Global Summit on Dance Movement Therapy for Change – Reflections

By: Anubha Agarwal , Research & Learning Manager at The Wellbeing Project

Date: January 2023

Last month I had the pleasure to represent The Wellbeing Project at the Fourth Biennial Global Summit on Dance Movement Therapy for Change in the eclectic and colorful city of Jaipur, Rajasthan in India. 

The two-day event was co-hosted by Kolkata Sanved – a non-profit organization based in India promoting holistic well-being through Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) and Center for Lifelong Learning (CLL), Tata Institute of Social Sciences – a unit of the leading public research university in India.  

The fourth biennale held on January 12-13th , 2023 in Jaipur was focused on exploring the role of DMT and other creative expressions in building our collective resilience for navigating a world that seems to be at a heightened risk of diminished ecological health and well-being. The 2023 Fourth Biennale DMT for Change was attended by a diverse global audience comprising of development sector professionals, including DMT practitioners, Creative Art Therapy (CAT) practitioners, social scientists and public health experts.

With a colorful mix of experiential sessions, workshops, panel discussions and art installations, the Summit events wove together seamlessly in a rich tapestry. While ecological well-being of planet Earth and the looming danger of the climate crisis was the dominant theme at the Summit, the event was peppered with participatory sessions and workshops employing music, visual arts and storytelling to express individual reflections. 

That artistic underlying theme at the Summit was evident, when at the time of registration, each Summit attendee was offered an option to choose a handheld musical instrument ( displayed below ). I found it amusing to briefly fiddle with the wide range of percussion instruments and select one, even though the intended use was not entirely clear to me. It became clear in time as the attendees enthusiastically sounded the percussion tools to endorse a speaker or an idea, infusing fresh energy and cheerfulness into the Summit events in the process. 

Before the Summit, I was unfamiliar with the role of dance movement therapy as a psycho-therapeutic healing practice. Even though it is commonly known that dancing releases mood-enhancing hormones in humans, I was curious to understand how DMT was different in terms of providing subsistence to trauma victims and survivors of violence in our communities. 

While I was quite thrilled to avail an opportunity to experience DMT through an experiential workshop at the Summit, I was also mindful not to participate in the workshop with the possibly unfair expectation to fully imbibe the therapeutic benefits of dance movement therapy. Considering DMT is a therapy, it might need longer duration support and intervention, than joining in one hour and a half long session. Having personally experienced the de-stressing effect of many dance forms in the past despite having two left feet, I was looking forward to experiencing DMT first hand. 

During the workshop, free flowing movements that came naturally to each one of us were encouraged, the underlying thought being that DMT is a safe space where in every individual is free to express themselves in the way they want. In line with this tenet, an unfamiliar yet intriguing section of the workshop encouraged each participant to imagine their physical body as a paint brush and to use their limbs and torso to paint a limitless, imaginary canvas. Shifting my mental lens to think of my physical form as a paint-brush took some getting used to but eventually the infectious energy of the workshop cohort took over.  

I admit to feeling mentally relaxed and exhilarated post-workshop but still curious to understand how DMT could potentially serve as an antidote to counteract violence in our vulnerable communities. In a country like India, society norms can be quite restrictive of womens’ movement outside the society- or family-ordained ‘safe’ physical spaces, so I felt it would have been insightful to know how the DMT practice can support individuals in freely expressing their possibly repressed agency and take better care of their holistic well-being. In retrospect, I think hearing narratives from DMT practitioners who use DMT as a tool to navigate everyday threats to their physical and mental well-being, would have been of immense value in understanding the practice better. 

It is entirely possible that such narratives may have already been shared in the past Summit editions, but as a first-time participant, I missed the absence of such narratives. I did get to interact with a couple of DMT practitioners who mentioned that the practice helps them cope with everyday stress and shift the lens on how they view their lives. 

One of the key learnings for me during the Summit was the reinforcement that approaches to enhance one’s well-being are quite individualized. Availing the opportunities to experience different expressive art forms at the Summit was a constant reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to well-being. An art therapy that might have a profound impact on one, might fail to put a dent on another individual’s well-being. 

There is also the question of lack of funding to support well-being – the proverbial elephant in the room. However, until the world decided to acknowledge the presence of the aforementioned elephant and fully awaken to the mental health crisis we are in, one of the speakers at the Summit offered a slightly simpler solution to cope, “Art therapy is expensive… a good place to start is to start noticing what art tools you have easy access to at home such as fallen leaves, spices or other readily accessible elements of nature often overlooked. Art material could be taken from elements that are part of an individual’s environment or identity.” 

The two-day DMT Summit for Change feels like a great step in the right direction as such gatherings help mainstream conversations on mental well-being and facilitate the oft-forgotten human connect. Overall, the two days left me feeling happier, joyous and craving for more opportunities to rekindle the deeper human connect, that often gets overlooked in our everyday lives, but that such events help us remember. 

The reigning emotion for me at the end of the two-day art-based DMT for Change Summit and 2022 The Wellbeing Summit was that of HOPE. Hope for mental well-being taking center stage at a global level, specifically in cultures that in the aftermath of the pandemic are slowly opening up to talking about mental health and well-being.