Scroll Top

Bodies in Motion: Dance Therapy as Mode of Healing and Empowerment

silhuoette of a female figure in a dancing pose

“Dance is the song of the body. Either joy or pain.”

-Sanved, publication

“M is a 29 year old girl from Nepal, who is depressed, and has been rescued, living in a shelter in Nepal. She is undergoing treatment for depression, and taking medications. She had been non-communicative, Since dance classes she has been more communicative.

-Sanved, publication

As a historian and gender studies scholar interested in understanding empowerment as a process in challenging gendered oppression, I have studied different projects dedicated to the empowerment of trafficking survivors and sex workers. Most projects on gender empowerment emphasise on the importance of economic skills as effective paths to empowerment. However, while conducting fieldwork in 2006 I learned about “Sanved,” the dance therapy and skills building project being conducted by the NGO Sanlaap. Here I analyse Sanved’s approach to empowerment through dance therapy to understand the ways in which it departs from hegemonic discourses on women’s empowerment.

From its onset Sanved’s programs broke away from conceptualising empowerment as economic skill building within the market structure and creates a space for healing and collective movement building. A volunteer at a shelter run by Sanlaap in 1996 started the dance project. In 1998 Sanlaap provided her with the institutional framework to apply for a grant from the Human Resource Department of the Government of India to launch a research project entitled “Rangeen Sapney” (Colourful Dreams), with 120 “victimised/abused” women. The project aimed to document the psychosocial changes that dance and movement therapy could induce in the women. The project lasted from 1999 to 2000. This was the precursor to Sanved.

Kolkata’s Sanved uses dance movement as an alternative approach to recovery and healing and for the psychosocial rehabilitation of victims of violence and trafficking. Working with young women who are victims of violence, Sanved has established itself as a centre for excellence in the field of dance therapy in South Asia. The dance therapy project therefore squarely locates itself as a supplement to economic skill building and psychological counselling, in developing a holistic sense of self among the women beneficiaries of the project. I found the program’s use of the terms “target group,” “trafficked victim,” “survivors of violence and sexual abuse,” and “children of women in prostitution”particularly interesting, as they identify a clear sense of separation between the founder and the women identified as the beneficiaries of the project and their children.

The use of terms such as “women rescued from trafficking” or “victims,” creates a value-laden conceptualisation of the women and their children. It is thus imperative for any empowerment initiative to have it’s own consciousness about the social implications of such conceptualisation and provide ways to challenge any impediment they may cause in achieving ‘real’ empowerment. The narrative provided by Sohini, the founder and leader of Sanved, is rooted in her position as a middle-class, English-educated woman trained in dancing. Sanved’s work elucidates the development of such consciousness and the inseparability of the liberation of the project from patriarchy with the women it is for.

There were three key phases in the emergence and development of Sanved. The first phase, named “Search” (1996-1997), included sessions revolving around story-based movements and physical exercises as a way for women in shelters to communicate their life circumstances; this phase is considered a period of mutual learning and exploration. The second phase of Sanved’s inception was “Enlightenment” (1997-1998), in which Sohini, as a paid Sanlaap staff member, studied the “Red Light Areas” and developed a deeper understanding of “prostitution.” The study led to her interest in approaching rehabilitation through creative projects. The third phase was“Experiment and Achievement” (1998-2001), in which the emphasis was on the professional development of the dancer herself as a dancer, through workshops with certified trainers and professional memberships with organisations such as the American Dance Therapy Association.

Sohini characterized the next phase as “Result 2001 Onwards.” During this phase, Sanved was launched as a “professional curriculum” in the year 2002 at a prominent cultural venue of Kolkata. Sohini won an Ashoka Fellowship[1] in 2003, which increased the popularity of the program. It is during this time that the founder identified the results of the dance therapy project as the progression of young afraid, withdrawn women to confident, bold, expressive artists.

“The ingenuity of the certain masterpiece is the human being”

– Sanved Report

While analysing Sohini’s interview conducted during my field research in 2006 and description of Sanved in written materials, certain keywords and components emerged, which help understand the framework deployed to create empowerment through dance: space, relaxation, expression, love, care, support, self expression, and communication. The combination of these keywords is achieved through dance forms that emphasise the following: body awareness, improvisation skills, group facilitation and therapy, creation and thinking, participation and integration. These are key to understanding the connections between performance and challenging norms on gender and sexuality.

Body awareness, consists of the period when the women participants are instructed to perform basic movement exercises, after which they discuss how each of the exercises felt and how their body responded to the exercise. This is usually followed by role-playing and movement exercises that help the participants narrate their life stories. The facilitator then works with individual participants, sometimes also in small groups, to debrief the emotions associated with each of the role-plays. This debriefing is followed by the collective creation of a dance piece. Body-mind coordination allowing for non-judgmental sharing of mutual experiences emerging from the stories and the creation of a collective narrative through movement exercises are not new to feminist practices. Concepts such as body-mind coordination and movement therapy have emerged from the “somatic” movement and the dance therapy movement (Eddy 2002)[2]. In somatic-based dance therapy, emphasised upon using movement as a way to coordinate body and mind. This methodology helps in healing the disruption that occurs from traumatic experiences between bodily feeling and reactions through mental processes.

The creation of a safe space, where the mutual sharing of life stories can occur, happens only when hierarchies between trainer and beneficiaries are broken. It is possible to deconstruct and re-constitute (or ‘undo’ and ‘re-do’) the performance of sexuality and gender in everyday life through the performance element in this kind of therapy (dance). I feel embodied performances of sexuality and gender can highlight an ‘autobiographical,’ ‘relational’ and ‘political’ unfolding through verbal and non-verbal expression, which assist in moving beyond dominant hegemonic discourses on “Empowerment.”

Therefore, we see in the journey of Sanved a gradual movement away from NGO rhetoric of professionals helping rescued victims (women) to a more egalitarian notion of collective movement building and healing. Sanved further creates a space for the retelling of their oppressive stories by the women at the shelters. This process of individual retelling and then the creation of a collective narrative enables the women to develop deeper understandings of systems of oppression such as patriarchy and sexism and their interconnections with their lives.

“The complex interconnections between poverty, religion, women’s reproductive capacity and their disempowerment give rise to a very negative feeling about their bodies and mind.”

-Sanved Reports 2005 (unpublished data)

The conceptualising of empowerment as the process wherein notions of self are created in tandem with healing from violent disruptions caused by trafficking and multiple forms of abuse, however, is not entirely not divorced from a commitment to developing the economic skills of the participants. Sanved’s impact can be gauged by the sheer number of trainers, volunteers, and audiences that the curriculum has reached, and by their innovative mode of communication, which breaks away from ordinary speech-making to deliver complex messages about patriarchy, trafficking, and women’s sufferings and empowerment. However, I feel this should not be considered as the primary indicators of their sustenance and success.

In my years of work with NGOs as vehicles for women’s empowerment, I found that they are internally mostly conformists especially when it comes to conceptualising traditional gender roles for women as authentic paths for empowerment. It is initiatives like Sanved that are testimony to the reality of gender role conformity being increasingly fraught with conflicts between tradition and modernity. For me, Sanved’s success lies in providing an associational space for survivors, which helps them heal as a community. It also lays bare the inherent dichotomy in the role of NGOS as neoliberal entities dedicated to creating self-regulating individuals, as they create spaces like Sanved dedicated to community building rooted in shared experiences of confidence building and healing through performance.

Sanved is now one of the leading NGOs in the field of dance therapy and has come a long way in creating an alternative path to understanding the process of empowerment. I ascribe their success to an effective linking of empowerment with performance leading to an inner healing, emerging from a feeling of an internal sense of peace. Thus, performance that fosters creativity, exploring what the body can do, rather than what it cannot do, while maintaining confidentiality and respect for the process can be a path to self-confidence, which in combination with skills-building is the kind of empowerment that can challenge the impediments traumatised survivors experience in their daily lives, and while doing so, create new meanings for the process of empowerment both as an individual and as a community.

[1]Ashoka Fellows are leading social entrepreneurs who are recognized for their innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society.

[2]Eddy, M. 2002. “Dance and Somatic Inquiry in Studios and Community Dance Programs.” Journal of Dance Education 2:119–127.


Leave a comment