or disconnected but always remained interfused with each other" (p. 12).

Adela Wharton, an English woman physician, told Joseph Henderson that during one of her analytic hours, Jung "encouraged her to dance her mandala-like designs for him when she could not draw them satisfactorily." The room was not large, but a small clear space was sufficient (Henderson 1985a, p. 9; 1985b). We know very little about the details of her dance, or what it stirred in each of them, or how they came together afterwards. But in his "Commentary on 'The Secret of the Golden Flower,'" Jung wrote:

Among my patients I have come across cases of women who did not draw mandalas but danced them instead. In India there is a special name for this: mandala nrithya, the mandala dance. The dance figures express the same meanings as the drawings. My patients can say very little about the meaning of the symbols but are fascinated by them and find that they somehow express and have an effect on their subjective psychic state. (1-29, par. 32)

Jung touched on this theme again in his 1929 seminar on dreams:

A patient once brought me a drawing of a mandala, telling me that it was a sketch for certain movements along lines in space. She danced it for me, but most of us are too self conscious and not brave enough to do it. It was a conjuration or incantation to the sacred pool or flame in the middle, the final goal, to be approached not directly but by the stations of the cardinal points. (1938, p.304)

As early as 1916, Jung suggested that expressive body movement is one of numerous ways to give form to the unconscious (1916, par. 171). In a description of active imagination, he wrote that it could be done in any number of ways: "according to individual taste and talent ... dramatic, dialectic, visual, acoustic, or in the form of dancing, painting, drawing, or modelling" (1946, par. 400). As with so many aspects of his work, he was far ahead of his time. The idea of using the arts as part of a psychotherapeutic process must have been startling in 1916. The original paper was circulated privately among some of Jung's students, and remained unpublished until 1957. Still more time had to pass before the creative art therapies could emerge and be recognized by the mental health community.

Dance Movement Therapy

Dance therapy became a profession in 1966, with the formation of the American Dance Therapy Association. The pioneer dance therapists were all women: dancers, choreographers, and teachers of dance, they shared a common passion and deep respect for the therapeutic value of their art. At first, they were without any kind of clinical training and they lacked a theoretical framework. But each of them knew the transformative power of dance from personal experience. Although isolated from each other, they taught in private studios and made their way into psychiatric hospitals and other clinical settings throughout the 1940s and '50s. Some of them started as volunteers; part-time or full-time jobs were created for them after they established themselves. Dancers, psychotherapists, and others came to study and apprentice with the early practitioners, who began to develop theories to support their keen observations. The need to develop a theoretical framework led most of them to psychological and other related studies (Chaiklin and Gantt, 1979).

Mary Starks Whitehouse was one of the early movement therapy pioneers. She received her diploma from the Wigman School in Germany and also was a student of Martha Graham. Her personal analysis with Hilde Kirsch in Los Angeles and studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich resulted in the development of an approach that is sometimes called authentic movement or movement-in-depth in a paper entitled "Reflections on a Metamorphosis" (1968), she told the story of this transition:

It was an important day when I recognized that I did not teach Dance, I taught People.... It indicated a possibility that my primary interest might have to do with process, not results, that it might not be art I was after but another kind of human development. (p. 273)

Her work has many aspects. She was the first to describe movement from different sources in the psyche:

"I move" is the clear knowledge that 1, personally, am moving. The opposite of this is the sudden and astonishing moment when "I am moved." It is a moment when the ego gives up control, stops choosing, stops exerting demands, allowing the Self to take over moving the physical body as it will. it is a moment of unpremeditated surrender that cannot be explained, repeated exactly, sought for, or tried out. (1979, p. 57)

The core of the movement experience is the sensation of moving and being moved. Ideally, both are present in the same instant. It is a moment of total awareness, th~ coming together of what I am doing and what is happening to me. (1958)

As she developed her approach to movement, she taught her students to become aware of a specific inner impulse that has the quality of a bodily felt sensation:

Following the inner sensation, allowing the impulse to take the form of physical action, is active imagination in movement, just as following the visual image is active imagination in fantasy. it is here that the most dramatic psychophysical connections are made available to consciousness. (1963, p. 3)

She was also interested in visual images that come out of the movement experience, as well as images from memories, dreams, and fantasies. Whether the images were God-like, human, animal, vegetable, or mineral, she encouraged her students to remain in their own bodies and interact with the interior landscapes and personified beings that appeared. There were times when the images themselves seemed to want to be embodied, as if the image could make itself better known by entering the body of the mover. Then her students would experience not only dancing with, but they would allow themselves at times to be danced by a compelling inner image.

She developed much of her work through an extremely simple structure. It involves two people: a mover and a witness. Whitehouse was primarily concerned with exploring and understanding the inner experience of the mover. Some of her students, other dance therapists, and analysts have been developing the work further, toward a deeper understanding of the inner experience of the witness and the relationship between mover and witness. When this work is brought into the analytic temenos, many questions arise about how the dance/movement process weaves into the larger context of a Jungian analysis.

Dance/Movement in Analysis

The use of dance movement in analysis is similar in many ways to use of sandplay. Both are a nonverbal, symbolic process that usually takes place within the analytic hour. The analyst serves as participant/ witness. It is the quality of the analyst's attentive presence that can create the "free and sheltered space" that has been so beautifully described by Dora Kalff.

As with other forms of active imagination, the use of dance/movement relies on a sense of inner timing- inner readiness. Sometimes the timing is wrong. For example, when tension or discomfort is building in the verbal work, the idea of moving may be an unconscious form of avoidance. But most people are able to sense when it's time to imagine an inner dialogue, when to move, when to build a sandworld, or use art materials, or write, or bring in a guitar to sing their own song of lamentation or celebration.

The various forms affect each other. For example, when sandplay and movement are both part of the analytic process, analysands may sometimes experience themselves moving as if they were inside one of their own sandworlds, interacting with some of the tiny figures. When this happens, it tends to evoke in the mover an Alice-in-Wonderland quality, as she or he meets the imaginal world with intensified interest and curiosity. Whether the mover has grown smaller, or the sandworld larger, things are getting "Curiouser and Curiouser." The mover usually meets such a novel situation by becoming even more alert and attentive, learning all she or he can about this strange, yet familiar, landscape and its inhabitants.

Alice may be a particularly useful model of a strong, young feminine ego who is learning how to follow her curiosity (down the rabbit hole, or through the looking glass) into an unknown realm-the unconscious. She is wide awake, questioning everyone and everything. The story offers a helpful image for any form of active imagination, that of the ongoing, interwoven relationship between Alice (curiosity) and Wonderland (imagination).

Another similarity between dance/movement and sandplay is that specific themes emerge that seem to follow stages of development in early childhood. More about this later.

Analysts and analysands find individual ways to introduce dance/ movement into the analysis. When initiated by the analysand, it may be as spontaneous as the mandala dance described above. or, there may be much previous discussion and exploration of feelings and fantasies about moving.

When initiated by the analyst, movement may be as spontaneous as a moment of playful, nonverbal interaction. Or it may he as subtle as the mirroring and synchronous breathing that naturally occurs when we open ourselves to a state of "participation mystique." An analyst may invite the analysand to enact a specific dream image (Whitmont 1972, pp. 13-14), or psychosomatic symptom (Mindell 1982, pp. 175-97; 1985). Analytic work on a body level may be grounded in a specific approach that includes the use of gentle touch techniques (Greene 1984). Or, dance and movement may be introduced through a series of workshops and continued in the individual analytic hours that follow (Woodman 1982,1983).

When the analyst is familiar with and interested in dance/movement as active imagination, his or her analysands are likely to want to move at some point in their work. But there are also analysands who are fully committed to work with the unconscious, yet never or rarely feel the need to leave their chairs. Some people move every hour, some a few times a year. Some get involved with a particular body level theme and work on it intensely for weeks or months, and then continue on a verbal level.

The movement itself may take no more than ten minutes- or it can go on for an hour or more. Sometimes it is helpful to decide in advance on a time period, perhaps twenty minutes, and have the analyst serve as timekeeper, letting the mover know when to (gradually) bring the movement process to an end.

Physical safety issues need to be discussed. The mover closes his or her eyes in order to listen for the inner sensations and images. But if he or she begins any kind of large swinging, spinning, leaping movements, any kind of momentum that could lead to a collision with windows, furniture, or what have you, it is essential that the eyes be open. Even when the quality of movement is smaller and slower, movers have to learn to open their eyes from time to time to keep an orientation to the room. It is difficult to do this without losing the inner-directed focus. But if the work involves a true meeting of conscious and unconscious, maintaining a sense of where one is in a room becomes part of the conscious standpoint. This is easy to say, but often extremely difficult to do. When one is moving in this way, the eyes usually want to stay closed. To open the eves (even a tiny slit) takes a major effort. At times, one's eyes feel as if they are glued shut.

A photograph of a Siberian shaman depicts him in a garment that has ropes hanging from his waist. Heavy metal weights are tied to the end of each rope. The shaman enters an ecstatic state as he begins to dance, whirling around. The ropes with their heavy weights fly out around him; a person could be badly injured, if hit by even one of them. The shaman is in a trance, but at the same time, remains conscious and restricts his dancing to an area that is safe. No one gets hurt (Henderson 1985 b).

This aspect of the shamanic tradition is similar to the process of active imagination. The essence of both processes requires the capacity to bear the tension of the opposites, i.e., to open fully to the unconscious, while at the same time maintaining a strong conscious standpoint.

The Mover and the Witness

Dance/movement usually needs a brief warm-up period. A time to stretch, relax, and attend to the depth and rhythm of one's breathing helps to prepare the physical body for inner-directed movement. It may also serve as a rite d'entree into the experience-a time when both mover and witness may become more fully present. After the warm-up, the mover/analysand closes his or her eyes, attends inwardly, and waits for an impulse to move, while the witness/analyst finds a corner in the studio where she or he can sit and watch. Movers are encouraged to give themselves over to whatever the body wants to do, to let themselves be moved by the stream of unconscious impulses and images. At the beginning, the witness/analyst carries a larger responsibility for consciousness while the mover/analysand is simply invited to immerse in his or her own fluctuating rhythms of movement and stillness. In time, the mover will begin to internalize the reflective function of the witness, and develop, the capacity to allow the body to yield to the unconscious stream of impulses and images, while at the same time bringing the experience into conscious awareness.

In movement, the unconscious seems to manifest in two recognizable ways: in images and in bodily felt sensations. Some movers experience the unconscious predominantly through a stream of inner visual images. Others may experience it primarily through the body. The initial preference seems related to typology. But the movement process tends to develop an increasingly balanced relationship to both realms. As we learn to listen and respond, our attention usually fluctuates back and forth. Each realm may constellate and enrich the other. A woman describes a movement experience that has the quality of such a dialectic:

My left hand became hard fisted. it was like a phallus. I moved through all levels with this strong, hard, left forearm and fist. Then, the fist opened. it opened so slowly that it was like a reversal from numbness. As my hand relaxed slowly into openness, a large diamond appeared in my palm. It was heavy. I began to move my left -arm in slow spirals around myself. I was aware of feeling the sequential, overlapping rotations of shoulder, elbow, wrist, and even fingers. Both arms came to stillness together, joined behind my back. The left hand continued to hold the diamond. Then, the image of the diamond came in front of my eyes. it grew larger, until I could see through it with both eyes. it showed me a vision of everything broken up by its facets. The diamond grew larger, until I was inside it looking out. The light was bright-almost golden. I bathed in it and felt that it was a healing kind of light. Now, my body shape took on the diamond's many facets. I was myself, my own shape, but each part of me had many cut surfaces. it was as if I could "see" through the myriad facets of all of me. There was a sense of wonder and suspension and peacefulness.

This mover describes a fluctuation and constant interchange between two sources of movement, the world of the body and the world of the imagination.

The experience of the analyst/witness ranges along a continuum that has at its poles two modes of consciousness. They are sometimes described as Logos or directed consciousness, and Eros or fantasy consciousness (Jung 1912; Stewart 1986, pp. 190-94). They are known by many names. The alchemists spoke of a mysterious marriage between Sol and Luna.

Let us take a moment and imagine how the same landscape might be affected by sunlight and by moonlight. Sunlight, or a solar attitude, offers us clarity. It enables us to divide what we see into its separate parts. But when it gets too bright, everything becomes harsh, glaring, dry. When the sun is at its peak, we live in a world without shadow. The moon, on the other hand, reflects a mild light. it reveals a moist, shimmering landscape. Everything merges. In the darkness we find an unsuspected unity (Jung 1963, par. 223).

What does this have to do with witnessing movement? The witness fluctuates between a solar, differentiated, objective, definitive way of seeing, to a lunar, merging, subjective, imaginative way of seeing. The same movement event may be seen and described in many ways:

As I watch, I see the mover crouch low with her face hidden. Only her arms reach forward, with wide-spread hands pressing flat on the ground. With an increasingly deep cycle of breathing, she slowly drops forward onto her knees and elbows, and finally slides flat onto her stomach, stretched full length on the ground. Her arms draw together in a long narrow shape, slipping between her body and the floor. She rests, breathing deeply.

As I watch, I let myself imagine and remember what it is like to go deeply inside. I know that this woman was largely ignored during the early years of her life, due to a series of illnesses in her family. As I watch, I feel an ache in Mv throat and my heart goes out to her. I now see her as if she were a very young infant. I imagine holding her close to my body, we rock back and forth with merging rhythms. As I imagine holding and rocking her, I slowly become aware that I am actually rocking slightly. Later on, I realize that our breathing has become synchronous.

As she presses her hands into the ground, I experience mounting tension and for a moment, I'm fearful that she'll press harder and harder and suddenly explode. But instead, she slides forward and lies on her stomach. She has now withdrawn so much that there is very little movement. My mind wanders. I pick at a hangnail. I feel irritated with her, then guilty and irritated with myself. I imagine she is sitting on a volcano. In any case, it feels as if I am: my shoulder muscles are contracted, my jaw is tight, I'm not breathing very much. My mind dimly wonders whether I might be picking up something about her father's cycle of violent outbursts and subsequent remorse. Or is her withdrawal too close to my own way of avoiding anger?

As she kneels low, the shape of her body reminds me of the Moslem prayer ritual. Another image comes: one of the paintings Jung did for his Red Book shows a little figure that bows low, while covering its face. An enormous fire spout is erupting out of the earth in front of the little person. It fills the upper half of the painting with intricately formed red, orange, and yellow flames.

We know from ancient tradition that the Feminine Mysteries are not to be spoken. Yet consciousness demands that we reflect on and at some point name our experience. When and how do we speak about the experience of dance/movement? How do we understand the meaning of the symbolic action? Do we interpret it from the perspective of transference and countertransference? When and how do we allow the symbolic process to speak for itself? When and how do we respond to it in its own language?

Dancers know instinctively that there is danger in "talking away" an experience that is not ready to be put into words. Isadora Duncan was asked to explain the meaning of a particular dance. Her reply: "if I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it."

Analysis offers a different perspective, but analysts, too, know the danger of making premature interpretations that would analyze feelings away (Greene 1984, p. 14, pp. 20-21. Machtiger 1984, p. 136. Ulanov 1982, p. 78).

There are three aspects of dance/movement in analysis that we gradually learn to remember: 1) What was the body doing? 2) What was the associated image? 3) What was the associated affect or emotional tone? There are heightened moments when all three are clearly known and remembered by both mover and witness. When we're aware of both physical action and inner image, we are likely to be conscious of the emotion as well. But there are times, just as with dreams, that we remember very little. When the mover is conscious of his or her experience, it can be told. Telling it to the analyst is not unlike telling a dream. But a dream is different from active imagination. Active imagination is closer to consciousness. Also, in dance/movement as active imagination, the analyst is literally present and able to witness the experience as it unfolds. The analyst/witness may be unaware of what the motivating images are until after the movement, when the two participants sit together and talk. Or, the analyst/witness may be so familiar with the mover's previous dream and fantasy images that he or she can sense and imagine the nature of the images while watching. Sometimes, the movement comes from such depths that mover and witness experience a state of participation mystique.

When an untransformed primal affect is touched, the mover may space out," or feel dazed, or stuck, or in some other way become numb to it. Or, if the mover goes with it-if she or he merges with the affect/archetypal image-she or he is likely to be taken over by a primal affect, or by resistance to it, or a logjam of both. At such a moment, the emotional core of the complex is experienced as toxic, even life threatening. At one time, it may well have been that.

Sylvia Perera (1981) writes so beautifully, as she tells the story of our descent to a realm that has been unimaginable and unspeakable:

Work on this level in therapy involves the deepest affects and is inevitably connected to preverbal, "infantile" processes. The therapist must be willing to participate where needed, often working on the body-mind level where there is as yet no image in the other's awareness and where instinct and affect and sensory perception begin to coalesce first in a body sensation, which can he intensified to bring forth memory or image. Silence, affirmative mirroring attention, touch, holding, sounding and singing, gesture, breathing, nonverbal actions like drawing, sandplay, building with clay or blocks, dancing-all have their time and place. (P. 57)

Because much that goes on in the analytic relationship at this level is preverbal, we will turn to some of our earliest experiences as they appear in dance/movement, and relate them to certain stages of normal development in infancy.