Dance Movement Therapy in Humanitarian Settings

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.