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How A D.C. Dancer Helped People Heal Through Movement

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Sharon Chaiklin is a pioneer of dance therapy, which she practiced since the 1960s.
Jacob Fenston/WAMU
Sharon Chaiklin is a pioneer of dance therapy, which she practiced since the 1960s.

Sharon Chaiklin always loved to dance, but she found her true calling when, in the early 1960s, a friend told her about something new that was going on at a psychiatric hospital in Washington. It was called dance therapy.

In 1964, Chaiklin first made the trip down from her home in Baltimore, to St. Elizabeth’s, then a large federal hospital in Southeast Washington.

Chaiklin came to St. Elizabeth’s to meet a woman named Marian Chace. Chace was a professional dancer, who, during World War II, began working with soldiers returning from battle and others suffering mental and physical ills. Chace discovered dance could be not just entertainment, but also therapy. At the time, it was a strange and new idea.

“Nobody else around spoke about it or understood it,” says Chaiklin.

But doctors and psychiatrists in Washington took note of Chace’s success with patients. In 1942, she was invited to work at St. Elizabeth’s. She was still there years later, when Chaiklin became her student there.

“We would walk in to the unit, and as soon as you walk in, it’s happening. Because you're noticing, what’s the feel of the unit, what’s the tenor? Is it tense or is it relaxed? Is it noisy? Are people talking to each other, are they isolated? At that time, you carried a big heavy record player, and records, and you set up your table with your record player, and you'd put on some music. Chace would always start with a waltz. She said the waltz is a good thing to start with because people don’t have their own special memories of particular music. Waltzes are kind of bland, they can be boring, but nothing much more than that, and it’s a good thing to start there. And so that’s what she usually did.”

Chaiklin says dance had always been part of her life.

“As a young child, I just danced, it was just what I did, and I think part of it had to do with the fact that I wasn’t particularly verbal, and so dance was a very important part of my being able to express whatever feelings I had at any time.”

Chaiklin got her first formal dance training in college, at Sarah Lawrence in New York. She went in wanting to be a social worker, and came out with a degree in modern dance.

“The basis of my future work came at that time, because as I went through the process of learning about dance and dancing I found that I was changing personally.”

Watching how movement changed her, she says, she came to understand the transformative power of dance, beyond its entertainment value.

“Once you start moving in your body, there is nothing that separates you from yourself. It is you. To be able to move in ways that are unfamiliar to you begins to change the sense of who you are. I mean, to move through space really is a very aggressive action and not everybody can do it comfortably.”

She continued working as a dance therapist into her 60s, and was performing dance into her 70s.

“Dance is one place that you can’t keep — well you can keep going quite a while actually, as I did.”

Since Chaiklin started practicing dance therapy 50 years ago, a lot has changed in the field. For one thing, there are now formal academic training programs, at seven colleges and universities in the United States. There are now more than 1,000 registered dance therapists working in the country.

Music: "In My Life" by John Bayless from Bach on Abbey Road

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