When I became “Alice” in their wonderland


When I became “Alice” in their wonderland

                       A journey into the world of imagination and back to reality through dance movement

                                                                                                                                            –Ranjani Santhanam

Little did I know that after an enriching few months at CMTAI’s dance movement therapy course, a fascinating journey awaited me – a journey into the world of someone’s imagination. My mind was tingling with excitement, my heart was jumping with joy and Tripura’s wise words were ringing in my ears. I set off to pursue my internship with four different groups. But the one I am going to write about here is a special one. Not because it involved people with special needs but because I found a special place among a group of people who had created a magical wonderland of their own. I suddenly felt like “Alice”.

I had only heard about schizophrenia. The kind of image many of us have can be credited to how people with mental illnesses are depicted in movies. There is this image of a stereotypical person walking around like a zombie, hysterical at times, waiting to harm everyone at the drop of a hat. What I saw at Richmond Fellowship society was far from this. And a lot of credit goes to the staff there. Seemingly normal people were milling around the place, going about minding their business, once in a while stopping to find out who I was.

Though I was armed with all the knowledge and the support of the staff, there was a strange sense of apprehension as I had not worked with a group like that before. I was embarking on the journey of my internship for my dance movement therapy certificate.

I was shown a large room filled with enough space to move around. I set up my laptop and music system and waited eagerly for the clients to show up. Ten people walked in and greeted me warmly. And all my apprehension vanished.

Meeting the Rabbit, Cheshire cat, Queen, Mad hatter et al

The group was excited and eager to start the session. We spoke about childhood tales and how dance had influenced us. Some of them were worried since they thought dance was a skill that was difficult to master. We spoke about dance being not just about choreography but more about unique, authentic movements. That seemed to reassure and motivate them. And so we started our journey together.

We began by using movement to tell our little tales. Some of them spoke fluently as they moved; one person did not make eye contact while two of them used very small and slow movements. The group consisted of both male and female clients who were on remission from various mental illnesses mainly schizophrenia with comorbidities of depression/mental retardation. I decided to work on improving their social skills, flexibility and eye contact.

The journey through wonderland

We spent only ten hours together spread over two months but it felt like I had become an integral part of their lives. They looked forward to the sessions and so did I.

Whilst we had a peppy song and dance routine to warm up in every session, the theme varied every day. The group loved to come up with movements using different body parts. Initially we stuck to group work and I introduced pairing activities slowly in order to help the group work on eye contact and socializing. Using movement based activities and props helped them shed their inhibitions. The group started to mingle and form new pairs instead of pairing up with the same people that they were comfortable with.

Props were introduced mainly to improve their flexibility but it seemed to take away their depression more than anything else. The group articulated their emotions after every activity and with each passing session the words reflected deeper emotions. While “happy” or “fresh” seemed to be the initial reaction from the participants, “proactive”, “enthusiastic”, “stupendous”, “energized”, “tired”, “awesome” started emerging. The group was able to verbalize feelings better with movement.

I introduced spatial awareness to the group. The group took a great liking to it. They were thrilled to move their hands in the upper/higher and lower spaces. We did several activities to explore space. The group had seemed to like disco beats and hence I found several old songs and instrumental music that used disco beats for some of the activities. The choice of music often helped them participate with more enthusiasm. We worked on activities to introduce the concept of personal space and social interaction. After a few sessions, they displayed a heightened sense of spatial awareness.

Using the prop to explore space remained their favorite activity till the end of the series. Well of course, tied in the first spot with it was the use of balloons to express emotions and to work as a team. By this time, even the less vocal clients started to participate and speak up about their feelings and emotions.

It was heart-warming to see how the entire group responded to the emotions of one another and did everything to make the group feel comfortable.

Before we knew, it was the final session of the series. We had a quick recap of activities and I was happy they remembered what to do in each activity. During the prop intro I could see marked improvement in the movement of each client compared to how they had moved in the first session. The client who had restricted movements and had shied away from eye contact initially, amazed me by making eye contact and talking about how he felt. He usually stayed in his own world and remained withdrawn. But he surprised all of us by saying that DMT had helped him see his own hands and legs finally. I was very touched by his statement. Most of them spoke about how they practiced yoga and found it beneficial but moving to music had been even better. Some of the women said they had felt happiness in their lives after dancing again. One of the boys said he danced away his depression and had started to listen to music more often.

That magic potion called “dance movement”

Some of these clients sometimes preferred to be silent or withdrawn and at times aloof outside of class. At times before class, they would ask if they could just sit and watch without indulging in movement. I would oblige. However, the moment the music would come on or the props were pulled out; they would quickly join the group. During the session, I would see them become different people. They worked together as a team, helped each other, trusted each other and laughed like little children. Some of the guys would be very chivalrous and twirl me and the other ladies around in a gentlemanly manner during partner work. The very same guys would look socially ill-at-ease outside. Dance movement simply seemed to pull them across the chasm between their world and reality, albeit gently and with their consent. It seemed to melt away the fear of being judged, they seemed to be perfectly at ease, being there and enjoying the moment. It would feel like watching slow motion images of happy moments from movies and I would step out of the picture and watch them move. The smiles, those moves, the simplicity and sometimes even the awkwardness moved slowly in front of my eyes, painting frames after frames.

As I walked out of the building, more clients came up and asked to be a part of the dance classes (that is what they like to call it) J I promised to be back and walked away stronger from my experience with an amazing group.

The travel back to reality

 Alice’s story ended with her waking up from her dream and getting back to reality. Well the getting back to reality was the common part in our stories. I had come back richer from the experience, back into the “real” world.

There were a couple of times when I was overwhelmed during my journey with them. Like the time when the client told the group that DMT had given him a chance to see his own hands and legs. I thought of how we all take our perfectly normal bodies and emotions for granted until they get abused beyond repair either by us or by others. And here was a man happy just to be able to see his hands and feet? Another instance was when I met this lady in another group of home makers I was working with. As we got talking, we figured that her son had been part of the special needs group that I worked with. She told me her son had felt less depressed ever since he started attending the movement therapy session. She had not known that it was me who had worked with her son. And in my sessions above, the very same boy had spoken about his mother the day he was happy and told the group how much he loved her. I was overwhelmed to see both sides of the same story, the unspoken emotions between the mother and son and the love they had for each other.

I learnt, I evolved and I had grown with this group. An untouched fantasy world that they choose to live in was really beautiful. I realized that Lewis Carroll’s words “Imagination is the only weapon against reality” rang so true in their case. The glimpses of reality I showed to the group probably faded in front of the fantasy they had given me a sneak peek into. But I am so glad they let me show them those streaks of reality. It probably would help them find ways to melt the gap between their world and the rest of us.

And so … they lived … rather we lived happily ever after


  • Most of my journeys would be incomplete without my sisters and their support.
  • The staff of Richmond Fellowship society (RFS) who trusted me and gave me a free hand to work with their clients and I am ever thankful to them.
  • Tripura Kashyap for her wisdom and guidance. The group at CMTAI who made the dance therapy course an experience of a lifetime.
  • My friend Sarayu for introducing me to the wonderful group at RFS

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