The Expressive Body in Life, Art and Therapy: Working with Movement, Metaphor and Meaning

by Daria Halprin

(Philadelphia, PA, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Ltd., 2003, 248 pages, ISBN: 1 84310 737, Price $24.95)

Reviewed by Kate T. Donohue, Ph.D., REAT
Arts in Psychotherapy. Vol. 30(4), 2004

“Our bodies contain our life stories just as they contain bones, muscle, organ, nerves and blood.” (Halprin, 2003, p.17).

In her new book, The Expressive Body in Life, Art and Therapy: Working with Movement, Metaphor and Meaning, Daria Halprin creates bridges between the body, art making and conscious living with an architectural precision. Her book is a welcome addition to the growing contributions by the pioneers in the field of expressive arts therapy, and it provides an extremely clear map of her movement-oriented approach. We enter this map through the body as she describes her life story and how it influences her approach. As the body’s architect, she builds a strong foundation with her philosophy. Daria creates a multi-layered structure as she describes this approach and then, embellishes it with stories, case studies and applications.

Daria begins her book with a personal bridge from her life experience as the daughter of the dancer, Anna and the environmental architect, Lawrence Halprin, to her expressive arts therapy work. Raised in the epicenter of shifting cultures in the Northern California avant-garde political/art scene, the author reveals the passions and wounds that fueled her approach. Here we see how she begins to use her art, dance and creative process to address her suffering, which is the foundation of expressive arts therapy.

As Jack Weller points out in his foreword, Daria directly addresses one of the major challenges of expressive arts therapy, “ the lack of theory, of a developed historical and theoretical base of operations” (p.9). In Part Two: Roots and Cross-Pollination, the author constructs the historical foundation of her philosophy. Starting with shamanism, she addresses three pivotal questions: “How do we understand and explore the tensions and conflicts between opposing forces in the individual and in society? How can these forces be reconciled in creative and productive ways, and what part does the body, emotion and imagination play in this search?” (P.36).

In each chapter of Part Two, Daria interlaces many artistic and psychological perspectives. With her chapter on psychology, she highlights the Psychoanalytic, Existential/Humanistic, and Transpersonal ideas that have supported her. This chapter is an excellent overview of numerous dense theories. Daria distills the essence of each orientation and explains how each distillation strengthens her approach. This chapter forges a strong bridge between the arts and psychology.

Giving due respect to the uniqueness of her body-oriented approach, there are two chapters dedicated to Somatic Psychology and Dance. Again, the author provides an impressive survey of this body-centered approach to psychology and art. Making the bridge between dance and psychology, she loops back and forth between dancers and dance therapists, exploring the power and magnitude of a body orientation with a dancer’s grace and flow.

In the final chapter of Part Two, the “Art World’s” shifts and tensions are explored as cultural fluctuations that gave impetus to the expressive arts therapy paradigm. This paradigm emphasizes a postmodern approach of de-centering and interconnections. Daria pays special homage to the contributions of Paolo Knill, one of the pioneers of the field of expressive arts therapy. He has been the trailblazer teaching us about weaving the arts and passionately placing the arts in the center of healing work. Standing solidly in the body and in the expressive arts therapy paradigm, the author develops her special brand of Movement-oriented Expressive Arts Therapy. “Movement-based Expressive Arts Therapy works quite actively to bring ‘inner’ sensations, feelings and image to ‘outer’ action by employing a full range of creative arts…. This approach also focuses on the creative process as psychological mirror….”(P.65).

As an Expressive Arts therapist and educator, I am deeply appreciative of Part Two. This section is a clear and well-distilled description of her philosophical underpinnings. It will help young expressive arts therapists understand the historical roots of our field. Daria has given us a wonderful example of how our philosophical ideas can fuel and influence the ways we choose to work.

Now that the integrity of the philosophical foundation has been secured, the author moves into the heart of her work: the actual practice. In Part Three, I sensed some ancestral roots emerging: the somatic architect seemed to be designing here. Daria develops an intricate system in her approach. She starts with the importance and power of the creative process, imagination, the unconscious and metaphor. Then she layers this with the three levels of response and awareness through the physical body, the emotional body, the mental body and their interconnections. With an elegant precision, Daria draws a map of one’s inner experience, then interlaces it with a five part process: identification, confrontation, release, change and growth. This map gives us a way of “tracking and facilitating how the internal experience is expressed in the exterior world” (p.122). As a person moves along the five-part process, she is engaged in an integrated arts process that Daria coined the “Psychokinetic Imagery Process” of Movement, Drawing and Poetic Dialogues.

Each one of these layers pulsates in Part Three with pictures of movement, drawing and poems. I agree with Jack Weller in his introduction that it was hard to sit still and read this embodied approach. I wanted to move, draw and write and did at times try the examples of processes so generously shared in these later chapters. Part Three is very inspiring as we witness through photo, image and poem the transformations of psychic energies through the five part Psychokinetic process.

In chapter’s 10 and 11, “The Body Parts: Metaphors and Living Artfully with the Wounded Self”, the author maps the body and how it can metaphorically tell our stories. These chapters are excellent for those unfamiliar with movement to learn a step-by-step process of body-oriented expressive arts therapy work. Here we can see that within her very structured directive frame she keeps the creative process alive by providing space for the imagination and unconscious to find their metaphor and voice. She describes this as the “symbolic resonances” of the body.

As the book draws to a close, the author begins to flesh out her approach by offering several case studies. I appreciated these depictions, but wished she had given us more flesh-and-blood case presentations. I had hoped she might grapple more deeply with the issues that all creative and expressive arts therapists deal with each day - how to translate theory to practice. Having experienced this approach, I know personally how powerful it is, but it may not work for all clients without modification. This would have been a good opportunity to discuss why her structured approach was a better choice for these people than a more process and flow-oriented approach, such as Authentic Movement. In Fran Levy’s book, Dance and other Expressive Arts Therapies, she gives us in-depth case studies, which weave arts and psychological theory into the discussion. Daria gave us such a great distillation of theories, I would have liked her to have woven the theory into the case presentation and perhaps give us more of a sense of how this approach can be used with different issues or populations. Perhaps this might be the second book for Daria, a case study presentation, demonstrating her years of experience with this approach.

As I write this review, our world in engaged in war. So the author’s final chapter could not be more timely, “Art as a Healing Force in the World”. As we struggle in a time of war and attempt to heal from the trauma of war, the arts have proven they will lead the way, helping us, “…celebrate what life has given and become the human beings we are meant to be.” (P.231).

Daria’s book is wonderful contribution to the field of expressive arts therapy. It is an excellent introduction to the ways the body can lead and how other arts can be integrated into an expressive arts process. For those seasoned in expressive arts therapy, it offers an in-depth architectural map of an expressive art therapy approach. I would encourage my students, colleagues and those interested in learning more about expressive arts therapy to read this book. With architectural precision and dancer’s grace, she offers us a method in which our bodies and the expressive arts can so eloquently tell and heal our life stories.

Levy, F. (Ed.). (1995). Dance and Other Expressive Therapies. New York: Routledge.

Kate T. Donohue, Ph.D., REAT
Psychologist and Registered Expressive Arts Therapist in a Jungian Oriented Private Practice
Founding Expressive Arts Therapy Faculty Member at the California Institute of Integral Studies
Present Address: 57 Post St, Ste. 602, San Francisco, CA 94104 US