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Dance therapy comes to the aid of COVID-19 frontline workers, survivors, caregivers and families of victims

Organised by the Creative Movement Therapy Association of India and Project Barefoot Dance, US, dance therapists hope to address pain, stress and grief in ten free online sessions during April-July

April 19, 2021 / 02:53 PM IST
A trust exercise performed during a pre-pandemic physical session. India's first free online dance movement therapy programme for frontline workers and COVID-19 survivors that began on April 5, is a collaboration between Creative Movement Therapy Association of India and Project Barefoot Dance, California.

A trust exercise performed during a pre-pandemic physical session. India's first free online dance movement therapy programme for frontline workers and COVID-19 survivors that began on April 5, is a collaboration between Creative Movement Therapy Association of India and Project Barefoot Dance, California.


A few days into the nationwide lockdown last year, Tripura Kashyap and her fellow dance therapists were on the phone talking to each other about how they could help families confined to their homes with little movement. They soon scrambled an online therapeutic session for anyone who would be interested to join. It was free and called Movement on Weekend or MOW.

"People needed to move because they were stuck inside their homes," says Kashyap. "We began a very simple programme with focus on self-care under the difficult circumstances brought about by the pandemic," she adds. MOW was followed by sessions for children with special needs and another for the elderly.

A year later, Kashyap and others are ready with another free dance therapy programme, this time for the frontline workers, survivors, caregivers and families of victims of coronavirus. The ten-session online schedule in four batches, the first of which began on April 5, is aimed at providing the much-needed relief during the pandemic.

Dance therapy in India

Dance movement therapy (DMT), also called creative movement therapy, is a nascent alternative treatment in India that offers help in mental health. Dance therapists use movement of the body to induce feelings and memories for healing the mind. While there are no technical dance steps involved, therapists use some gestures from classical and folk dances to facilitate movement.

The new online programme for frontline workers and Covid-19 survivors is a collaboration between the Creative Movement Therapy Association of India (CMTAI) and the Project Barefoot Dance in California, US. "We haven't worked directly with any specific groups who have come out of natural disasters or health emergencies before," says Kashyap, a co-founder of CMTAI. "It was important to help those reeling from the disastrous effects of the pandemic."

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The idea for a free dance therapy programme for frontline workers and Covid survivors came from Eesha Mehta, an Indian-American student in San Francisco. "Eesha is an 11th Grade student in the US who had chosen dance therapy for her school project (Project Barefoot Dance). She met me in Delhi when she was visiting India two years ago. After the pandemic hit, she suggested we do an online dance therapy programme for frontline workers and Covid survivors," says Kashyap.

The sessions built around the needs of different groups are conducted in four batches. The first batch, which is under way, is for those who had been infected. The second is for frontline workers like doctors and nurses while caregivers come under the third batch. The final batch is for people who have lost their near ones to the virus.

"The needs and issues are different in each of these groups," says the Delhi-based Kashyap. The Covid survivors face a lot of anxiety, social isolation, trauma and uncertainty about the future while the frontline workers are under stress and need self-care. The caregivers fear the hopelessness of their efforts and the families of victims suffer pain and grief.

DanceTherapy4 (1)Movement and mental health

Each session is one-and-half hours long and each of the four batches will attend ten sessions one after the other. The therapists have developed several movement activities useful to particular groups for self-awareness, emotional expression and group awareness. Both ends of the sessions would witness warming up and relaxation exercises.

"We started with a round of introductions and the participants spoke about their experience when they were infected," says Preethi Rajagopalan, therapeutic movement facilitator for the first batch of Covid survivors, who began their session on April 5. "It is a very wide age group from 20 to 80 years," adds the Bangalore-based Rajagopalan, one of the earliest members of CMTAI.

Rajagopalan's batch of 14 participants from across the country did a lot of sharing within the group to support each other in the face of anxiety and depression after the infection. "There is so much energy after the session. I was feeling down and wasn't sure I would be able to move, but so much energetic after this session," she quoted a participant as saying without revealing the person's name because of a confidentiality clause in the programme.

Dance therapy, which combines movement and psychology, focuses on the physical, emotional, cognitive and social aspect of a person. "First we look at the physicality of the participant and try to bring the focus back to the body. There is healing of the body and finding our own inner resources to cope," says Rajagopalan, a therapist for the last five years. "Dance and movement are very therapeutic. There is a feeling of hope and energy in it."

(clockwise from top left) Tripura Kashyap, Reetu Jain, Sukriti Dua and Preethi Rajagopalan of the Creative Movement Therapy Association of India. (clockwise from top left) Tripura Kashyap, Reetu Jain, Sukriti Dua and Preethi Rajagopalan of the Creative Movement Therapy Association of India.

Our body, our home

Founded in 2014, CMTAI functions as an umbrella body for dance therapists in the country. A member of the International Dance Council, Paris and the American Dance Therapy Association, CMTAI has 96 members from different states. It also conducts a certificate course in dance therapy (240 hours plus 60 hours of internship), which too has gone online during the pandemic, training 175 students so far.

Dance therapists believe those participating in DMT find it an easier, nature route to healing. "You break down a lot of barriers, like the linguistic aspect (important in talk therapy sessions)," says Reetu Jain, also a co-founder of CMTAI. "Sometimes it becomes harder to verbalise our experiences. We get to understand that our body holds so much knowledge," adds the Delhi-based Jain. Echoes Kashyap, "Our body is our home. We need to nurture it, look after it. Our bodies are containers of our history."

Not only dance, Creative Movement Therapy also uses drama and art separately for healing. "Dance therapy should be regarded as an essential tool because it helps process personal stress, grief, etc. by unlocking through movement the body's innate capacity to recover and move towards life and health," says Manola Gayatri Kumaraswamy, whose post-doctoral research is in bringing depth psychology, somatic practice and artistic work together for addressing trauma.

"The joy of creative movement is also key to building resilience. Caregivers, survivors and frontline workers all need this space to breathe in the joy," adds the Bangalore-born Kumaraswamy, a faculty member at the Drama For Life (DFL) centre of arts at the Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa who co-developed DFL's own ongoing movement therapy programme for frontline workers.

The online sessions, CMTAI hopes, would help bring the benefits of dance therapy to more people. "Art therapies are very urbanised. With online sessions we can dissolve the urban-rural divide," says Kashyap. Adds Jain, "The pandemic is not ending anytime soon. The repercussions, even if it gets better, are going to be there for sometime."
Faizal Khan

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