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Stillness in Dance/Movement Therapy: Potentiating Creativity on the Edge and in the Void



Creativity, at times, flows freely amongst individuals. However, at other times, creativity waivers on the edge of meaning and nothingness. This manuscript explores Eastern and Western philosophies associated with void, the thin line between dialectical phenomena, and a space which opens up for creativity. These theories of creativity will be observed through a dance/movement therapy (DMT) paradigm examining the concept of stillness within movement and particularly within a DMT session. A brief review of the following phenomena will be considered: the fertile void, the dialectical edge, and potential space. Consideration will be given to the notion of stillness as a tool for creativity in DMT and supported by case vignettes.
American Journal of Dance Therapy
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Stillness inDance/Movement Therapy: Potentiating
Creativity ontheEdge andintheVoid
© American Dance Therapy Association 2019
Creativity, at times, flows freely amongst individuals. However, at other times, crea-
tivity waivers on the edge of meaning and nothingness. This manuscript explores
Eastern and Western philosophies associated with void, the thin line between dia-
lectical phenomena, and a space which opens up for creativity. These theories of
creativity will be observed through a dance/movement therapy (DMT) paradigm
examining the concept of stillness within movement and particularly within a DMT
session. A brief review of the following phenomena will be considered: the fertile
void, the dialectical edge, and potential space. Consideration will be given to the
notion of stillness as a tool for creativity in DMT and supported by case vignettes.
Keywords Creativity· Fertile void· Dialectical phenomena· Potential space·
Dance/movement therapy· Stillness
There has been much debate over a universal definition of creativity as well as
the components which help give it form (Runco & Jaeger, 2012). Hagman (2005)
defined creativity as “the psychological processes of the artist that result in the crea-
tion of new, aesthetically legitimate works of art” (p. 61). Franken (1998) defines
creativity as “the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibili-
ties that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and enter-
taining ourselves and others…. For me, creativity is more an expression of moti-
vation than of talent” (p. 354). Creativityis a combination of the initiation of the
psychological processes coupled with the generation and expression of motivation
that underlie the meaning of creativity for the purposes of this paper.
An assumption can be made that the manifestation of creativity in dance/move-
ment therapy (DMT) is often perceived through a lens of mobility. What if, how-
ever, that notion is challenged and we embrace creativity through stillness? Rather
* Jacelyn Biondo
1 College ofNursing andHealth Professions, Creative Arts Therapies, Drexel University, 1601
Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA19102, USA
American Journal of Dance Therapy
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than interpreting stillness as stuckness, this theoretical paper suggests that moments
of stillness are an incubation period for the creative process. The Eastern concept of
the fertile void, as discussed by Van Dusen (1958), explores the hole or emptiness in
therapy as a potential place of creativity and progression. The fertile void creates a
therapeutic space for creativity similarly to that of Israelstam’s (2007) phenomenon
of the dialectical edge. Between or amongst the dialectical standpoints lies growth
potential through exploration of the dichotomous stances. Both the fertile void
and the dialectical edge seem to align with Winnicott’s (1953) theory of potential
space. This paper is an exploration of stillness as a potential place of creativity in
DMT, integrating theories of the fertile void (Van Dusen, 1958), the dialectical edge
(Israelstam, 2007), and potential space (Winnicott, 1953). Future implications for
stillness in DMT will be considered including case vignettes supporting this theory.
Philosophical Perspectives ofVoid
Upon first thought in Western philosophies, a void can be imagined as a negative
space or having negative connotation: something lacking or missing that would have
been valued.
Subtly the culture of the West teaches one to fear and avoid blankness, emp-
tiness, and to fill space as much as possible with our action with objects …
In the Orient emptiness may have a supreme value in and of itself. It can be
trusted. It can be productive. (Van Dusen, 1958, p. 54)
Van Dusen’s (1958) concept of a hole or void in the therapeutic process is explored
through differing Eastern and Western philosophical perspectives. The dualistic
viewpoints associate Western conception of this void as negative; paradoxically,
Eastern thought embraces the void and celebrates the potential for growth associated
with such a void.
The concept of a void in Western psychoanalysis may imply a deficit within
the patient or the course of treatment. When related to the psychotherapeutic pro-
cess, a void can conceivably be related to avoidance, distancing, or even feel-
ings of emptiness or loss. This dates back to the inception of psychoanalysis and
Freud’s concept of orality, which he associated with regression (Lear, 2005).
“Freud discovered [the void] in orality, regression, the going back to an infantile
state” (Van Dusen, 1958, p. 52). Freud went so far as to associate the oral stage
not only as a void, but also a stage in which one “devour[s]” (Ricour, 1970, p.
131). In the therapeutic process, a void can signify lack of ego strength particu-
larly with regards to people with schizophrenia, whose void often further dehu-
manizes them. Western psychoanalytic viewpoints of a void suggest not only a
lack of progression, but a significant regression, with implications of reverting
back to the womb and therefore a weakness or negative vulnerability (Van Dusen,
1958). Moreover, Western notions of loss are associated with such holes: loss of
time, loss of self, loss of direction, and loss of control. The Western psychothera-
peutic process often tends to encourage filling the space rather than embracing
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American Journal of Dance Therapy
it. However, those with creativity are not only able to tolerate the empty space,
but unearth something new from it (Van Dusen, 1958). With the exception of the
creative arts therapies, the concept of empty space in the Western belief system is
often viewed as something to be filled, rather than something to inspire creation.
Paradoxically, Eastern philosophy emphasizes the notion of the void as posi-
tive and sees it as a place for change in the therapeutic process. It is referenced
as the “fertile void,” which has a positive relationship to and influence on the
therapeutic process (Van Dusen, 1958, p. 52). The Eastern philosophical perspec-
tive of a void implies that the empty space holds both questions and answers.
Exploration of such depths of the void can illuminate the essential purpose of the
void, bringing forth new knowledge to those exploring. Van Dusen (1958) sug-
gested that if patients were to explore the void at a leisurely pace, he or she might
develop further insights in that space. It is those who hasten their time in the void
that become engulfed by it. Van Dusen’s (1958) suggestion to explore that which
one fears in order to foster change and growth is resonant of Israelstam’s (2007)
phenomena of the dialectical edge.
Dialectical Phenomena
Israelstam (2007) used supporting literature, nature metaphors, and clinical illus-
trations to outline his theory of creativity and the phenomena of the dialectical
edge. He began with an image of the Australian forest burned by wildfires and
used this metaphor to explain the dual, simultaneous feelings of devastation cou-
pled with that of excitement for growth potential. Banksia seedlings emerging
from the ashes of the burnt forest create vivid imagery of this theory that sug-
gested something will rise out of seemingly nothing. This growth, only possi-
ble through destruction, is the underlying tenet to the philosophical perspective
of dialectical phenomena, dialectical edge, and the potential for the therapist to
become “dialectically attuned” (Israelstam, 2007, p. 592). Such growth through
destruction parallels creation from nothingness.
The definition of dialectic identifies that opposition is what “creates, informs,
perseveres and negates” relational dynamics (Israelstam, 2007, p. 592; Ogden, 1992,
p. 208). Dialectical phenomena have a unique relationship of both supporting and
opposing one another, which creates significant dynamics within a relationship.
Klein, Freud, and Bion were all psychoanalysts who used the concept of dialectic
phenomena; however, particular attention of the use of this theory is allocated to
Winnicott (Israelstam, 2007). Although Winnicott did not use the phrase dialectic
phenomena, many of his concepts aligned with those of this perspective.
Winnicott’s (1953) concept of potential space aligns with the phenomenon of
the dialectical edge and the fertile void as they all potentiate creativity. The poten-
tial space is a place of tension and criticality with regards to moving towards either
destruction or creativity. It is the therapeutic experience of a patient confronting his
or her own dialectical phenomena (Israelstam, 2007; Winnicott, 1953).
American Journal of Dance Therapy
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Winnicottian Theory
Winnicott (1953) discussed his phenomena of transitional objects and transi-
tional space as the first “not-me” concept a baby experiences, which manifests
through play. This transitional space holds the potential for creativity, translat-
ing Winnicott’s (1953) phenomenon of transitional space into the therapeutic
space. Furthering the potential for creativity is the concept of the good enough
mother who begins by consistently attuning to the infant’s needs and gradually
lessening her attunement (Winnicott, 1953). This introduces frustration/frustra-
tion tolerance into an infant’s repertoire, slowly teaching the infant to cope with
life. Within this place of frustration, the infant experiences her/his own dialecti-
cal edge “since incomplete adaptation to need makes objects real, that is to say
hated as well as loved” (Winnicott, 1953, p. 94). The good enough mother is
manifested as Israelstam’s (2007) “dialectically attuned therapist” (p. 596).
The tension developed within the frustration suggests that the incomplete-
ness, the disruption of continuity, can create a space for creativity. Within this
“incomplete gestalt,” a need for holding develops (Israelstam, 2007, p. 595).
Holding decreases the anxieties which may inhibit play and thus creativity.
Ogden (2004) described holding as follows:
Holding, for Winnicott, is an ontological concept that he uses to explore
the specific qualities of the experience of being alive at different devel-
opmental stages as well as the changing intrapsychic-interpersonal means
by which the sense of continuity of being is sustained over time. (Ogden,
2004, p. 1350)
Holding can be psychologically difficult for Mother; therefore, she must be
aware of this difficulty and healthy enough to support it (Ogden, 2004). Hold-
ing space in the dialectical edge and being receptive to creativity is the role of
the “dialectically attuned therapist” (Israelstam, 2007, p. 596). The dialectically
attuned therapist processes the patient’s dialectical phenomena in order to foster
the creative process. This is where sense is made of the dialectical phenomena.
Holding can also be conceived of as a fertile void in which the parameters of the
void become the container. In describing space, Lao Tzu stated, “Clay is fash-
ioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness, that their use depends”
(Tzu, 1891, p. 56).
Israelstam (2007) stated, “Life and death, and their related dialectics, could
hardly appear more opposite, yet are defined by one another. They are so close,
sharing opposite sides of the same coin, yet never fully integrated” (p. 592).
This is comparable to the analogy of night and day noting that the two “alternate
naturally and spontaneously” (Van Dusen, 1958, p. 56). The open space for crea-
tivity within the potential space is where the dialectics meet (Israelstam, 2007).
A creative capacity lies within the void (Van Dusen, 1958), as the potential for
creativity and growth lies within the dialectical edge (Israelstam, 2007). Either
or both can occur when the potential space is nurtured (Winnicott, 1953).
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Theoretical Overlap
Both theories of the fertile void and the dialectical edge exist in a relationship
of duality. The dualistic nature of the fertile void is that of the Eastern versus
the Western philosophies related to the concept of a void; the Eastern philoso-
phy sees the benefits and potential within the void, whereas the Western phi-
losophy highlights the desire to fill the void (Van Dusen, 1958). The dialectical
edge embraces the dichotomy of emotions: devastation and excitement (Israel-
stam, 2007). Both phenomena host tensions that arise: that of a desire to fill the
void (Van Dusen, 1958) and tensions that arise when two dialectics converge
and one must decide how to proceed (Israelstam, 2007). At this point in both
phenomena, tensions initially increase, however, are cathected with embrace.
Here, both frustration tolerance and change potential increase (Israelstam, 2007;
Van Dusen, 1958). This transitional point makes way for an introduction of and
capacity for creativity and is often held in a potential space (Winnicott, 1953).
Creativity supports an exploration of unconscious material, which allows for
places of growth and change (Israelstam, 2007; Van Dusen, 1958; Winnicott,
DMT Implications
As DMT is not manualized, and practitioners often work improvisationallypend-
ing their populations’ needs, DMT sessions often present moments of choice: in
which direction will this go next? This is often a time when participants are
presented with dialectics, warranting a decision to be made regarding moving
towards that which is comfortable or uncomfortable. Oftentimes, participants in
a DMT session will be wary of proceeding towards that which is uncomfortable.
Paucity of movement may occur at this point, which may be representative of
a fertile void. The concept of the fertile void may manifest as silence within a
verbal psychotherapy session (Van Dusen, 1958) and stillness in a DMT session.
My suggestion is that dance/movement therapists embrace and encourage still-
ness within the DMT session. As clinicians, one association we may have with
stillness is freezing as it relates to stress, anxiety, or trauma. Although the freeze
response has been researched less than that of the fight/flight response, it proves
to holds value in adaptation and coping (Schmidt, Richey, Zvolensky, & Maner,
2009). A more in-depth look at the freeze response and implications of repre-
sentation in stillness could certainly increase our awareness of it in DMT and be
one direction for future research. Perhaps moments of stillness can give shape
to that which may be perceived as initially difficult, however, with patience will
bloom into growth. Support for stillness and space in DMT sessions can allow
for fantasies to wander amidst a container that holds patiently. If stillness in
DMT leads to wandering fantasies, perhaps creativity and unconscious explora-
tion would ensue.
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Clinical Vignettes
Vignette #1
In a clinical session I facilitated with young adult men in a residential treatment
facility, resistance led to stillness, which then led to creativity. Following a therapist-
led movement warm-up, the young men were asked where they felt the group should
go next. One group member said, “We should take a nap.” To the surprise of the
young men, I obliged this request and pretended to sleep in my chair. The young
men all followed my lead and we all sat in silence, eyes closed, with no movement.
After a pause of quite a few minutes the same group member popped up out of his
chair and said, “OK, we can dance now.” He then proceeded to engage in a vast
array of spontaneous movements that his typical movement vocabulary did not
hold. Although at the moment I was unaware of it, when we approached a dialec-
tical edge—do we leave the containment of a warm-up and proceed into thematic
development—the fertile void was utilized by the group to hold, support, and even-
tually evoke creativity. Perhaps it was an allowance of stillness that incubated safety
and inspired creativity. For this population and this group in particular, a common
and frequent goal was to increase spontaneity, increase creativity, and increase self-
expression. As I held the space through my own stillness, I nurtured the potential
space for the group participants. The fertility of the void inspired progression in the
group. At that moment, my role as the good enough mother suggested a relinquish-
ing of authority and an independence and motivation for one of the participants to
create change through movement. Outwardly, this may seem minute to onlookers;
however, it was actually a turning point for that group member to move towards and
through what was once distressful for him—participation and spontaneity in DMT.
He found himself in a void, which proved fertile, and danced on that dialectical
edge of comfort—resistance of movement—and discomfort—spontaneity through
movement. His spontaneity fostered increased self-esteem and a sense of leadership
within the group process. Had I rejected the suggestion of napping in our DMT ses-
sion, I may have missed a wonderful opportunity to allow the creative process to
Vignette #2
Presence can play such a significant role in group therapy session, both for the
therapist as well as group members. A participant in my recent DMT session has
a diagnosis of schizophrenia with prominent negative symptomatology including
isolation, flat affect, limited spontaneity, decreased interpersonal skills. She had not
been attending group therapy sessions due to these symptoms. However, the patient
decided to join a DMT session after I offered her much encouragement. For most
of the session, the patient sat quietly in her seat with no movement engagement,
however, she remained engaged through her presence. Group members and I often
referred to the patient by name and with an invitation to join us in our dancing.
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Each time she politely declined. I kept reminding the patient that I saw her and her
presence within the group. The patient left group early that day. However, the next
morning, the patient came to our DMT group spontaneously and inquired, “Can we
dance today?” The patient engaged in subtle movements in our session: She stood,
moved her limbs, and at times smiled to her peers. During the verbal processing
portion of our group the patient shared, “I feel connected to other people in this
group. That is a new feeling for me.” Verbal support of the patient’s initial stillness
through both acknowledgement of her presence and invitation to join the movement
gave her a sense of acceptance and presence within the group process. Perhaps being
embraced in her present stillness offered this patient the safety and comfort to tap
into her creativity, allowing for the development of healthy interpersonal relation-
ship building over the course of two group sessions.
The concept of the fertile void can be interpreted as stillness within the process of
a DMT session. As Van Dusen (1958) suggested, the Eastern philosophical view-
point of the fertile void is a place where creativity awaits and can be discovered and
explored at a leisurely pace. Israelstam’s (2007) perspective on creativity includes
dialectical phenomena, dialectical edge, and the dialectically attuned therapist. His
ideas are supported by theories of Winnicott (1953) particularly the good enough
mother and his concept of holding, which is further supported by writings of Ogden
(2004) on Winnicott.
Places of stillness coupled with moments of movement and dance complement
one another to help the patient find balance through which growth can occur. Still-
ness in DMT, similarly to the fertile void in Eastern philosophy and psychoanalysis,
allows for a moment of digestion or gestation from which creativity is birthed. Just
as the neurological components of the human need to rest in order to find balance
(Homann, 2010), so does the mind in the therapeutic process (Caldwell, 2004).
Although I have not come across research substantiating movement within still-
ness particularly in the therapeutic process of DMT sessions, I have found that in
clinical practice dance/movement therapists will often find movement in the still-
est of postures: “Your heart is beating,” “Your lungs are filling with air,” “Your
blood is flowing through your body.” These statements are confirming and inviting
to those who resist an invitation to move, validating that they are in fact partici-
patingin movement. I believe, also, that the use of the fertile void in DMT could
prove to be beneficial in simply accepting and sitting in and with the void. Perhaps
encouraging stillness when it arises within a session will allow the body to quiet, the
mind to wander, and newness and creativity to unfold. Homann (2010) discussed
the neurobiological significance of stillness versus movement with regards to the
arousal and rest necessities of neurological functioning. The brain uses these oppo-
site actions to find balance and regulation. Creativity emerges from states of relaxa-
tion, as when one is hyper-aroused brain functioning is limited. Homann (2010) sug-
gested that DMT techniques might be used to support regulation of the neurological
American Journal of Dance Therapy
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components; the use of quieter or more relaxing interventions could foster tolerance
of self and self-awareness.
When one is faced with the dialectical edge in a therapeutic session, a pause
in the fertile void may be the breath needed to promote progression, processing,
and increased knowledge through creativity. Implications for research around the
effects of stillness in DMT are certainly warranted, as there is currently a paucity of
research on this phenomenon. In reviewing DMT literature, there was an inclination
of stillness acting as an impetus for growth and increased creativity in a DMT ses-
sion with child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Harris (2007) described the use of stillness
after rigorous movements and their support of collective memories for the group,
which triggered further movement explorations and processing of past trauma. Dur-
ing the closure portion of his DMT sessions, stillness and silence often preceded
laughter and verbal processing of the shared experience of the child soldiers (Harris,
2007). Although stillness may have played a role in the progression of the sessions,
the concept of stillness and its potential to initiate and foster creativity had not been
The intention of this article is to stimulate new ways of thinking with regards to
the concept of stillness as it relates to movement. Stillness is such a broad topic that
there are many ways in which future explorations and research could go pertaining
to stillness in DMT. This could include further investigation around the stillness that
accompanies the freeze response, Laban Movement Analysis implications of still-
ness versus movement, and, more directly, implications of movements that directly
follow periods of stillness within a therapeutic session, with indications of the con-
vergence or divergence of the pair.
Further movement explorations in DMT sessions can support these perspec-
tives and foster individual growth in therapy sessions. Although there is a paucity
of research specifically connecting the phenomenon of the dialectical edge, these
concepts frequently arise in clinical practice. With the adoption of a Winnicottian
theoretical framework for DMT, the therapist creates a holding space and assumes
the role of the good enough mother. She allows frustrations to build, increasing the
amount of time allowed before she offers support or containment. The space of frus-
trations that exist invites therapeutic interventions, processing, and growth. This is
also the space in which dialectics surface and patient and therapist investigate edges
with intentions of increasing creativity and gaining new knowledge. In DMT, these
edges can be dually explored both physically and verbally, offering insight through
body and mind. The act of trying on movements and stillness with dialectical con-
notation can allow for a fuller understanding and perhaps decreased fear or repul-
sion of one end of the pole within the dialectical relationship. DMT allows us to
experience dualistic concepts to support an embodied exploration with intentions
of a greater understanding. Van Dusen (1958) saw the potential for creativity within
the fertile void similarly to Israelstam (2007) as he saw the potential for creativity
that lies at the dialectical edge. Finally, Winnicott (1953) offered a potential space to
hold and continue to develop the creative potential.
Conict of interest This author has no potential conflict of interest pertaining to this submission to American
Journal of Dance Therapy.
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American Journal of Dance Therapy
Ethical Approval This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by the author.
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Publisher’s Note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps
and institutional affiliations.
Jacelyn Biondo, MA, BC‑DMT, LPC loves exploring the psyche/soma connection, the relationship between
dance/movement therapy and schizophrenia, the concept of seeing and being seen, and the role of pres-
ence within each of these areas. She is currently pursuing her passion through her doctoral work, conduct-
ing research on best practice for people with acute schizophrenia. Ms. Biondo works as a Senior Allied
Clinical Therapist at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health where she facilitates dance/
movement therapy (DMT) sessions with involuntarily committed adults and provides clinical supervision
for practicum and internship students. She sits on the Board of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American
Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) as Program Coordinator, on the National Board of the ADTA as
the East Coast Nominations Representative, and on the ADTA National Treasury Sub-committee. Ms.
Biondo graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Arts from California Institute of the Arts with a dual major
in dance and photography, her Master of Arts from Drexel University in Dance/Movement Therapy, and
is currently a PhD Candidate in Creative Arts in Therapy at Drexel University. Ms. Biondo is a guest
lecturer at Drexel University where she teaches a 5-hour training module which she created entitled De-
escalation with Dance/Movement Therapy. She has also guest lectured at University of the Arts and Tem-
ple University, has taught at Monmouth University, and has created a DMT course for St. Luke’s College
of Health Sciences.
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This paper explores emerging concepts in affective neuroscience relevant to the understanding of the impact of dance/movement therapy interventions in clinical practice. The work of Steven Porges exploring polyvagal regulation, Antonio Damasio’s work on the concept of somatic markers, recent discoveries in implicit and explicit memory processing, the work of Rizzolati, Iacoboni, Gallese, and others on the mirror neuron system provide insights into the interrelationship between mind and body. These contributions are considered in the context of their relevance to utilize dance/movement therapy interventions from a neurobiological perspective. KeywordsImplicit processing-Vagal regulation-Creativity-Mirroring-Right brain-Dance/movement therapy
A comprehensive overview of object relations theory from a Kleinian perspective. It includes chapters on phantasy, the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, internal objects, and the work of Winnicott on potential space.
A time limited dance/movement therapy group, facilitated by adult males, provided creative movement opportunities and other embodied healing activities for adolescent orphans who, as boys, had been involved in wartime atrocities.This fusion of Western trauma treatment and ritual proved transformative in helping the youths overcome violent impulses and rediscover the pleasure of collective endeavour. Engaging in symbolic expression through attunement and kinaesthetic empathy enabled the teenagers to re£ect on their personal involvement in armed con£ict in a way that encouraged enhanced awareness of belonging to the broader humanity. The intervention therefore fostered conditions that led participants to create a public performance highlighting their dual roles as both victims and perpetrators in the war. This, in turn, advanced their reconciliation within the local community.