|Myth in the Body:
An Interview with Dee Wagner
Dee Wagner is an Atlanta psychotherapist, dancer, choreographer, and educator who will present Mythic Movement at the Mythic Journeys Conference.
This interview was requested by Mary Davis, Mythic Journeys Publications Chair, whose own journey includes writing, years of yoga study with Martin Pierce and T.K.V. Desikachar (and some teaching), and twenty years as an elected Atlanta City Councilmember. She also knows Dee Wagner and her work.
You’re doing a workshop entitled Mythic Movement. Can you say a little about that?
The purpose of the workshop is to give conference attendees the opportunity to explore components of myth in the body.
We will begin with a simple body awareness warm-up and move into structured improvisations that allow participants the opportunity to embody various archetypes, both those comfortably owned and those disowned. Afterwards, there will be time to use words and/or visual art creations to document and further explore the experience, followed by group discussion.
Can you say something about your background as a dancer and a psychotherapist?
Before I received my degree in counseling, I performed and choreographed professionally
and taught dance, drama, and exercise. I created pieces for The Atlanta Arts Festival,
The New England Vaudeville Festival, The Governor’s Awards for the Arts. I was an
artist-in-residence in Georgia schools through the Georgia Council for the Arts and
led dance and drama workshops for Special Audiences, Inc.
During this time, I was seeing a counselor and, with what I was learning along my therapeutic journey, I was beginning to envision that the dance, drama, and even exercise I was teaching had
tremendous healing potential. I considered a Masters in Dance/Movement Therapy but there were no
programs close to me and relocation wasn’t an option, so I completed my Masters from Georgia
State University and began exploring the interface of counseling and dance/drama/exercise.
I took workshops in Dance/Movement Therapy, Psychomotor Therapy, Feldenkrais, Bartinieff,
Core Energetics, Alexander Technique, and Energy Healing. I did special training and
supervision in eating disorder work and work with dissociative disorders.
I kept dancing, choreographing, and teaching drama in addition to my work as an LPC.
I led workshops like those I was leading before my degree in Counseling, but now with
the ability (and ethical comfort) to process the psychological material.
How has your work as a dancer influenced your work as a psychotherapist?
I like the way Al Pesso and Diane Boyden-Pesso of Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor
(PBSP) describe how we operate in our bodies. They were dancers before they
developed - and it was out of their dance experience that they developed PBSP.
They say emotion is energy, and that energy causes actions (physical expressions
of emotions - like slumped shoulders or tight lips or a tense spine). These actions
are designed to get a reaction (like a hug when you’re sad). I use this description
to note that as therapists, when we react bodily (which we can’t help doing because
we have bodies) we are entering into a dance with our clients, either responding in
some version of the sought-after reaction or not. Maybe our reaction is painfully
similar to the one that this person received the first time there was an attempt at
expressing this emotional action. If we are not aware of the dance, we miss an important
piece of the therapy.
I’ve begun to think of it like this: Interactions take the shapes of validation and
invalidation. When the responses are validating responses, they are usually variations
of molding, mirroring, witnessing, and providing resistance. Molding is the first way
we need to be met in the world, replicating the womb, being swaddled in cloth, enfolded
in arms. As we grow older, molding does not always involve touch but is always inspired
by touch. A hug molds one body with another (if it’s a good hug). Holding someone’s hand,
or putting a hand on someone’s back or arm is another type of molding. It’s also molding
when someone’s sadness causes your chest to curve and your head to tilt in the shape of
a hug without the touching. What makes any type of interaction validating, whether
it is a variation of molding, mirroring, witnessing or providing resistance is the
fact that it is the appropriate response to the other person’s emotional action. We
sense the heavy, rounded shape of the other person’s body calling out for molding;
we mold, and the other person feels validated.
Developmentally, soon after we experience the validation of molding interactions,
we seek mirroring interactions as we send out our gazes in search of the eyes that
will return them, and our coos in search of their echo. As adults, we mirror during
an interaction when we send back the energy that is sent to us. It often results in
a matching body shape and/or matching movement, but that isn’t imperative for the
person to whom we are responding to experience the feeling that his/her energy was
reflected back to them. Witnessing is, as it sounds, observing. Hopefully, by 5 or
6 years old, we’ve gotten enough molding and mirroring that sometimes witnessing is
sufficient, as we yell, “Mom, Dad, watch this…are you watching?” Authentic Movement,
a therapeutic technique created and developed by dance therapists, particularly
Janet Adler, utilizes the idea of the witness as a compassionate, nonjudgmental
observer of the movement. And meditation encourages us to observe our thoughts,
watching them and then releasing them without attachment, strengthening the inner witness.
Pushing against resistance transitions us from one stage of development to another. Pushing
against resistance helps us feel ourselves - feel our bodies - and so to provide resistance
for another at the appropriate time is extremely validating. From a movement perspective,
there are two types of resistance that can be provided, one more symmetrical and the other
more asymmetrical. We provide resistance in a symmetrical way when we keep our energy
completely firm and balanced, a solid boundary for the pushes that test limits. We provide
the more asymmetrical types of resistance when we participate in the push and pull that we
might call wrestling (or footsie). Sometimes this may be literal, but more often it’s
metaphorical. We argue. And often the need to wrestle is much more important than whatever
makes up the content of the disagreement.
We won’t be getting into this developmental stuff specifically in the workshop at Mythic Journeys.
The improvisations we’ll do are more open-ended than that, but this conceptual framework helps
people process the realizations that can arise from the improvisations. And I could see us
touching on this during the discussion.
What do you hope people will get out of your workshop?
Knowledge of, and maybe some integration of, disowned parts of themselves - more comfort with
what I call your repressed movement vocabulary - greater body awareness This may be a good place
to insert a word about how we get out of touch with the messages of our bodies. Socialization
attempts to put a rational thought between an inclination and an action. This begins around
the time when we learn to wait to “go potty” until we get to the little chair designated for
that purpose. We also, hopefully, learn not to hit our sister but to “use our words”…and later
in life, often during adolescence, we learn not to use “those words.” If we stay aware of the
desires of our bodies, while making choices about how we act on those desires, we’re pretty
healthy. If our caretakers invalidate us, due to a misunderstanding of the socialization
process (or worse), it becomes too painful to feel and we disconnect, dissociate, lose track
entirely of what we are feeling, emotionally and physically. And then we must work on body
awareness…by attending workshops like this one.