Stages in the Creative Process in DMT

Each of the five stages will now be presented, with a discussion of how each component defined earlier contributes to the facilitation and progression of the stage.


The first stage in the creative process requires an encounter with a source of inspiration. In DMT attention is brought to the body in the present moment through the warm-up. The warm-up begins to facilitate the conscious body-mind connection through physical sensations inherent in activating the muscles. Divergent thinking, a cognitive process of brainstorming several ideas around a concept, is achieved through movement play and improvisation, when the client explores a variety of movement in order to open the self to the possibility of development and expression. The therapist may encourage the client to explore variations in size, speed, location of a movement in the body or the dynamic and qualitative aspects of movement as set forth by such movement analysts as Laban1 or Kes-tenberg (Levy, 2005). By introducing a variety of movements, the client may begin to unlock unconscious material held at the nonverbal body level. Rogers (1954) discusses openness as a necessary component of the first stage in the creative process, welcoming all stimuli into awareness. Other such stimuli are affective processes, due to the interrelationship between body movement, sensation, and emotion; feelings begin to arise as the client connects to his or her body in the present moment and as unconscious material begins to surface. The client will not yet have full awareness of the connection, as this kind of development occurs further on in the creative process, but may simply feel the significance of the associated emotion. Acolin (2016) outlines how movement expresses inner states, is a mode of communication, and reveals personality, and how one can interpret emotion from observable movement qualities. Simple examples might include buoyant movement evoking joy, or use of space correlating with level of confidence. Interaction fuels the first stage of Experience, through the cooperative and reciprocal navigation of the warm-up between therapist and client(s). Chaiklin and Schmais (1993) describe the acute observations and receptivity of Marian Chace as she guided her clients in warm-up: she did not enter the room with a plan or prescription for movement but picked up on affective and interactive cues from her clients to determine how to start, always beginning with the clients themselves. She mirrored the emotional states and communications of her group members to understand, offer acceptance, and begin a process of cohesion with the rest of the group. With the awareness and inspiration engendered through the warm-up, and the sense of safety and community, the group or session can progress to the second stage in the creative process.


This second stage engages all components except self-actualization, as no new insights have been made to integrate into oneself. The Experience of the body and movement expression during the warm-up sets the stage for further and more conscious present-moment exploration of a theme. Again, the therapist enters the equation as an interactive component through movement reflection, labeling of movement, verbal prompts, or provision of structure encouraging this exploration. Conscious and unconscious processes overlap during the second stage; movement draws up unconscious material from its connection to preverbal experiences while the client and therapist work on bringing awareness to movement expressions and patterns and shaping them into representational movement (Sheets-Johnstone, 2009). This may take shape in the therapist attuning to a select movement and encouraging repetition or clarification of this movement. Play and improvisation are tools for the exploration of the second stage (Bernstein, 1979; Halprin, 2003; Levy, 2005; Rodriguez-Ciga-ran, 2000; Wengrower, 2016). Improvisation accesses primary process thinking, in which spontaneous movements flow from one to the next. Like the cognitive process of divergent thinking, movement improvisation provides a multitude of variations on a theme. Play gives form and structure to the unconscious material and inherent emotions accessed through improvisation (Greenacre, 1959) and an opportunity to experiment with these new behaviors in a safe way; through the imagery and symbolism of play, difficult situations and emotions can be confronted, yet the individual is protected in the fantasy of the play, the separation provided through metaphor. Additionally, through embodied play, the client can feel more assertive and confident in the experimentation with newness. Both components elicit feelings of freedom, permission, spontaneity, enjoyment, fluidity, and openness or receptivity (Hayes, 2006), all of which serve the creative process through encounter and experimentation with a variety of coping options and solutions. As can be gathered from this identification of feelings, affective processes simultaneously contribute to and arise from the Exploration stage. Firstly, feelings of safety are necessary to freely explore unconscious and symbolic movement material and must be present to engage in improvisation and play. Secondly, movement is the direct and external expression of internal feeling states (Bernstein, 1979; Sheets-Johnstone, 2009; Young, 2017). As mentioned in the chapter’s introduction, the emotional content of dance expression may constitute part of the healing processes inherent in dance (Levy, 2005). Exploring movements related to an initial source of inspiration—a movement or sensation that arose in the warm-up—provides the opportunity for the individual to connect with and communicate a personal feeling. Choreographic tools, such as changes in size, tempo, quality, embellishment, or instrumentation—performing the movement with a different part of the body (Blom & Chaplin, 1982)—may be ways the therapist utilizes her dance background to assist in variation or exploration of the movement that aids the progression of the creative process and further exploration of emotions. Concretely in the session, this stage may manifest as synchronous or reciprocal movement between client and therapist. The client may make a movement, which is then mirrored by the therapist, perhaps with a chosen quality, such as strength, accentuated to emphasize this affective content of the original movement. The client may then repeat this movement and both may go on in call-and-response manner, echoing this movement to one another, continually playing and improvising with variations, honing in on the relevant thematic and affective content.


The continued movement exploration of a feeling or theme through the use of tools for movement variation leads to a period of incubation during the third stage in the process. Shifting focus from exploring a variety of movements, the movement expression begins to narrow onto a central theme (Goren-Bar, 1997). This is likely one of the most familiar stages of any creative process, as the individual becomes submerged in the process of creation. Unconscious processes dominate, as “spontaneous movements become more obviously expressive of the intrapsychic material’ (Meekums, 2002, p. 17). The dance contains more affect as spontaneous movements flow into one another, each coming from and leading to an emotive place, succumbing to the primary process. Enactment (Koch & Fischman, 2011), as mentioned in the introduction, summarizes this process: the client moves, giving form to the unconscious through symbolism and imagery and thus creating an imaginary environment to be explored and discovered; simultaneously, the client experiences and makes discoveries in this environment through the felt experience of movement. The process occurs in the present moment, as the movement cannot be planned but must be discovered. At this point in the session, the therapist becomes less active as a “choreographer” of variation, as she may have done in the second stage, and drops into holding the space to provide containment for the deepened exploration. This occurs through the therapist’s presence—not simply physical but emotional presence, sense of grounding, and kinesthetic empathy (Young, 2017). The acceptance of the client is communicated both verbally and through the reflection of the client’s movements, allowing the client to deepen their movement expression. True reflection of the client’s movement can only occur through the therapist’s thorough knowledge of his or her own body and an understanding of the symbols and metaphors inherent in movement. By dropping into this deeper felt sense in his or her own body, the therapist likely sets the stage for the client to sink into this stage of incubation. During this stage, imagery likely arises, its content potentially rich in emotion, metaphor, and symbolism; the deep meaning of these arising images, however, still lies beneath the surface of consciousness, not yet in the conscious awareness of the mover. The “world” of the client, as referenced in enactment (Koch & Fischman, 2011), is created and discovered through this imagery, and the therapist’s presence, her ability to be with and support this imagery of the client’s, can contribute to the deepening of the creative process (Young, 2017).


It is during the fourth stage that connections form between the movement exploration/ improvisation and personal meaning for the individual (Fletcher, 1979; Hill, 2004; Kleinman, 2016; Meekums, 2002; Shreeves, 2006). Meanings may suddenly become clear as a memory is triggered through the movement, and metaphor may arise from the imagery of the third stage. Unconscious processes allow for new associations to be made between seemingly unrelated movements or expressions, a characteristic aspect of creativity as something new comes into existence (May, 1975). This stage again requires receptivity, in the openness required to allow for such new connections.

Of note, this is also a prime opportunity to briefly address the concept of everyday creativity, a potential of all humans—as opposed to eminent creativity, a more advanced cognitive function, in which an artistic masterpiece results (Kaufman & Sternberg, 2007; Rogers, 1954; Wengrower, 2016). Everyday creativity simply results in something new evolving from already existing parts, put together in a unique combination to result in a novel solution to a problem. Such could be said about the therapy process with individuals whose cognitive, emotional, and social selves suffer from some impairment or disintegration. Artistic genius, or a resulting product, is not the goal or intention of therapy; instead, personal therapy calls for increasing self-awareness and self-integration. Thus the therapist and client work together to uncover strengths already existing in the client, and with the added creativity of the therapist and/or group members to devise a new solution to the client’s present state of discomfort.

Returning to the fourth stage in the creative DMT process, consciousness comes into play through meaning-making. The creative dance weaves together the experience of the body’s expression, exploration of this expressive potential, and development of the movement theme. Metaphors arise and are explored. The metaphor is an important piece of DMT, as it can hold meaning on several levels, revealing the client’s deeper thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that were previously unconscious (Bernstein, 1979; Blatt, 1991; Halprin, 2003; Meekums, 2002; Rodriguez-Cigaran, 2000; Sheets-Johnstone, 2009; Shreeves, 2006; Wengrower, 2016). Transformation, a cognitive process of making a new combination of information (Russ & Fiorelli, 2010; Standler, 1998), may appear through further movement exploration of the metaphor, consciously and intentionally, thus putting the Insight into Action. A movement motif or performance of a movement experience may be used but is not necessary. In Kleinman’s (2016) description of cognitive markers, Connect relates one’s movement and emotional expressions to one’s present life, and Integrate provides a summary and learning opportunity for how to handle a similar experience in the future.

By applying or embodying the insight discovered, finally the individual reaches the component of self-actualization. The new discovery or new awareness is moved, felt, acted upon by the dancing individual, incorporating the change into one’s self and adding to realization of one’s potential. Personal expansion occurs through the broadening of one’s movement repertoire, and the individual changes as a result of embodying these new qualities or actions. An example of this stage may be to try on and practice a new movement through play to experiment with the new movement or gain assertion and mastery over the action (Hayes, 2006). The movement, the action, powered by affective processes inherent in the connection between movement and emotion, is “essential to embodied learning and change” (Halprin, 2003, p. 230). Again, the link between dance movement and emotions deserves emphasis. The power of the modern dance movement existed in the authentic expression of human experience and emotion (Levy, 2005). Observers could relate to the realness of the dance, the truth of the feeling in the movement. Without this connection, dance was merely a spectacle, as ballet had begun to fade into pure technical feats. Similarly in therapy, true personal change is much more likely to occur when tied with a strong emotion (Fink, 2010). DMT pioneer Trudi Schoop’s idea of “full feeling expression” (Bernstein, 1979, p. 42) supports the movement toward self-actualization in this fourth stage, facilitating acceptance and ownership over all parts of oneself by embodying one’s emotions fully, thus leading to greater integration of the self.


This fifth and final stage is a process of closure and containment. While verbalizations likely occur throughout the process to bring awareness to the self or to encourage and develop exploration of a theme, verbal processing of the session typically classifies it as dance/movement therapy and not simply therapeutic dance. However, as noted in Acolin (2016), “movement need not enter consciousness to be meaningful and cause change” (p. 324). Changes made on the body level have been seen to effect change on a mental level and do not always necessitate conscious awareness or analysis. The limitation to the evidence supporting this statement, however, is that it was drawn from a short-term study and could not predict lasting change. When appropriate and necessary, a conscious process of verbalization facilitates insight into events in the client’s life from the dance expression, leading to greater self-awareness and understanding. Catharsis of emotion may occur through the expressive movement of dance, but is not sufficient for therapeutic change. Transformation, whether large or small, is the goal of therapy, and this is done through conscious integration of the movement experience and the discoveries made—through identification of symbols and their meaning in reality. Kleinman’s (2016) cognitive markers, Connecting and Integrating, involve relating the movement experience to an issue in the client’s life and reorganizing oneself around this new discovery, respectively. Interaction contributes to these connections, as therapist and/or fellow group members make their own observations, thus adding to the individual’s interpretation and insight. Affective processes persist now and run the gamut of emotion; the movement expression may have given form and awareness into, for example, deep, viscerally felt grief from a loss, or strong assertion in finally (literally) standing up to a “foe” in movement play. In the stage of Resolution, however, it is this writer’s belief that an overall encompassing feeling should be of completion or resolve; just as Chace worked to wrap up her clients’ movement expressions to provide closure and prepare them for life outside the therapy room (Chaiklin & Schmais, 1993). Often, this finalization begins through a movement cool-down or closing ritual such as a series of deep breaths or stretches, and completed through the verbal processing, the latter grounding the experience in conscious awareness.

Finally, self-actualization enters once again. According to May (1975), creativity expresses the self as a manifestation of one’s unique thoughts and feelings. The self, and one’s potential, is more fully realized through its creative expression and all the more deeply through the physicality of that expression. A selection of the author’s master’s thesis summarizes this point:

Movement is the most fundamental expression of one’s being because it is pure self expression. All parts of the self reside in the body: the physical, emotional, and psychological. The body and its movement are one’s being, and communication through symbolic use of the body creates a profound connection to and formation of the self. In this way, movement can create deep, self-actualizing change.

(Purcell, 2012, pp. 95-96)

We Do Not Dance a Straight Line

While the stages of the creative process in DMT have been described in a sequential manner, it is necessary to discuss the true non-linear pathway the dance takes. This is best described through the metaphor of a spiral, an image that arose through analysis of literature and themes during the author’s thesis process (Purcell, 2012). Therapeutic change and creative products are not the result of completing one stage, ticking off a list of requirements, and moving onto the next stage. Both involve beginning, exploring, deepening, narrowing, resurfacing to incorporate new information, broadening, deepening again, and so on and so forth as one would follow a spiral into and out of its coil. Stages may be revisited or repeated, as is inevitable in the process of personal change (Prochaska, DiClemente, & Norcross, 1992). Similarly, a choreographer does not simply set a series of dance steps and leave it unchanged, unmodified. The DMT client may continuously discover and develop new ways of expressing an emotion to deepen his or her self-understanding and improve upon themself. These processes do not have an end point but do have endless potential. New insights fuel further processes of self-exploration, and self-exploration opens the individual to new sources of inspiration, thus igniting another creative process.

An additional similarity between the spiral and the creative process is that it cannot be fully represented concretely; the infiniteness of a spiral cannot be drawn in finite form. The creative process of DMT can be described but to be fully understood and integrated, it must be experienced. This may be a difficulty, yet it is also a unique strength of the field: a difficulty in the limitations of words to describe the embodied, expressive, experienced process of DMT, yet a strength because of its uniqueness. There is nothing like dance—to integrate and express the fullness of the self in body, mind, and spirit.

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