Jennifer Sterling: Dance/Movement Psychotherapist

December 29, 2020

This month we had the pleasure of speaking with Dance and Movement Psychotherapist Jennifer Sterling about her practice, how it particularly is impactful for black women, and how we can all integrate movement into our daily healing practices. Through the Kintsugi app, users can now log other ways, such as movement or dance, that they may find relaxation and stability outside of talk therapy. After reading our interview with Jennifer, check out the app in the Apple App Store. 

What was your personal wellness journey? 

I started in the nutrition space. I had gone to college and an undergrad started feeling really sick, and physically really tired and run-down, so I saw a bunch of doctors and my primary care physician was like, “Some people are just sick.” I was like that doesn’t seem like an acceptable answer. At that point, I started exploring food as a way of supporting my own wellbeing. I went from eating food that we had farmed and hunted to eating a lot more processed food in college. So my entry into this space was through food and eating and I decided to use that and became a nutritionist when I got a master’s degree in nutrition. As I was working with people, I discovered that food and eating issues are usually rarely about food, so I decided to go back and get a degree in therapy. I didn’t want to do regular talk therapy because I didn’t feel like it was holistic enough or whole-bodied enough for me and it wasn’t something that had helped me at that point significantly. I was also a dancer, so I thought, how do I combine what I feel when I’m moving in a more therapeutic sense, and I discovered dance movement psychotherapy. I thought I can do this whole full-body thing and have movement and therapy combined to really support people who look like me, so that’s how I came to that. 

What does a typical session look like with you as a dance/movement psychotherapist? 

It varies on how comfortable folks are in their bodies. I work a lot with black women who live with depression. I also have a fair amount of clients who have eating disorders so the amount of time we can spend comfortably in our bodies is different. Typically I start with a check-in, and it is more of a movement check-in. If you have to demonstrate how you’re feeling in your body with a simple movement, what might it be? From there, there’s a bit of talking about what’s present for that person and then we try to relate that through movement. I do a fair amount of education around the nervous system so that exploration could be: How did that situation affect your nervous system? Can you demonstrate that in movement? Or where are we now versus where would we like to be and how do we transition through movement from where we are to where we want to be? Sometimes it’s just talking and shifting body posture and breath if that’s what the other person is comfortable with. There’s also movement in the breath and being with that and noticing can be very powerful for some people. So it varies from the more somatic quieter micro-movements to the bigger more expressive work depending on how comfortable the client is. 

Why is this type of therapy impactful to black women and their mental health journey? 

A big part of why I think it is helpful is because it doesn’t require a lot of talking, and, even for myself growing up, there is this idea that you don’t put all your business out in the street. So if I can relate to someone without needing to know all of the intimate details of their life, we can still work through things, we can still resolve trauma, and we can still support the nervous system and emotion regulation with me just reading the body and understanding and being able to analyze what might be happening in the body. Oftentimes I find that to be the gateway in. “Oh, I don’t have to tell you all my business??? I’m in.” 

The other piece of it is culturally in a lot of black communities movement, music, and rhythm are really important. Even going back to chattel slavery there’s been music and movement since then and I’m sure far beyond that point. To be able to incorporate some of those things that are inherent culturally is really important. It affirms for a lot of women that they have resources and they have tools that don’t have to go into what a lot of people are seeing as a more colonized space. At my last session, we played afrobeats, exploring in that way. It makes people feel more comfortable. 

Do you have advice for folks who want to become more active as part of their mental health care but don’t have access? 

I think it starts with redefining movement. A lot of folks when they hear movement or dance they think it has to be something big. One of the things that I explore quite a bit with clients is what is the smallest most doable thing; that’s whether we’re talking about exercise or changing thought patterns or anything. Right now that could be, just sitting here and breathing. Tomorrow it could be putting on my favorite song and having a 5-minute dance party. In the mornings when I can’t get out of bed, maybe it’s just wiggling my fingers and toes. How can I invite some life into my body? How can I explore movement that is already there without much effort? It doesn’t have to be ballet or hip hop or any of those things that we think of as more formal.  What resources do I have access to and what do I have the capacity for at this moment? 

What do you love most about what you do? 

I love that it’s unconventional. I love that I get to, as part of my work, explore people’s own cultural sense and identities or everything that happens for us in our bodies that I think can sometimes be really challenging to tap into on a cognitive level. Who am I? But when we’re moving and exploring it often feels like that happens with some amount of ease. It feels this way to be in this body and I don’t have to think about it too much. If we’re sitting having a conversation about it, it becomes this existential crisis, but if I’m moving in my body, enjoying the music, and feeling safe, it’s just who I am right now in this moment. To be with people in those moments is really powerful for them and also really powerful for me. To have presence with another being and be completely connected and co-regulating on a nervous system level can be really healing. 

Is there anything additional you want about what you do and your practice?

The one thing that I would say that even if you think that this work is not accessible, it doesn’t hurt to reach out and see what’s possible. I know within my own practice, I set up a non-profit collective care fund that supports folks who can’t afford therapy. There are a lot of us in this space that is really trying to make the work accessible. I know a lot of folks don’t reach out because they don’t know if they can afford it or because they don’t have the resources. But within my own practice, I do my best to make sure everybody has access if they want it.

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