A lot of important steps have been taken on these dance floors.

The bright, airy studios inside the Hancock Center for Dance/Movement Therapy easily could be mistaken as a place for choreographing a performance.

But in fact they are places of release and self-expression, treatment and healing. For three decades the center has used movement as a form of psychotherapy, helping clients deal with everything from postpartum depression and grief to childhood tantrums, gender issues, psychosis, the effects of sexual abuse, ADHD and dementia.

The Hancock Center will celebrate its 30th anniversary with an open house on Oct. 3 — an opportunity, it hopes, to help Madison better understand its history, expertise and methods for bettering lives.

“We serve a very wide range of people, from developmentally delayed to neurologically impaired, people who are survivors of all kinds of abuse, children, toddlers on up to senior citizens,” said Robyn Lending Halsten, one of seven licensed dance therapists at the center.

“Our training is broad enough because we use the language of movement, which is universal,” she said. “The beauty of dance/movement therapy is that we don’t always depend on verbal expression — language — for people to have meaningful expression. We know from our dance histories and dance backgrounds that movement can precede behavioral change and emotional change in people.”

Dance/movement therapists use a wide range of tools and methods to help clients reach deep inside — an approach called “bottom-up processing,” starting with the body and emotions rather than the intellect.

“Sometimes working with the body is the way to change what’s going on” in the mind, Halsten said. “Depression. Anxiety. Suicidal issues. We help people to find a new way to process and open up new pathways.”

Since the Hancock Center opened in 1983, Madison psychologist Erica Serlin has been referring clients who might benefit from movement therapy in an environment she describes as “nurturing and safe.”

“Adults with a history of trauma can have the results of trauma residing in their bodies in all kinds of ways,” said Serlin, who has a sister who is also a dance therapist.

“I’ve also sent kids (to Hancock Center) who are on the autism spectrum who don’t have good social skills and good social communication, who have gotten benefit out of learning where their bodies are in space and how to make contact with other people.”

In order to practice dance/movement therapy, or DMT, dance/movement therapists must have a master’s degree, with courses approved by the certification board of the American Dance Therapy Association. In Wisconsin, dance therapists who are board-certified are also licensed in psychotherapy.

“Wisconsin is the only state where dance therapists are licensed to practice psychotherapy by virtue of being dance therapists, and I think that’s largely because of Hancock Center,” said the center’s founder, Deborah Thomas.

Located at 16 N. Hancock St. just off East Washington Avenue, the Hancock Center is located in a large Victorian house built in the 1880s for a local grocer’s daughter. Therapy at the center is generally not covered by insurance, but many clients qualify for free or reduced rates thanks to the center’s endowment, donations and grants from agencies such as the Madison Community Foundation and United Way of Dane County.

Along with private and group psychotherapy sessions, the center holds classes such as “Creativity and Self Empowerment” for women, lessons in the Alexander Technique for performing artists or arthritis sufferers and “Movers and Shakers,” a therapeutic class for adults with developmental issues.

In a recent “Movers and Shakers” session taught by dance/movement therapist Mariah Meyer LeFeber, participants sat in a large circle and began with a “check-in,” with each person talking about something new in their lives as they tossed around a squishy, spiky rubber ball. The session grew more jolly and more rigorous with the use of props such as an expandable “breath ball” to promote deep breathing, a giant ring of Lycra known as the “stretch cloth” and a colorful nylon parachute.

Everybody got a notable workout, but also a chance to connect with one another, feel like they are being heard and simply relish the joy of physical movement, LeFeber said.

“I think the biggest (goal) for me is just the social connection,” she said.

The center’s long-term staff — most have been working there for 20 years or more — has responded to changes and trends in the community over the years, said administrative assistant Laura Rogers, who’s worked at the center since 1988.

Since 1993, the center’s “In-School Violence Prevention and Therapy Program” has reached thousands of students in 20 Madison schools, said Hancock Center executive director Rena Kornblum.

The program, conducted in school classrooms by Hancock Center dance/movement therapists, is designed to decrease bullying and help students build empathy, manage anger, resist negative peer pressure and learn self-calming skills.

Dance/movement therapist Jeanine Kiss “does a great job with some of our most challenging students,” said Schenk Elementary kindergarten teacher Pam Austin, who invited the program back to Schenk this fall because of its effectiveness.

“I have seen my students in the past use the program’s calming strategies through the entire school year,” Austin said in an email. “It is amazing to think how far they can come with just a short time of targeted instruction in the areas of spatial awareness, self-control and ignoring distractions.”

Hancock Center also travels to schools for small-group therapy. Back at the center itself, staffers work with hundreds of clients referred by teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, county social workers and mental health centers.

“We don’t teach anyone to dance,” Halsten said. “We’re not interested in the aesthetic — how pretty it looks. We’re interested in people finding their own authentic, meaningful expression.”


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