Empowering Youth to Move in New York >> An Interview with Camille A. Brown

Camille A. Brown is a prolific dance artist, inspired and authentic in her approach to movement and performance making. I wanted to get up and dance just speaking with her. Free Body Project exists to learn more about, and share about, initiatives that use dance to empower and make change. Ms. Brown spoke to us about her take on dance and social justice and about her powerful initiatives including Black Girl Spectrum which presents a safe, movement-filled space to nurture creative citizens and bring more awareness to Black girl brilliance. 

From Mr. TOL E. RAncE. Photo by Christopher Duggan. Dancer: Walden Nelson.

From Mr. TOL E. RAncE. Photo by Christopher Duggan. Dancer: Walden Nelson.

Is it the responsibility of the artist to talk about what’s happening in the world and to use their art as activism?

Above all, it is the responsibility of the artist to create the work they choose to.  Every story, concept, and perspective is needed in the world.  That’s part of the beauty of art; you’re free to share your voice in whatever way you choose. 

Some of my works have delved into highlighting our political climate, but my portfolio is diverse- demonstrated in works that range from light-hearted (“Groove to Nobody’s Business”; “Been There, Done That”) to spiritually based (“New Second Line”; “City of Rain”) and politically charged with comedic flare (“Mr. TOL E. RAncE”) to personal (“BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play”).

You received a question recently about police shootings and whether or not you think about this issue while you're creating work. What is your response to this? 

My question is, are white choreographers being asked this same question? This problem of Black people being killed by police is not just affecting Black people, it should be affecting everyone. 

You have such an accomplished choreographic history. How did your outreach programs come into being?

Thank you! Black Girl Spectrum (BGS) was created during the process of BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play (BGLP). As a choreographer, you never know if you’re going to have a successful piece or if it will translate to audiences in the way you intended. I wanted to create an initiative that would live beyond BGLP to continue empowering Black girls of all ages through movement. Thankfully, the work is extremely successful so that both the initiative and BGLP can coexist. In order to provide participants of BGS an entry point into the world of dance, I use social dance as a way to create a space that is familiar but also educates. It is really important for me to show people that movement is a part of African and African-American tradition and culture. In order to move forward we must acknowledge it, understand it, embrace it and use it as inspiration for innovation. 

From BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. Photo by Christopher Duggan. Dancers: Fanta Fraser & Beatrice Capote. 

From BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play. Photo by Christopher Duggan. Dancers: Fanta Fraser & Beatrice Capote. 

Why is dance a relevant and important mode of communication?

In many cultures dance was the foundation for rituals, rites of passage, resistance, and celebration - specifically for the African and African-American traditions. Dance provides a space to communicate in a different way. It's the language of the body and can connect people when languages spoken may be a barrier. Look inside a community and you will see the movement of the people - through gesture, dance, music, etc.

How do we broaden a general understanding of dance?

When I’m working with people who aren’t dancers, I ask them, when you hear the word dance, do you retreat or do you walk closer? I ask them why? It’s important to figure out why people are so hesitant about dancing. People dance all the time, at parties, concerts, and other social gatherings, but to take dance out of these frames seems hard. It's important to have a conversation and show how we all move in our every day lives. There’s such beauty in how people move and communicate with each other through gesture. It opens the gateway to movement, and movement gives birth to dance.

How do you view a connection between dance and social justice ?

Movement and social justice work together. When people are marching, holding their hands up in fists, and other forms of expression, they are using their bodies. Our voices are just one part of activating a space of peace/protest. 

What has been the impact of your initiatives so far?

Each year, the initiatives grow in participants and programming. It is truly exciting! For instance, after the inaugural Gathering, we discovered a need for educational components that address the business side of dance, particularly for emerging choreographers. So, we partnered with The Field - which provides "strategic services to thousands of performing and media artists and companies in New York City and beyond"- to offer two FREE workshops prior to The Gathering to discuss items such as: business models, grant writing, budgeting, branding/social media, etc. These workshops add another layer to the overall Gathering experience. 

We have also partnered with Dance/NYC - which promotes the awareness of dance in NYC and "embeds values of equity and inclusion into all aspects of the organization." They help us with the management and promotion of The Gathering. Both organizations have been extremely generous and I'm so honored they have come on board with us. 

Black Girl Spectrum is now expanding to  Every.Body.Move, including the refinement of the Black Girl Spectrum audience engagement model and new programs to reach Black boys and men, leading up to the tour of the new work" ink." The Young Men’s Initiative expands Black Girl Spectrum’s public forums, social dance classes, and youth mentorships.

What do you want future impact to be?

Every year, we learn something new, so it's my hope they initiatives continue to respond to the needs of its community and uplift people through movement. I also want to continue to support other organizations that are doing the same kind of work and create spaces for collaboration. 

It is my hope that these initiatives activate social dance and open dialogue as a tool for visioning, storytelling, empowerment and community building. Also, to contribute to educating people about social dance and the African-American contributions to American social dance and its history.

What is the ideal for your programs?

More people engaging with Every.Body.Move and The Gathering by attending or becoming a partner to support the programmatic elements, organization of the event, and continued growth. We encourage and appreciate having our allies attend such as agents, presenters, programmers, men, women of other ethnicities, etc. We need them as well as we continue to advocate for changes that must transpire in the field.

What advice would you share with other movers who want to make an impact?

The impact starts with you. When your intentions are honest and you are speaking your truth, you will have an impact. 

Learn more at www.camilleabrown.org 


CAMILLE A. BROWN (originally from Queens, New York) is a prolific choreographer who has achieved multiple accolades and awards for her daring works. Informed by her music background as a clarinetist, she utilizes musical composition as storytelling and makes a personal claim on history through the lens of a modern Black female perspective. She leads her dancers through excavations of ancestral stories, both timeless and traditional, that illustrate stories which connect history with contemporary culture. Her versatility is effortlessly demonstrated in works that range from light-hearted (“Groove to Nobody’s Business”; “Been There, Done That”) to spiritually based (“New Second Line”; “City of Rain”) and politically charged with comedic flare (“Mr. TOL E. RAncE”) to personal (“BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play”).

Read her full bio here. 


Camille A. Brown Free Body Project

Dance and Entrepreneurship > An Interview with Debra Giunta of Design Dance

How did you choose the name Design Dance? 

When I was a kid, my parents were graphic designers. I wasn’t a visual artist by any means; I loved to dance. I used to imagine myself owning a dance studio and I would answer a fake phone by saying, “Design Dance!” because that word was in my life. 

As I got older, I started to build an interest in choreography and dance making. When I started teaching in high school and college, I would always let my students make their own dances. I saw that, even if they didn’t have a lot of dance experience, they had a lot to say. When I started my company, I kept the name Design Dance because it’s about kids designing their own work, deciding what they want to say and building something of their own, 

When did you know that you were going to become an entrepreneur? 

When I was in college, I changed my major five times. It became clear that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but the thing that I was most excited about was teaching dance. I decided to start what I thought Design Dance would be: a studio program. 

There was a studio in my neighborhood that I started renting. Nine months in, we realized that the building had a mold problem and we had to close. I thought it was over and I was depressed. Then I started supplementing my dance classes by reaching out to local preschools. They said they only worked with vendors so I used the name Design Dance as a way to employ myself. It was almost by accident that I started working at schools and I realized that there is another way to use dance education. I also realized there are core benefits that come from movement andartistic expression that really have nothing to do with being good or bad at dance. 

As a teenager I struggled with depression and anxiety. There was so much that dance gave me to help me cope with different issues I was going through on a social and emotional level. I became passionate about how we could bring dance to communities and build access. In my family, we struggled with money and my parents always figured out a way to make it work. When I realized there’s ways to use community partnerships to offer reduced cost programming for families so that everyone can have these opportunities. I wanted to be the catalyst for making that happen. 

It was a journey that happened out of what I thought was failure. That failure opened a door to something I was even more passionate about. Design Dance will be 9 years old in April. 

How has your approach shifted over the years and what does Design Dance look like now? 

The general model has been the same for 8 years; we work with schools and community centers. We’re always evolving the programming. It used to be that we would go into schools and teach dance classes. Now we’ve done some deep diving into social, emotional learning standards and we’ve developed core values: courage, connection and self awareness. All of our programming is leading toward those three goals in the classroom. Are students connecting with each other in healthy ways, are they taking more risks in the classroom, are they developing more courage and are they able to communicate what they need?

About 4 years ago we started developing cross-curricular programming. We now partner with poets from Young Chicago Authors. We teach students how to write their own poetry and then they make dances based on their poems. We’ve done a cultural dance program where we partner with social studies teachers at schools we’re working in and we teach cultural dances that align with each of the countries the students are learning about. We’ve also started to develop some solar system and dance programming, teaching about rotation and gravity through dance, partnering with science teachers. This summer we’re partnering with kids cooking and gardening programs to teach kids about holistic lifestyle and healthy food choices.

What are the biggest challenges of having an arts-based company? 

Art is the first thing people cut. If a school can’t afford to keep their core teachers on, it’s harder for them to justify the arts. It’s fighting for something that feels, to many people, like a superfluous need. Design Dance has been able to grow by teaching schools how dance supports their core curriculum which, in a way, is watering down the value of what the arts is on its own. There’s value in just taking an arts class. 

What advice would you give to others who are interested in building an arts-based business? 

There’s a big difference between being an artist and wanting to be a business owner. I get a lot of gratification out of running a business. I love that it’s based in dance because that’s something I grew up loving. That changing my major 5 times in college thing? It’s because I want to do a lot of different work at the same time. Being a business owner allows me to dive in to marketing, strategy, managing people, mentoring, designing curriculum and sales… different things that interest me are part of my job day to day. 

Many people who are passionate about the arts think, since I’m passionate about the arts, I should start a business in the arts. The reality is, running a business is going to look different than that art form. Doing a deep dive into what you really enjoy day to day, thinking about what you want your Monday to look like, is that going to align with what it is to run an organization? If that is true, the next thing is to find a way to be self-funded.

As a creative and an entrepreneur, what are three things you do to stay organized and full of momentum? 

  • Being adaptable. Some weeks the work I’m doing requires me to be focused on time and some weeks it requires me to be really creative. Be flexible in how you set up your schedule so that you’re creating environments that will adapt to the kind of work you need to be doing. 
  • I’m really committed to always answering every e-mail within 24 hours. It makes me feel most connected to my business and makes sure that I’m not missing out on any important communication. Inbox zero is my friend. 
  • I take time to disconnect. This is something I’ve challenged myself to do. I try to do yoga several times a week. I take an entire day where I don’t look at anything. On Saturdays, if I do work, I can only work on a project I’m really excited about.

Learn more about Design Dance 


Debra Giunta is an entrepreneur, arts educator and native Chicagoan.  She is the founder of Design Dance, a company increasing access to arts programming for over 1400 students weekly.  She became director of her first dance education program in her hometown at the age of 16 and has been teaching, choreographing, directing and mentoring ever since.  In 2008, Debra founded Design Dance as a way to bring dance education to children in all communities regardless of age, experience level, background and income through partnership with schools and community centers.  In addition to her work in arts education, Debra is proud to contribute to the social entrepreneurship community through workshops and special events, as well as fellowship through the StartingBloc community.  

Questioning Society through Movement > An Interview with Artist, Chloe Calderon Chotrani

photo by Inez Moro

photo by Inez Moro

Tell me about the dance work that you make. Can you give a little insight into your approach to creating?

I work with the intersection of choreography, community engagement and curation. I think our responsibility is to reflect the contemporary struggle of the public. I am representing communities of color, women, and immigrants. Even my body size, I am petite, which is doesn’t always fit the pre-requisite for social constructs of a “dancer’s body”. I use that as a form of empowerment and the underlying voice that I’ve been carrying through the past years is finding power in softness.

Right now I feel it’s essential to be more vocal. There is no more neutrality. As artists, as activists, as people, as citizens in general, we have a responsibility to be aware and be proactive. Movement, dance and the arts are a powerful medium because they cross through sensations, cultures and language. 

The reason why I feel such an affinity with dance and movement is because I think we forget how our bodies mirror nature; we’re both made of the same material. We can see and think with our chest and our pelvis and our palms and our feet. We tend to become so caught up in our cerebral brain that we forget that there is kinesthetic intelligence; the body can reveal to us our heritage and our history. 

How would you describe the dance that you do?

Our generation is culturally hybrid. Even ballet has a history of indigenous forms. Everyone has their own language but not everyone is willing to dig deep and discover it. I started with ballet, then shifted to street dance for 12 years, then expanded with contemporary dance forms. At this point, I am thinking beyond the idea of genre and categories and I am more interested in excavating what my body has to offer. That’s when your own language reveals itself. It’s interesting discovering movement intuitively rather than externally. From that research you discover nuances that are so particular to your culture. For example, I’ve never studied a classical Indian dance form but in my movement there are certain Indian or Asian philosophies that reveal themselves.

Do you believe that dance connects with social justice?

Dance is how you continue culture and it is part of how you create culture. It’s a language of the human spirit. That is what social justice is; it’s about humanity. Dance is not always done with that intention, but it has the potential to be used towards justice, just like any other medium of work.

Do you consider yourself and activist?

Yes. I think we all should be! Some will be more politically active but others can activate space in their own way, starting in their own backyard.

Tell me about your piece, Unfair and Lovely and what inspired its creation? 

This was a culmination of the choreographic process I did at Gibney Dance. Unfair and Lovely is a transgression against an Indian whitening cream called Fair and Lovely. It is popular all over India, Africa and Asia – in subtle ways, it changes the mentality of people to desire to be white and to see white as a more sophisticated class. Unfair and Lovely was a social campaign started by two Indian women and a photographer, Pax Jones. I approached Pax and I said I want to turn your campaign into a performance piece that celebrates melanin.

Growing up in metro Manilla, driving down the highway, billboards would show this papaya whitening cream. All the magazines would show females with white skin and I thought, that’s not what we look like. For this performance, I gathered South Asian females and I asked them provocative questions on how they experienced race as children. Instead of asking them to answer verbally, I asked them to answer through movement. I filmed it, gathered Southeast Asian advertisements and showed the short film during the performance.

I also presented a political cartoon that reflects the forgotten US-Filipino relations. Filipino's First Bath published on June 10, 1899 on the cover of Judge magazine. President McKinley scrubs a Filipino baby with a brush labeled “education” in the cleansing waters of “civilization”. This striking image reflects how people perceive brown and black as dirty or “primitive”. I find it to be important to voice these ideas, rather than shoving them under the rug. 

What do you hope to change or achieve through your work?

We have to question what is happening out there. This is just another method of questioning how we move through the world and questioning the structures of society.

What do you think is important for more people to know about dance? 

It’s important for people to know that the body is a vessel of knowledge; it holds our blood memory, our history and our heritage. We can tap into that knowledge through movement. It’s a way of connecting to a transcendent force; that’s how you experience embodiment. Pleasure is complex, especially for females. Society sometimes teaches females to be shameful, or that pleasure is deemed as negative, especially in Asian cultures. To resist present day social constructs, sometimes allowing yourself to find pleasure in effort is enough – movement is one of the many ways we can find pleasure in our body and to feel good about ourselves. 

Learn more about Chloe Calderon Chotrani and her work. 

photo by Tarish Zamora

photo by Tarish Zamora

Chloe is a movement artist based in Singapore, born in the Philippines. She works with the intersection of choreography, curation and community. Holding the responsibility to reflect contemporary struggles of decolonization, race relations and feminism through workshop, media and performance. She works with the belief that artistic skills should be integrated with society as way of survival, sustainability and spirituality. Chloe has competed locally and internationally in the Philippines and Las Vegas and has performed with B Supreme in London, at Gibney Dance and Movement Research in New York and at Ecole Des Sables in Senegal. Chloe holds a Post-graduate Diploma in Asian Art History from School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She finds that cross-cultural conversations are essential to reveal aspects of humanity through her work and her life.


Inspiring Organizations in Kolkata, India Protecting and Empowering Women and Girls

Under the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India. Vintage Nikon, 35mm film. 

Under the Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India. Vintage Nikon, 35mm film. 

While living in Kolkata, India for several years, I had the opportunity to learn from some incredibly inspiring change makers, social entrepreneurs and artists creating and sustaining ways to make the world  better place for women and girls.

January is human trafficking awareness month and instead of discussing trafficking, I want to highlight the work of grassroots organizations that continue to inspire with their powerful counter-trafficking and empowerment programs. 


1. Kolkata Sanved
This amazing organization harnesses the power of dance and dance movement therapy to heal, empower and transform individuals into active citizens and change makers.

Since 2004, this groundbreaking nonprofit organizatio has been brining participatory, joyful and deeply healing classes to individuals of all ages in need of psychosocial rehabilitation and care. Kolkata Sanved works primarily with youth who are survivors of human trafficking and violence and in partnership with various organizations including shelter homes, government institutions, schools and groups operating on railway platforms. They have implemented programs in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia. Highly skilled dance therapy practitioners, many of whom are survivors of violence,  are trained by the organization and through their work become role models, healers and activists at the forefront of anti-violence and women's rights movements. 

We are currently creating a dance + documentary film with Kolkata Sanved so highlight the powerful work of their dance therapy practitioners. 


2. Hamari Muskan South Kolkata                                                                                                  South Kolkata Hamari Muskan is an anti-trafficking organisation working in Kolkata since 2009. It works in the red light areas of Sonagachi and Bowbazar with the children, adolescents and women survivors to protect them from different forms of violence and abuse and to build their confidence and resilience. The growing organization has built a safe, child-friendly Day Care Learning Center which offers an array of educational classes and activities with the goal of preparing children from 2 1/2 to 6 years of age to be ready to enroll in mainstream schools. Their nutrition program, art-based therapy and counseling sessions and their impressive resilience-buildig programs which include self defense, karate, photography, music, dance, computer and even driving classes provide an impressive set of services for youth. 


3. Jeevika Development Society                                                                                                          A community-based non-profit organization based in West Bengal, India, the organization is committed to working towards furthering the social and economic rights of women while challenging patriarchal norms and ensuring environmental sustainability. Their mandate is broad but impactful, empowering women in rural communities by promoting women's financial and social rights through the creation of a unique financial institute owned and operated by women living in 55 villages and through the establishment of Alor Disha, a group of community-based volunteers providing legal support to female survivors of violence. These are only two programs that represent a network of impressive interventions addressing gender inequality. 

I made my very first little film about one of the powerful community mobilizers working with Alor Disha.                                                                                 


4. Sanlaap                                                                                                                                               Founded in 1987, this is one of the first anti-trafficking organization in Kolkata dedicated to providing holistic services, including psychosocial rehabilitation, to survivors of human trafficking and violence. Outside of the organization's shelter homes for youth, their mental health intervention program, their vocational training, their child protection program and other offerings, they have been researching and publishing reports on sexual exploitation.  


5. All Bengal Women's Union                                                                                                                 Possibly the oldest shelter and anti-trafficking organization in Kolkata, All Bengal Women's Union was founded in 1932. The organization serves female survivors of sexual exploitation through various programs including housing for older women, young adults and children. 


These organizations represent just a sample of the impactful work taking place in Kolkata, India. There is so much good happening in this brilliant city.  



'From There to Here' Awarded Dance Films Association Production Grant

I am thrilled to announce that our dance + documentary film in the making, From There to Here, has been chosen as a recipient of the Dance Films Association Production Grant to support our post production process! 

From There to Here has been in the making since August, 2015 with the support of a  Fulbright research grant. Over a period of 10 months in Kolkata, India, our team crafted a participatory film with the dancers, human rights activists and dance therapy practitioners of Kolkata Sanved

Kolkata Sanved is a non-profit organization offering dance and dance movement therapy as psychosocial rehabilitation for survivors of human trafficking and violence across India. 

For youth who have endured trafficking or sexual violence, broader access to mental and emotional healing is urgently needed. This participatory project was created with dance therapy practitioners, many of whom are violence survivors. Through tenacity, creativity and compassion, they are improving access to mental health and wellbeing through movement for the most vulnerable in India and across South East Asia.

Blending documentary footage, interviews, improvisation and choreography crafted from themes of gender inequality that have touched the dancers’ lives, the project is a platform for their visceral stories and unique anti-violence advocacy, allowing new audiences to learn about their work and importantly, about the power of dance as a resource for social justice.


The Dance + Social Justice Conference 2016

Thank you for joining us for our second inspiring conference in NYC!! 

On Wednesday, December 7th, five inspiring leaders in the field of dance and social justice joined us and our partners, Gibney Dance and New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study to explore and discuss the various ways in which dance and movement can address pressing social issues and provide outlets for healing and empowerment for underserved youth, communities and survivors of violence. 

Both portions of the event, the experiential movement workshops at Gibney Dance's original studio at 890 Broadway and the panel discussion in Gallatin's theater space, were packed. What continues to surprise and fascinate me about this field is the breadth and depth of the impacts these artists and activists make. I'm also continually inspired by the number of people who realize the power and potential of this work (within mental health, community building, conflict resolution, anti-violence, women's empowerment, the list continues) and want to be a part of it. This is not simply about finding ways to build our own community, this is about learning of and finding new and sustainable ways to support the individuals and organizations who are working to change systems of inequality from the ground up through innovative uses of movement. 

The event began with three instructors of the Gibney Dance Community Action program leading the group through a class they teach regularly within domestic violence shelters across New York State. The classes provide an outlet for gentle movement, creativity and expression while imparting lessons of self-care for violence survivors.

We then experienced the movement modalities of dance movement therapy practitioner, Amber Elizabeth Gray, who has been pioneering dance therapy programming within the field of international development for more than two decades. In her work with survivors of torture, she uses exercises to help individuals find a safe and peaceful place within their own bodies and minds. The body can be both a temple and a minefield, she said. A site of both trauma and healing for many. 

Lastly we took a powerful journey with social practice dance artist and viral blogger, Shawn Lent who designs and implements dance-based interventions for youth, refugees and children living with cancer. 

These experiences were deepened during a thought-provoking panel discussion with: 

Amber Gray, Director, Restorative Resources Training and Consultingand Executive Director, the Kint Institute

Shawn Lent, Social Practice Dance Artist and Manager, Chicago Dancemakers Forum and Createquity

Yasemin Ozumerzifon, Senior Community Action Manager of Gibney's Community Action program

Simon Dove, Executive and Artistic Director of Dancing in the Streets 

Ana Dopazo, Program Director, Choices Alternative to Detention for the Center of Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES).


The evening was brought to a close by a surprise visit from Margie Gillis, acclaimed modern dancer and choreographer who's current teachings include dance as a vehicle for conflict transformation. 

The work of these thought leaders and social change makers is daring, deep and thoroughly inspiring. Please learn more about their organizations, the individuals and communities both local and global that they serve, and the models through which they utilize movement and dance as resources to build empathy, transform conflict, provide much needed outlets for healing and re-connecting to the body for violence survivors, provide new livelihood opportunities, support underserved youth and work against violence.


FOLLOW Free Body Project @freebodyproject on Instagram or on Facebook for more resources and news of upcoming events 

CLICK any and all of the links in yellow above for further research and reading

READ up on the incredible contributors to last year's event at the Martha Graham Dance Company Studios 

WATCH video resources from last year- Videos from December 7th coming up soon!! 

EMAIL us at freebodyproject@gmail.com to get in touch  


Shawn Lent's Resources for Socially Engaged Artists

For those interested in dance, movement, the arts and social justice, resources for this passion-filled niche are sometimes difficult to find. During The Dance + Social Justice Conference on Wednesday, December 7th, the NYC-based dance artist Chelsea Bonosky asked our five speakers what their first steps were to become successful, sustainably practicing artists at the intersection of movement and improving our world. Paths to this work vary and there are a considerable number of options when considering education, training and gaining experience as a volunteer, intern, employee or independent practitioner. 

Shawn Lent, a Social Practice Dance Artist and Manager with Chicago Dancemakers Forum and Createquity who was among our guest speakers, has compiled an impressive list of resources on her blog . Take a look at what she has to say about her own approach to dance and social practice, her curated list of educational and financial resources and her inspirational post-gone-viral, Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up? on the Huffington Post. 

Shawn Lent's 2016 Resources for Socially Engaged Artists

the Hewlett Foundation: Resources for Arts Organizations and Artists

From Createquity: Making Sense of Cultural Equity

Attendees of The Dance + Social Justice Conference explore the movement methodology of Gibney Dance's Community Action, an approach to self care for survivors of domestic violence in Gibney Dance studios in NYC on December 7th.  

An Interview with Amber Elizabeth Gray

Maybe it’s impossible to be brief but could you talk a bit about your work and major projects? 

I’ve been in the field for about 20 years. In that 20 years, my work as a dance movement therapist and as a clinician has been with survivors of torture, war and political violence. That’s been my main focus but I also work with disaster and all other types of trauma: child abuse, ritual abuse, programming, all the horrible things humans can think of. 

I started working in Denver at a torture treatment program and then started-- perhaps five years in -- getting a lot of requests to train people. This was back when torture treatment was a very medical model so at first people were like, “Ooh, dance therapist. Sounds kind of flaky!” 

Then colleagues started to see change happening; a lot of the clients became functional more quickly. I’m convinced it was because of the somatic work we were doing. 

Then I began to do more international work; I come from a public health perspective so had experience overseas.  

I’ve done a lot of large scale staff care programs for frontline workers during the tsunami, the earthquake in Haiti and the Syrian conflict. I set up programs for people who are exposed to very intense situations to mitigate burnout and secondary trauma. 

I’ve integrate everything: public health, massage therapy, dance therapy continuum movement, yoga (I was a yoga teacher for 20 years). 

I have a much smaller clinical practice now because of the travel, but I teach aframework for working with trauma and resiliency that “arrived” in the middle of the night, in maybe 2004. I woke up around 3 am and I saw a graphic image of what I was doing. That’s become the basis of a framework I’ve been teaching all over the world and it is tailored to those I teach. Sometimes it’s non-clinical people, such as case managers. Sometimes it’s psychiatrists and psychologists, people who want to know more about integrating movement, body, dance, creative arts into their clinical work. Sometimes it’s dance therapists who want to learn more about working with trauma. Sometimes it’s trauma therapists who want to learn more about working with human rights abuses. I tailor it to the different groups but I would say that it’s teaching embodiment. It’s less heavily theoretical then some of the other trauma frameworks and much more about being experiential and in your body; I think that’s where dignity comes from. 

Dignity is one of the most basic human rights and I think the roots of dignity are in our right to embody.

I’d love to know a little more about your work in Haiti. 

I’ve been working in Haiti since 1998. My thesis was actually on working with male street children in Haiti as a dance therapist. I went and spent six weeks doing the research. I lived in a neighborhood where a young man who was a teacher lived in this old house he turned into a school. He turned his porch into a school for kids who couldn’t afford to go to school anywhere else. I worked with them doing dance therapy, integrating it into the educational program. It was about engaging kids in school, but we also brought in a therapeutic perspective. 

I established a program for victims of violence in 2004;  USAID funded a program for victims of organized violence in 2004, with the torture treatment money (“Torture Victims Relief Act”) that comes through the State Department.. I worked with many programs for street kids as a consultant and trainer under USAID funding. I ran the program initially and I’ve been involved as a consultant with every iteration of this program. 

Now, after the earthquake, I only work with local NGOs and I’m going down next week to work with some of the psychologists that I’ve trained over the yearsI just keep getting called back to Haiti. I also dance there. Haiti is my spiritual home. I’m an initiate of that tradition and that came about organically. I met one of Haiti’s great Mambo’s in 2000 and she “recognized” me, at least that’s what she said. I then enjoyed a long period of training with her. She died in 2008 and now I go back for ceremonies which are amazing:  As a dancer, to be right in there in the heart of sacred dance.

How did you know that you wanted to practice Dance/Movement Therapy? 

My bachelor’s degree is in international relations so I was very much an activist coming out of college. And,  I always had an interest in the mystical. I went and worked inWashington D.C. for a year, which I hated. The job was great but I hated the environment. 

So I ended up deciding to do a public health degree. I was accepted into the Peace Corps and there I was, in a small Guatemalan village with a strong history of indigenous practices. I did some development work for a while and then became really burned out on the colonial bipedal arrogance that permeates that world: It often seems like its really about people having a nice lifestyle. 

I left Hioduras in 1989, after working for CARE, and I went to massage therapy school in Santa Fe. I call it my “hippie episode”. It was there I began to develop a deepappreciation for the body in healing and living. 

It was actually in Rwanda that I decdied to pursue DMT. I got “called” to Rwanda; I was watching the news in 1994, when the horror of the genocide became public, and I decided to go. I went to visit my ex-boyfriend, then living Iin Uganda,  who is now my husband of 19 years. I was at a crossroads, looking at acupuncture school, dance/movement therapy training, medical school... I flirted with medical school my whole life. I had to travel to a remote village to do a public health needs assessment for an NGO. It was a grueling trip through land mine fields and check points. The man that was leading the convoy wasn’t paying attention to any security and when I arrived at this tiny village, I was shaking. There were a handful of kids, and there were some adults dying on the ground. Everyone else had been killed. Children began popping out of the woods. My interpreter started to say something and they [the children] did this little welcome song and dance amidst this sea of grief. It was a horrible situation and they were orphaned kids AND-- there was a creative impulse to connect. And that was it. I kew DMT was my next journey.

I think I went in with a certain amount of naïveté. I was like, “Oh my gosh, the power of dance! Everybody can be creative!” What I teach now is based on all the ways I messed up. Pushing people too hard and saying “you have a right to be in your body”., I learned from my clients: With torture and war trauma, the body is a minefield for some people. It can also be a refuge. I’ve really learned to adapt how I work and that’s how I teach. 

Can you give one example of how you "messed up" and how that led you to change your approach?

It was actually one of my first clients; I wrote about her in the first piece I wrote called The Body Remembers. She was from Africa but I won’t say which country. In fleeing, she had to leave her children, she had physical scars from torture. We were moving along pretty well in our sessions, we were doing a lot of talking about what was going on. I remember she was very crouched over and I wanted her to open her shoulder up and stand straight. In a way, it’s a simple physical action but as we were weaving the grief and the guilt of leaving her children, she talked about a scar. She had a physical scar she was embarrassed about and she wanted me to see it. She showed it to me and we started talking about it and the grief that was “traped” in the scar. She recognized it as the point of pain in her shoulder and she said something like, “my shoulder wants to open up.” So I enthusiastically invited her to roll her shoulders back, and open up. 

With Dance/movement therapy we can either take forever to follow a natural movement and it might take 100 years for somebody to roll their shoulders back or we can be more directive.  I was quite directive and I had her open up her chest/shoulder areawith some guidance. She didn’t come in for a month after that!  She had an asthma attack because she was so flooded with grief. She shut down. She said to me later that it was too much. 

That was a huge learning for me; I had just moved it along too quickly. I saw the potential, the physical potential for her to do what she stated she wanted to do,  but she wasn’t psychologically ready to stand tall, to open her heart. There was a lot going on. She wasn’t ready to show all her grief. The amazing thing was that she kept coming back for a year and she was able to talk about it. What courage. I bow to all my clients’ courage because they came back even when I messed up.

How do you practice self care when, in your work, you are exposed to trauma? 

I dance, first and foremost. I go to West African and Haitian dance classes regularly. I do yin yoga, I do restorative yoga. I do Pilates. I love walking my dogs. Camping and being near the earth. 

I really balance what I do. I have a much smaller clinical practice. I’m choosier about where I work overseas. I’m at a point where I want to write a book, and teach and inspiremore and more people to do this work. 

When I get to a country I am working in, I do simple things, I won’t go to late night meetings. I have a proper meal and go to bed early. I turn e-mail off at a certain point and I have very clear boundaries. 

I liked to work and teach from edges. I call it edging, exploring what’s new. I am really into the idea of self compassion which isn’t original but I think for many years, self carefocused on relaxation. Compassion was talked about in terms of the client relationship. What I’m saying to people now is, however much compassion you have for your people, beam 100 times more on yourself. It’s a constant practice. 

Do you think that there is a space for Dance/Movement Therapy within International Development?

I think people think of Dance/Movement Therapy as dance. One of the things that I always joke about with people is that I cannot do a pirouette. I never learned one. People think, “she’s a dance therapist, she’s gonna make me dance.” 

Dance is a continuum of breath, to expressive movement, to choreography. It exists on this whole continuum; we are a dance. What a difference it would make if the intelligence of the primary language of movement was built into humanitarian programming:  From every breath we take to how we choreograph our day, how we move, how we express. There’s no greater intelligence than the interoceptive meeting the exteroceptive and proprioceptive. I think it’s a great idea and that dancing should be mandatory. Ig and small dances.

If I was queen of the universe, everyone would dance.

How do those of us interested in the intersections of dance, movement, healing and human rights remain involved in this work when it is still an emerging field? 

I do think it helps that I came from a public health and international relations background. I wasn’t only trained in mental health or dance; I had a varied background so I was exposed to a lot of different environments and already knew people in the humanitarian world. Getting work is like non-profit fundraising: diversifying our skill sets is lkey. Dancers maybe getting a degree in counseling or dance therapy; therapists . might take some classes in business, lor earning how to write grants. It depends on where people come in. Even grant writers can take a dance class. I think there needs to be diversification of what we learn and in ouraccumulated skills. 

I also think people need to do their own work, your own therapy. I have a non-profit and I regularly get calls asking things like: “Are you working in Haiti and can I help?... I always ask, why? What’s calling you there? Usually, it’s about the person and not the place. My questions are, has anyone there invited you? What do you have to offer? Has anyone specifically requested your work, there? 

We know anecdotally that people with histories of trauma are often drawn to doing this kind of work, so its our responsibility to do their own [therapy] work. We owe our future clients that. I talk about the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion. They exist on a continuum. Sympathy informs empathy informs compassion, so they’re not unrelated. Sympathy is, I feel sorry for you which creates a huge power differential. Most humanitarian workers come from that perspective; they won’t admit it or they don’t know it. People feel that. Empathy is important; we have to be empathic, we have to feel another person’s pain but if we don’t take that to the level of action that compassion represents and keep a sense of separation from someone else’s pain, we can get really enmeshed which is not in service to our clients. Do your own body-based work and love yourself.


Amber Elizabeth Gray is a longtime practitioner of body centered arts and sciences (Somatic Psychology, Life Impressions Bodywork, energy medicine, cranio-sacral therapy, yoga, and shiatsu), a board-licensed mental health professional, and an advocate of human rights. She is an award winning dance movement therapist and an authorized Continuum Movement Teacher. She is currently Director of Restorative Resources Training and Consulting, and its non-profit counterpart, Trauma Resources International, and is a clinical adviser with The Center for Victims of Torture.