Suzi Tortora’s studio encourages children to tell their stories through dance
By Christine Simek
Dancing Dialogue: Healing and Expressive Arts is a dance and movement studio run by Dr. Suzi Tortora, a local psychotherapist, teacher and dancer. Her work integrates psychotherapy, creative dance movement therapy, and wellness with the goal of helping children and adults synthesize their verbal and nonverbal actions to forge a greater understanding of themselves and others. An internationally known lecturer, Dr. Tortora offers classes, workshops and private consultations at the Carriage House on Marion Avenue in Cold Spring.
“I’ll help you!”
“That’s okay, we’ll do another one!”
“I know, let’s dance together!”
These were some of the refrains bouncing around the room during Tortora’s ‘Dancing Stories: Musical Adventures’ class on a stormy afternoon last week. A group of rambunctious 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds were working on their group dances and discussing choreography and music. After introducing the child-inspired themes for the performances (‘hunters,’ ‘friendship,’ and ‘magic’) one of the groups set themselves up in the front of the room with long ribbons and sherbet colored scarves for a run-through.
“Remember, dancing isn’t running,” Tortora reminds the room before she starts the music. “What are some of the moves you might do instead?” The chorus of voices respond: “Gallop!” “Leap!” “Prance!” “Sidestep!” “Crawl!” The children are excited and jumpy, their bodies revved up like tiny race cars ready to careen onto a track. Once the music starts relief is palpable. Their bodies start to move. And they dance.
To the unknowing eye, this might appear to be an ordinary dance class, but Tortora’s focus isn’t on teaching only form, but also on helping children along the path of personal wellness and self-discovery by providing activities which enable them to explore the link between their minds and their emotions through the creative movement of their bodies. She encourages each child to tell their individual stories through dance. “We hear about so many issues with body image,” Tortora says, “often beginning in childhood. I want to give children the opportunity to feel good about the way they move and for them to know, at a young age, that any movement can be a dancing movement.” Seeing and understanding this connection between their bodies and their thinking is vital, Tortora continues, because our bodies hold all of our experiences. “[The body] is like a map of our whole life” she says, “and we can access everything that has happened to us through being in contact with our body.”
Tortora is a trained psychotherapist with practices in Cold Spring, Manhattan and at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where she is a senior dance therapist in the pediatrics unit. She works with groups and individuals across every age range. Out of her studio in Cold Spring, Tortora holds classes for babies and their parents that focus on non-verbal communication and multi-sensory awareness, classes for school-aged children emphasizing mindful-awareness and social skills development, and adult authentic movement workshops. Tortora also offers individual counseling to children and adults for the long-term treatment of conditions ranging from chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia, to developmental issues such as autism and attention disorders.
Dance therapy, one of a number of creative arts therapies quickly gaining popularity around the country, is based on the premise that the body, mind and spirit are interconnected. The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA), of which Tortora is a member, defines dance/movement therapy as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual. In other words, dance therapy takes traditional talk therapy to the next level.
Tortora explains that sometimes traditional talk-therapy isn’t enough and that some people can spend years in psychotherapy and remain unable to access some prohibitory element of their pain or unease. “Sometimes the only way to get to certain things is by feeling them,” she says. “And very often [the issues] don’t have words, or they don’t start with words, they start with a feeling.” To begin the process of uncovering this feeling and healing it, she says, is to move your body in a new way, or to examine your breathing; to find a way to drop out of your mind for a minute and listen to what your body has to say. Often, says Tortora, an experiential embodied exercise can bring forth a memory or a thought pattern that can lead to discovery and, hopefully, eventually, to wellness.
Tortora’s lifelong training and study has focused extensively on the body and the mind, and this marriage of movement therapy with psychotherapy is crucial to the uniqueness of her work. Tortora notes that the current popularity of body therapies such as yoga and massage has started to normalize the exploration of the mind-body-emotion connections, but if an instructor doesn’t know what do once a connection is made, a person can be left exposed and vulnerable.
“Our bodies hold everything,” Tortora reiterates, “and moving your body [into a yoga pose, for example] opens things up. If you’re not trained as a psychotherapist, you can open something up and not know what to do with it.” Working with a trained cognitive therapist who encourages intentional movement, however, can help an individual embody what is happening in their lives, encourage communication of their conflicts, bring a relief to symptoms and lead to improved social and vocational functioning as well as personality growth.
Tortora uses the acronym ‘SHHH’ to describe the concept that she says runs through the heart of all the work she does. “Everyone needs to be Seen, Heard, Held and Hugged,” she explains. Misconceptions are inevitable when we rely solely on verbal communication. Learning to use our eyes and ears and hearts to connect with one another can help us move past the misconceptions we project onto other people and cause us all pain.
Back in the ‘Dancing Stories’ class the children end the session sitting in a circle singing songs together and saying goodbye. “What’s the magic of dance?” Tortora asks her troupe of tiny dancers. “No words!” they say, giggling, smiling, their seeing eyes shining. Shhhh…
For more information about Suzi Tortora’s work, or for a class schedule, visit her website.