PTSD: What A Belly Dance Teacher Should Know

PTSD dance class

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 thoughts on “PTSD: What A Belly Dance Teacher Should Know”

  1. Thank you for writing this! I am/was a belly dancer who suffers from PTSD… I can not express my gratitude for you explaining some of the things that I, for some reason, can not. Touching and uncovering my body, or dancing when men are around are my biggest issues. I can not express how much I hate that almost every class/workshop I have experienced seems to always include a “yoga” portion, or instructors who feel its fine to just walk up and touch or move my body. While stretching, warm up and cool down are important, this seems to be the time people want to touch you to assist in poses ect. I had a really horrid experience at a yoga studio during a belly dance workshop where they laid a lavender scented bean bag over our eyes, block under our backs, and then wanted to use a band/rope to wrap around hips and feet. I started to panic with just the blindfold feeling, and then when the teacher placed the band around my feet/hips, I thought I was going to start screaming and crying. I was breathing heavy and wiggling to get loose, knowing I was losing control. The instructor, who also was the owner, and a wonderful dance instructor, came by and asked me to just relax and calm down. At that moment, I was so overwhelmed with anger, embarrassment, and shame, that I had to get loose. I know she most likely thinks nothing of it, as I continued to take classes in her studio. However, eventually I stopped going due to this and a few other things on your list. I miss getting lost in dance, but the shame of being brought to tears, and panicking in front of people became too much. I had lost the ability to just be that odd woman in the back of the room. I want to dance, to improve technique & form, hone skills and be creative. However, it seems that unless one has the goal of performing in front of others then it is a problem being a part of a class. Dance was my therapy, and now I am back in my shell just watching others. Sincerely hoping that your article is shared so that others will be spared from these “misunderstandings” about their students and fellow students. Again, thank you!!!

  2. This is a beautiful piece. I, too, have PTSD and belly dance. Belly dance helped me find a way to ‘be’ in my body, to connect with pieces I tried to disconnect from (slowly). I was fortunate that my first teacher was less about technique or performance and more about being comfortable in our own skin. It took years, but I eventually did go on to perform – although I had a hysterical crying jag in the bathroom the first time I tried on a bra and bet costume and realized how exposed I’d be.
    You have really hit all the key points. I thank you.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I also have PTSD, and I know how difficult it can be to share these experiences. It’s really important for teachers to know that what we do in class isn’t always received the way we intended. Reading this will almost certainly help a teacher somewhere do a better job with her students. I hope you find a class that gives you what you need.

  4. Yes, I know exactly what you mean about being in your body and reconnecting. Talia did such a good job covering all the bases, didn’t she?

  5. Pingback: Belly dancing to help with PTSD. | Many To One PTSD Foundation

  6. I am so sorry that happened. What you describe could be terribly triggering and you understandably withdrew to safety. I hope at some point you might feel safe to try a new teacher or studio. You deserve to have a safe space to heal and create. Nobody gets to decide what pace your healing progresses at or what it looks like. Thank you for sharing I hope it helps others realize the importance of being mindful of comfort and safety.

  7. Thank you for being brave!! That’s a huge feat to get past that first performance with PTSD. I am glad you took your time. Keep dancing! 🙂

  8. Bonnie Margay Burke

    In classes I teach, trauma informed belly dance also means that breath control drills (like flutters), drilling deep torso work (like belly rolls), showing skin, and even sustained eye contact in duets, all need to be completely optional. It is such a blessing to connect and move together on our healing paths!

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