Dancing has always been a way for people to express emotions. As far back as the nineteenth century, the therapeutic benefits of dance became recognised. In the 1940s, a woman called Marian Chace living in the United States, inspired the official use of dance as a form of psychotherapy, known as Dance Movement Therapy (DMT).
In West Bengal, a local Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) called Kolkata Sanved (meaning ‘sensitivity’ in Bengali), has embraced DMT as a way to help local girls and women. The organisation was set up by Sohini Chakraborty, a graduate in sociology from Kolkata. Working with girls who had been former prostitutes, she started by trying to teach girls Indian dance. But often, they did not respond to learning classical movements. Instead, she asked them to create ordinary actions from their days with their bodies, like cleaning the floor, or to represent something in nature through dance. In this way, the girls began to open up and express their emotions through movement.
West Bengal lies on India’s border with Bangladesh and Kolkata has become part of an international trafficking route for girls and women in the prostitution trade. Through dance, the NGO has found that women have been able to express extreme emotions of distress and overcome feelings of shame about their bodies. The organisation is also extending its work, introducing sessions for street children, girls growing up in red-light districts and to those living with mental health problems or HIV/AIDS. Workshops are also taken out into the countryside to reach women in rural areas and a girls’ school in Kolkata has introduced DMT to its curriculum. It is hoped that other schools may follow.
One young woman who can testify to the life-changing effects of DMT is Shampa Roy. Now 18 years old, Shampa was orphaned at five and grew up in various children’s homes. She was constantly in trouble, becoming violent with other children and fighting at the smallest provocation. “I was always angry,” she explained, until she discovered dance through the work of the Kolkata NGO. With the help of DMT, Shampa learnt to cope with her traumatic past. Now she has become an assistant instructor for the Kolkata Sanved organisation.
Among Bengalis, unlike in other parts of India, spontaneous dancing is rare, even at religious or social celebrations. But the founder of Kolkata Sanved, Sohini Chakraborty, is in no doubt of the benefits which DMT can bring to Indian girls and women suffering from all kinds of different strains, even the stresses of long working days. Sohini has seen how DMT helps women cope with mental and even physical pain, and says that for the women she works with, dance therapy is “liberating”.