Author: karennekoo

Dance? Therapy?


Oftentimes, students mistakenly refer to my classes as dance therapy. This is especially true during staff workshops when I work with social workers, program managers, psychologists and affiliated professionals who service communities that are vulnerable or marginalized.  After completion of a class series, participants would have explored a variety of themes that could include body awareness, self-expression, creative problem solving, group dynamics, leadership and more.  These movement explorations can generate deeply felt emotional experiences. So, are my classes therapy?

According to the American Dance Therapy Association, dance/movement therapy is the “psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual.”  The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines “therapy” as “treatment of mental or bodily disorder designed or serving to bring about rehabilitation or social adjustment.”   These then are the key concepts of dance/movement therapy….the use of movement to rehabilitate and help individuals normalize behavior within society.  As a result, dance/movement therapies are distinct disciplines that require specific certifications.  It is not what I do.

I teach dance as an art activity.   Movement, therefore, is not a tool to change who we are.  Movement is us…and we are the movement.  We don’t need a reason to move.  We move because we are human beings with uniquely individual ways of using our bodies as instruments of expression.  Working together, we find ways to give form to our thoughts and feelings.  Even though I do not give technique classes in the traditional sense, students work on creative dance disciplines and techniques to integrate awareness of the physical body and the accompanying emotional sensibilities so that the whole person is engaged in the dance….body and mind united.

The basic structure of my classes does not differ substantially from one community to another.  Utilizing the Mettler-based creative dance principles, I am able to make adjustments to fine tune movement explorations that would resonate with students.  The core values are the same….every person is respected; we dance together, different but together; we celebrate the individual and we feel the group body as a cohesive unit.  We don’t seek to change ourselves to fit someone else’s definition; but through dancing together, we are inevitably changed.  We become new…renewed….a new whole.

Perhaps it is this internal change that makes some people feel the classes are therapy.  In truth, all art is inherently therapeutic.   However, whatever therapy a person feels through participation is a very personal experience and is not the focus of class.  A dance can spark memories or emotions which, in turn, gives us the opportunity to create physical forms of our internal voice.  It is the voice of movement, a chance to be who we are, unapologetic and unafraid.  We dance together and savor the joys of creating dance purely for the sake of dance.  We don’t need dance to do anything more than that.  We are the dance.

Dance Together Peru 2016 June 6 – 17, 2016


I completed a 2-week residency to introduce creative dance improvisation to two local holistic centers:  Centro Nana Nagle and Corazon de Nana.   Located in the marginalized community of San Juan de Miraflores, the centers are safe havens for the community and for children/youth ages 4 -13 to explore ways of managing and overcoming physical/emotional trauma related to abuse.   Classes consisted of thematic movement progressions to encourage creative problem solving through dance.  An important element of this work included interrelationships in groups, small and large, culminating in whole group improvisations at the end of every class.

A total of 73 children attended 18 classes.  We also held a 3-hour staff workshop for teachers and affiliated social workers and therapists.  Some reflections from the dancers:

“I felt free.”

“I feel connected to the other kids.”

“It was fun to dance together.”

“I never knew I can dance.  Now I know that I can dance.”

“I feel everyone in the class is my friend.”

“This was a different kind of dance.  It was fun.”

As part of the effort to encourage program sustainability, my ongoing collaboration with Mettler Studios Inc. provides post residency follow-ups in the forms of (i) distance mentoring services and (ii) scholarships that provide opportunities for interested staff to attend the Mettler Studios Creative Dance Teacher Training in Tucson, AZ.

DANCE TOGETHER INDONESIA 2015 August 24 – Sept. 4, 2015


Together with my Evolve Dance colleague, Annie Tucker, I completed a 2-week residency teaching 20 creative dance workshops for approximately 140 participants from 7 local NGOs and community organizations.  Working in close partnership with these organizations, we designed site-specific workshops with distinct exploratory focus.   Students were guided through a series of specific movement explorations and challenges with the aim of expanding movement vocabulary and allowing opportunities to think/move in new ways.   Whole group dances were free group improvisations, with or without specified themes.

Collaborating Organizations and Program Details

Sekolah Autis Bina Anggita, a private school for students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder with the mission “to serve with empathy.” A leader in the field of autism education in Yogyakarta and Indonesia, Bina Anggita provides integrated educational and therapeutic services for students from pre-K through high school.  We taught a 3-day workshop series with thematic progression for 30 participants (15 students ages, 15 faculty members).  Workshop focus:  Body Awareness, Mirroring, Generating Movement, Sound and Movement, Dancing Together.

Yogyakarta Institute for the Arts, founded in 1984, is the largest arts institute in Indonesia with programs in visual performing and media arts in traditional Indonesian and modern international styles.  We conducted a 3-hour workshop, beginning with an introductory presentation of “Barbara Mettler: In her Own Words,” followed by a 2-hour dance workshop exploring the basic principles of Mettler-based creative dance.  Workshop focus:  General Introduction to Mettler-based creative dance improvisation.

Balance Yoga Studio hosted two 2-hour workshops for their staff and the general public. Workshop focus:  General Introduction to creative dance improvisation.

One Billion Rising Yogykarta, part of the global initiative to bring awareness of gender-based violence with deep connections to local non-profit community organizations, hosted a series of workshops:

  • Yasanti, an advocacy NGO established in 1982 for women workers. We conducted a 2-hour workshop for Yasanti staff, counsellors and psychologists.  Workshop focus: Self-expression, leadership, creative thinking, decision-making, group dynamics.
  • PLU Satu Hati (People Like Us), an advocacy support group for the LGBT community.  We conducted two 2-hour workshops for PLU staff, volunteers and community members.  Workshop focus: Self-expression, leadership, creative thinking, decision-making, group dynamics.
  • Domestic Workers Network, a community support organization for domestic workers. We conducted a 2-hour introductory workshop.  Workshop focus:  Self-expression, leadership, creative thinking, decision-making, group dynamics.
  • Women Workers at Giwangan Market, a community support organization of traditional women market porters who transport goods manually throughout the marketplace.  We conducted a 2-hour introductory workshop.  Workshop focus: Self-expression, leadership, creative thinking, decision-making, group dynamics.
  • One Billion Rising Yogyakarta.  We conducted three 2-hour workshops for participants interested in deeper explorations of creative dance improvisation. Workshop I focus:  General Introduction to creative dance and group improvisation; Workshop II focus: Exploration of Relationship -with ourselves (our body in space), with others, with the environment.  Awareness of space and our individual interaction with it, with each other, with the group. Workshop III focus:  The dramatic and emotional quality of dance.

This residency was designed to introduce creative dance improvisation to local community organizations and to explore the potential application of creative dance improvisation as a complement to existing programs.  After each workshop, we discussed ways the lessons can be adapted or adjusted to fit the needs of individual organizations.   To encourage program sustainability, my collaboration with Mettler Studios Inc. provided distance mentoring or assistance with attending the annual Mettler Studios Creative Dance Teacher Training workshop in Tucson, AZ.

Dance Together Vietnam 2014 May 24 – June 6, 2014


Project Dance Together – Hagar International Vietnam: May 24 – 30, 2014
I conducted 5 days of multiple workshops for Hagar staff and affiliated personnel from other local NGO’s who work with abuse survivors.  A separate dance class was held for clients of Hagar International Vietnam who were participating in ongoing rehabilitation and reintegration programs.  The workshops focused on individual and group body expressions while exploring concepts such as group dynamics, leadership roles, self-confidence and celebration of personal creativity.

Project Dance Together – Lao Cai Compassion House: June 2 – 6, 2014
Together with my colleagues, Julie B. Johnson and Annie Tucker, we conducted Phase 2 of the dance residency at the Lao Cai Compassion House that was initiated in August 2013. Located at the border of Vietnam and China and first opened in May 2010, the Lao Cai Compassion House assists trafficking survivors, 95% of whom are young women from various ethnic minorities between the ages of 13 to 22, with safe housing and academic or vocational training as part of the reintegration process.  We continued working on creative dance concepts that were introduced in 2013:  body expressions, individual creativity, leadership, creative problem-solving, working in groups and decision-making.

Dance Together Vietnam 2013: August 8 – 18, 2013


Evolve Dance partnered with Pacific Links Foundation (PALS) to conduct a preliminary dance residency program at The Compassion House, Lao Cai, a residence operated by PALS that provides safe housing and reintegration services to survivors of human trafficking.

Upon arrival in Hanoi, my colleague, Julie B. Johnson, and I began our dance journey by meeting and dancing with local dance artists, opportunities generously arranged and facilitated by the American Embassy Hanoi.  We spent a wonderful morning with Mr. Dao An Khan and Ms. Doan Minh Hoan at Dao AnhKhanh’s uniquely beautiful studio in the heart of Hanoi.  Creativity and improvisation reigned while it rained….torrential monsoon downpours and flash flooding provided a dramatic backdrop!  We then traveled to the campus of the Vietnam Dance College, where we took turns teaching and dancing with enthusiastic students and faculty.  I introduced a small sampling of Mettler-based creative dance movement studies while Julie taught a modified jazz class, creative-movement-based composition exercises and a fun selection from her jazzy repertoire!

The following day, we conducted a full-day creative movement workshop with local social workers, shelter managers, teachers, psychologists and affiliated staff.  Sponsored and hosted by Hagar International Hanoi, the workshop consisted of a 3-hour dance session where we explored various creative movement studies followed by a 2-hour open discussion session. Recognizing that most of the attending professionals work with clients who are abuse survivors, we tailored the studies to focus upon body expressions and on celebrating the individual while relating to each other within a group context. Discussions included suggestions on how to adapt the movement studies to specific clients’ needs.

Upon completion of the staff workshop, Julie and I boarded the 8-hour overnight train to Lao Cai to begin the heart of our residency: dancing with the girls at the Compassion House Lao Cai. Located at the border of Vietnam and China and first opened in May 2010, the Compassion House Lao Cai has assisted more than 50 trafficking survivors, 95% of whom are young women from various ethnic minorities between the ages of 13 to 22. On a daily basis, the residents either attend traditional academic schooling or vocational training as part of the reintegration effort.  We were anxious to begin dancing with them.

Each 2-hour class was structured with basic movement explorations during first hour and composition/choreography in the second hour.  Dancers were encouraged to think and move creatively as individuals, but with increasing awareness of the group. Each succeeding day built upon the skills learned the previous day, with each movement exploration becoming more challenging as the week progressed.  We explored a variety of themes, including body expression, individual creativity, leadership, creative thinking, decision-making, group dynamics, just to name a few.

In the composition/choreography section of the class, we took inspiration from the vibrantly colored mural that the girls painted themselves which now hangs on the wall at the shelter.   Dancers chose specific elements from the painting which they wished to express; and utilizing movements that they’ve been exploring through the week, they composed and presented 2 originally choreographed pieces. To have accomplished this in 6 short days was amazing!

It was a truly inspirational trip. Being enveloped within the creative energies of Mr. Khanh and Ms. Hoan is an artist’s dream. Meeting the talented students and faculty of the Vietnam Dance College enabled us to share in their passion for dance.  And of course, dancing with the girls and the staff at Compassion House Lao Cai was an experience without words.  These were a group of extraordinary women: the staff for their commitment to helping and improving the lives of trafficking survivors;  the survivors for their inner strength that shows the resilience of the human spirit. We spent a precious week learning from each other, laughing, acting silly, creating a safe space together where the girls can just be girls…and dancers.

This project would not have been possible without the support of many, many people: all the individual donors who have generously sponsored the project;   PALS volunteers in Vietnam who traveled, interpreted and danced with us; the incredible staff at the Compassion House Lao Cai, who welcomed us with warmth and love; Hagar International Hanoi who organized and sponsored the staff workshop;  the Director and representative from the Council of Anti-Social Evils, who taught us so much about the work that we could continue to do together; the American Embassy Hanoi, who believed in our project and gave us the chance to turn our ideas from concept to reality….and of course, the dancers, who continue to inspire us today.

It is my belief that the ARTS in general and DANCE in particular have evolved with human beings as a way of creating shared experiences and avenues for the affirmation of individual and collective identity and existence.