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Animated Edition - Summer 2005
A change of air
Dance artist Miranda Tufnell and writer and psychotherapist Brenda Mallon share their approach to the sensing body and the healing power of the imagination
'Man is most himself when he is at play.' - Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller.

A Breath of Fresh Air grew out of a three-year research project in body, health and imagination begun by myself, Miranda Tufnell, and fellow dancer Tim Rubidge. We' d both been working in the north of England for many years. The aim of our company, Body Stories, was to take the skills of sensory awareness we have as dancers and make that accessible to people suffering from various kinds of mental and physical distress. An artist's role, we felt, is often to help recover what is lost in the lonely journey of illness, or erased by the pressures of life circumstance.

In an early meeting about the project, Dr. Gavin Young spoke of the body becoming an enemy; something is feared, he said, in its vulnerability and dysfunction. In response to doctors' suggestions we ran workshop groups for people with a range of problems, from diabetes to post-natal depression. Our focus was on finding health and wholeness rather than treating specific problems. As dancers we saw ourselves supporting participants in getting to know and trust their bodies again, and to develop skills of relaxation and sensory awareness and, thus, a sense of pleasure in their physical being.

We set up activities where people had time to feel and notice what they felt - time to explore, create, play and just be. In our third year the work expanded through the input of a writer and psychotherapist, Brenda Mallon, who joined me in Cumbria. Brenda has many years experience of working with loss and trauma, combined with a deep interest in dreams and the healing potential of creativity. We extended our two-hour session to four to allow time for people's stories to unfold and conversations to grow, following a long phrase of working that began with the body and shifted between moving, making, writing, resting and sharing.

Background and beginnings
In Latin the word patient derives from pathos or suffering, and refers to a passive state. Yet we find the same root in passion and compatible - to suffer or endure together.

Helen: 'I really didn't know what it was about. I really didn't know what it would do. At that time I was struggling just getting out of the house, so the whole thing was a major feat just to get here and be among people. I certainly didn't want to open up and tell anyone who I was or what had happened to me. I found it very stressful, the first week especially.'

Keith: 'I came to the sessions when they first started. It was only eighteen months before that I'd lost my wife. I suppose I was going through the usual stages of trying to come to terms with it. It was around that time that lots of things went wrong and caused a lot of grief. I had deteriorated after my wife died. Cancer scares and one thing or another. I kept myself inside my cottage, hiding behind my walking stick and not really wanting to open the door to people or life. I felt pushed into the background, not needed any more.'

Throughout the project every member of the group offered support to other members whether by listening, looking at their work, making a cup of tea or sharing a joke. Describing what she liked about the sessions, Laura wrote: 'Going in, feeling a bit sad and then coming out happy. Everyone gives each other a bit of sunshine.'

Joseph: 'I have back problems, and I get very down with my inability to do what I want. There are a lot of suicidal feelings. I often get stuck in situations where people are asking, "How is your back? How are you?" and they're standing there talking about me and I just want to walk away. After a Breath of Fresh Air session I felt significantly better mentally, and more relaxed physically. It's the sharing.'

Lucy: 'I went out the other night with some friends and they were all talking about their work and what they were doing. I felt I couldn't talk properly because their lives were completely different to mine, and I just felt sad and a bit useless. But those Breath of Fresh Air sessions were so nice, and I knew it was okay. You could be completely yourself. You didn't have to put a face on, you didn't have to get smart. It was good to talk to people who understood. If you did feel you wanted to shed a few tears and have a cry, it didn't matter. Nobody was judging you.'

Gradually, gradually
I can stretch and open and reach out a bit
Then I can curl and close and rest again
And feel enclosed and supported
For a while in my
Solid cradle.
(Jane's poem after moving and making)

Creating Together
We began each session gathering together in a circle and checking in. Each person had the opportunity to talk about how s/he had been since the last meeting and to report anything that was important to them. This part of the work was invaluable. People shared fears and worries as well as their high points. It gave us the opportunity to gauge how they were feeling and to respond sensitively to their needs.

Choosing a theme for each session created a further common ground. A 'centre piece' of visual material was created on the floor, in the middle of the circle, illuminating the theme we would be working on. We often used the bones to illustrate some aspect of the anatomy. We let the details of the anatomy expand into the metaphorical: the spine as a pathway between head and pelvis, creating space and imagining events along its length.

In one session we brought acorns, nuts and grass heads and talked about winter, the need for rest and new beginnings, and of seeds and what needed to grow. We asked each person to choose an object and then, in making and moving, imagine its growth and what it might become.

We hoped to make each session informative, conversational, exploratory and fun. There was opportunity for questions and comments, including personal experiences about the participants' own bodies.

Lucy: 'When you first said about making something I thought "Oh no!" as I am not clever at making things. Everybody seemed as though they were really getting on and knew what they were doing, and I really didn't know where to start. But then I just put my mind to it completely and shut everything else out, and I really enjoyed it. It was feathers, sheep wool and moss. I liked that because I used to like making things when I was young. It brought my childhood back a bit, and I think it was just feeling a safe place to rest in. Everybody was so quiet. No one was speaking. People were completely concentrating on what they were doing and their thoughts and that must be good, mustn't it? You could actually tell people's feelings from what they made. And there wasn't a word spoken.'

Picked up an old red boot, which appealed to
me. It was worn, torn, misshaped, damaged
and old. I feel like that. Then after dancing I
had to lie down in the middle,
but still moved. Then we had to draw
our bodies. It was strange. Without knowing,
I drew what looked like me as a baby.
Curled up. It just needed the round bit
the baby's in, and a cord. When I am in pain
I curl up like that for warmth.
Laura

Susan: 'I loved the movement, both the feeling of it and where your arms were and the ease in which they moved. I had several good and interesting sensations with this arm, which is my good arm, including the memory of pain in my wrist. It was like pain, but it wasn't. Some of the fibres started moving in ways that they never normally moved. There was new movement in that. It was a spontaneous dance. It was lovely. "

Laura: 'Started off with music and dancing to it, following the flow. Then dancing with a partner by touching the back of each other's hands. I swayed, but felt like I was floating on a cloud. It was so relaxing. I would never have tried this before. I felt I was getting to know myself and my body.'

Remember dancing no need for words
Dancing is not writing even though words may
dance on the page
Just spots before the eyes? fine contradiction this
Remembering terror exercised by movement
Years ago now .. on the living room carpet
Dancing away the terror? welcoming the dawning
of a new birth
Marie

Keith, the oldest in our group, had had an accident in the war in which one arm was badly damaged. It had been rebuilt from bone grafts. His good arm consequently had a lot of work to do and often hurt. Bone grafts from his leg had caused other problems, his right foot had lost its reflexes, he was frequently in pain and had difficulties hearing. Yet after he had moved and made this is what he wrote: 'I have reason to be glad for my hands, and I realise more and more the way they have served me. If I could draw I would put my two hands together as Thanksgiving - the Indian or Japanese way. I have gradually become more aware of their skills, their functions and the enchantment they have provided for me. I liken them to branches of trees in touch with each other, passing messages with each other but able to act alone, blending into the body... Marvellous in their activities, the hands and arms through which we express grace and happiness.'

Reflecting together
After they had finished making, we asked members to get together in pairs to 'witness' or reflect on each other's work. This gave each person the chance to explore what they'd made, how the work had developed, what they felt about it and what connections they made to it. This quiet sharing was an important part of the whole process of being received, of taking time with another to allow up to the surface that which is not usually spoken about. People were frequently delighted by what emerged and would often write something in response to the piece they'd made.

Keith: 'This little bloke I see as myself in another aspect. He was my mate when I did a castaway island [a session about making 'a place to rest in']. I think it's the best position for viewing life [upside down]. I am no way an artist, but two or three of my pictures came out quite well. Considering it is fifty-five years since I attempted anything pictorially, it's quite an achievement... What this image said to me is, "Won't you step in and make it complete?" I call it Cosmos. I am a cosmos. Not a big one, just a microcosmos and probably very like you. Where do I live 'In the centre of the world. My world. I am responsible for myself and, of course, the cosmos too. It's all me, really. I float and rotate, you know. You could say I live in a world where there is hardly time for anything. Cycling round checkpoints is the best way of covering it. Come to think of it, I'd better get on my bike now to meet you in your cosmos!'

We wondered what participants got from the project. Did they feel their relationship to their bodies had changed through coming to the sessions?

Keith again: 'In the first place I can do far more with it, even in a grotesque way, by taking part in the dance sessions with one leg and one arm kaput. I hadn't really thought about my own body before. I began to be conscious of various parts - how they depended on each other, and how I should be looking after them a damned sight better than I was doing. If I saw myself walking down the street now I probably wouldn't recognise myself. You begin to say, "Hello! This is me - my arms, my leg" as if to a stranger. All that has been very relevant. But the main thing has been finding that, in a gentle and fun atmosphere, your confidence grew. You didn't need to approach everything in a pragmatic way, as if it were a massive challenge that had to be defeated. It was something you could actually talk about and enjoy. Family and friends have commented repeatedly that I've cheered up and become much more outgoing, which I think means more agreeable and lively. At 79, nearly, that isn't bad. I feel younger! The pills I'm on have been reduced to their weakest strength. I'm walking much better and further. Starting to sleep better, too. A bit late in life to try and change your general style of behaviour, but I'm a lot happier with the new me.'

Laura: 'It was amazing last week. I felt I could breathe. It's gone from being a really difficult thing for me walking through the door, to thinking, "Great, it's Tuesday. Fantastic." It really just makes me feel comforted, looked after. I feel I'm amongst friends. I can speak. The movements that we do are so relaxing. These last two weeks, between the breath and the movement, I really got in touch with a very peaceful side of me. It's made me very aware when I'm away from here of my breath - taking thoughts on the in-breath and releasing them on the out-breath, in movement. And it's lovely to connect with people you know nothing about but feel in tune with. Having that sharing - and the movement of the breathing, and learning about the body, and focusing on the spine each week - I find really helpful. It gets me back in touch with everything I knew but had let go of.'

Amy: 'I feel the sessions have given me back a sense of my own life, made me feel creative again after the cancer and surgery. They give me a chance to express fears and anxieties of the past and hopes for the future. Being creative - moving, working with clay, paint, words - has been an eye-opener and very healing. I feel able to write down the experiences of the last two nightmarish years of living with cancer. That's been like removing the tumour, expunging it. I feel lighter, and the family feels it.'

Joseph: 'It does me the world of good. Last time I was here I was really down and didn't want to talk at all, and then you go home afterwards. Other people you can't talk to at home, it's just you dealing with it yourself. But everyone here takes the pressure away. They've got amazing different points, and it's like you take them home with you. It's brilliant.'

A doctor's response
Dr Ian Tod: 'Patients' external lives may become restricted due to their disability, but also due to a diminishment in the opportunities for self-expression. Lack of self- expression leads to lack of experience of the self, and loss of self leads to further diminishment. Interrupting this cycle is one of the main tasks of a G.P. caring for people with enduring health problems, but it's extremely difficult because patterns of behaviour become established over years of pain and disappointment.

'This programme allowed patients to explore these issues at a concrete level. By using artistic metaphors their psychological constructs are externalised, examined and may therefore be available for change in development. It is my experience that the patients who have attended this programme have reconnected with core values, become more open to suggestion, rediscovered their personal initiative and also benefited from the positive experience of meeting others with enduring health problems.'

The article above is extracted from a longer account entitled When I Open my Eyes that is available. Contact: Miranda Tufnell (01768 898 780) or Tim Rubidge (01434 345 059).

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Animated: Summer 2005