PTSD: What A Belly Dance Teacher Should Know

By Talia, cofounder of Omi Mahina, a tribal fusion duet in Rocklin, Ca.

Dance offers particular benefits to somebody with PTSD and you never know when somebody with PTSD might walk through your studio door.

A Little Background

What is post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD? The short answer is this: a complex condition that affects the body, thoughts and emotions of a personwho has been exposed to an event where they thought they might die or be harmed, or they feared the same for another person or loved one. One in four people who are exposed to a trauma can be expected to develop full-blown PTSD, but many people can experience the painful symptoms without meeting full criteria for the disorder.

image via Wikimedia Commons

Symptoms can be disabling and include panic attacks, intense anxiety, depressed mood, looping thoughts of the negative event, hyper-vigilance, nightmares and insomnia. People will also suffer physically with upset stomach, headaches and body pain. Even worse, the survivor often feels unable to connect with loved ones because the brain-recognition part of the brain switches subtly to see almost all human faces as a potential threat. The body releases a cascade of fight or flight chemicals even in the presence of the safest of familiar friends. These chemicals override rational thought out of necessity (safety!) and survivors can find their support systems shrinking.

What does PTSD have to do with teaching dance?

So…all very academic, right? The reality is that people who have survived a traumatic event are living, working and playing alongside each of us, trying to piece their lives back together. The good news is that dance offers particular benefits to somebody with PTSD and you never know when somebody with PTSD might walk through your studio door. I’ve found that most dance instructors are very empathic people who are fantastic at reading emotions and body language and I wanted to offer a few thoughts about how we as dance instructors can, through awareness, create an even safer space for our students who might have survived a trauma.

Why Your Class is Good For Survivors

In addition to being a dance instructor, I have a day job that I adore. I am dually licensed as a marriage & family therapist and licensed professional clinical counselor. I am also certified in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), a cutting edge and well-researched body/mind technique to help people with PTSD.

I have a private practice in California where I am referred some of the more extreme cases of trauma due to my training. From line of duty deaths to survivors of hostage or sex trafficking situations, I’ve seen a lot of amazing survival stories. I recommend some type of body-oriented work for every single patient I work with because it’s critical to re-train the body to strengthen the parasympathetic (calm, rest & digest) response and help people learn to feel safe in their own skin. 

Learning to dance requires concentration, focus, and being present in the moment and in one’s body. Image via Flickr by Morgan Rains

Like any exercise, dance offers the benefits of stress reduction but I think dance is particularly helpful because of the mindfulness component. It’s hard to be looping on those negative thoughts and feelings when you are listening to the music, counting in your head, and trying to get that new choreography just right. Dance combines the important healing tools of exercise, breath work and music with a sense of community. Without realizing it, a survivor is reprogramming her body each time she steps into a class.

Working With Students Who Have PTSD

To try and make my class a safe space for survivors and I follow these guidelines:

  • Be mindful when giving feedback. Occasionally students will not appreciate feedback because it just doesn’t feel good to be corrected. Ok. But sometimes as an instructor you find that feedback NEVER lands right with a certain student. If it seems like they feel vulnerable or exposed when singled out, keep this in mind and try giving a bit of positive feedback on either end of the critique.In many abusive households, any attention meant possible danger so softening the critique helps build trust. If it never seems to improve you can check with a student after class and ask something like, “It seems like it’s hard to hear some of my critiques. I wanted to see if I was reading this right and if there was a way I could make it easier to hear.”
  • Always ask before touching somebody’s body to give them specific technique correction. Always. Even if you’ve touched them before. A survivor’s needs can change from day to day. One day a touch might feel safe and nurturing, another it might feel threatening. Always ask.
  • Be aware of the language you use when talking about body parts. It’s belly dance. Let’s face it. We all (and by we I mean myself) get a little loose and goofy at times. But until you really know a student’s history it’s hard to know how certain words might strike them. I save the “shake your booties ladies!” for classes where I’ve known the students for some time and know my words won’t trigger somebody. Stick to basic anatomical terms with newer or larger groups of students.
  • Stay on top of any potential negative class or troupe dynamics. This one is tricky but vital. Unhealthy classroom dynamics like cattiness or back stabbing often mimic a survivor’s abusive family dynamics and make what should be a safe and healing activity potentially very harmful. Being a role model for healthy communication and creating a dance studio atmosphere where bullying is not tolerated will help create a safe space for all involved.
  • I know it’s belly dance but….costuming. For more professional or competitive troupes there’s just no way around it and sometimes the costume is the costume. For casual student troupes, consider offering alternatives that would allow a survivor with body issues to feel a bit safer as she ventures into owning her body in a beautiful, artistic way in a public place.
  • Remember is that it’s dance class. Your students are there to have fun, not have their heads shrunk. Sometimes you know somebody has a trauma history or can intuit it through their body language, but our role is to teach dance, not provide therapy.

The good news is that if you hold a safe space for a survivor to be herself, explore feeling comfortable in her body again and have a safe community for her to visit with each week that in itself is amazing healing work.

Focal image via Flickr by storebukkebruse

7 Comments

  1. Ms. B. Abdo January 28, 2016
  2. Laura January 29, 2016
  3. Lauren January 30, 2016
  4. Lauren January 30, 2016
  5. Talia January 31, 2016
  6. Talia January 31, 2016
  7. Bonnie Margay Burke February 1, 2016

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