Authentic Movement: Embodying the Individual and the Collective Psyche

by Roz Carroll

The universe unfolds in the body, which is its mirror and its creature. (Octavio Paz)
"A group of people sit in a circle, witnessing eight people moving. The movers have their eyes closed. One woman is curled up very tight and still. Another is exploring with her hands, feeling tentatively the grooves on the floor. A man standing very tall makes cutting movements with his arms, rigid as they slice the air. Another man beats a rhythm, with his fingers against different parts of his body. A third man rolls on the floor, rolls into the woman who is feeling her environment. He stops, frozen. She feels his face delicately, sensitively tracing its outline. He begins to cry. Another woman has been swaying, her arms straining upward. She softens her movement, and begins to stroke her own arm. The drumming fingers find the floor, become clawing, scratching movements. Someone crawls towards him, starts clawing with him, at him. They hiss. Another woman is standing very still. After a while she sighs deeply, and begins to rotate her hips, letting out a long, deep cry...."
Authentic Movement creates a space for the emergence of a process through spontaneous movement. As a practice, it bridges many traditions: therapy and meditation, individual and community process, ritual and improvisation. Deriving originally from the work of the pioneering movement therapist Mary Whitehouse, Authentic Movement has been extended by her student Janet Adler into a discipline with an increasing focus on embodying collective consciousness.
The Collective Body
In 'The Collective Body' Adler writes about the need to bring the fruits of personal development back into our membership of a larger community. She points to the shift in world culture within the last century, where "change away from tribal living has accelerated dramatically. For countless centuries preceding this change we belonged before we asked "who am I"? We were born belonging not only to a tribalbody but we belonged to the earthbody."(1)
Adler acknowledges the importance of developing individual awareness as a remarkable aspect of freedom, of the need to throw off the bonds of religious, political and familial rule. But, "This sorting through the parts, a very Western way of understanding, has offered a particular kind of learning, resulting in a particular kind of self-knowledge." She suggests that the loss of community, of the 'sacred circle" has "contributed significantly to the creation of unbearable rage, isolation and despair". The unprecedented task for us now is to find ways to re-enter the sacred circle, to come into conscious membership in the whole, and to be uniquely ourselves within it.
"How we discover this is a great mystery. Willing membership just with our minds cannot create the shift in consciousness for which we long. The shift must be an embodied shift [...] One by one knowing (and knowing implies consciousness), knowing in our bodies that we belong, creates a collective body in which life energy is shared."
Authentic Movement, a practice which has evolved out of dance therapy, provides one way to re-connect to a conscious collective. As a place for individual process, it offers safety to move spontaneously. Viewed as a group practice, it sometimes features extraordinary synchronous events - the coinciding and converging of people's gestures and impulses. Authentic movement is both like and unlike a group of people doing tai chi together. The characteristic form of authentic movement lies in the explicit structure of the process. There is the sense of deep connection to one another. But the movements themselves are unchoreographed, unpredictable, process-oriented. And there is the dependence of the movers on the relationship with the witnesses to provide containment.
The Structure
Authentic Movement has a formal and simple framework. The group is usually divided into movers and witnesses (later swapping roles) working either in pairs or with the witnesses acting as a containing circle for all the movers. There is no music, the mover has to listen to, sense deeply, himself. With eyes closed it is easier to focus inwardly. Moving blindly symbolizes the journey into the unknown. Only if someone is moving very quickly or with some violence, the eyes may be kept open to make sure no-one is hurt. The time for movement may be short - ten to twenty minutes - but the experience can feel very condensed, like a dream.
Afterwards, the movers may draw or model with clay or talk directly about what occurred for them. The witness may respond in movement, or by drawing, or verbally. The subjectivity of her experience is owned through phrases like "I saw....I imagined....I felt....I heard". The witness does not interpret. In the most formal version of Authentic Movement, the witness only comments on material that the mover refers to. In this sense it is not like a psychotherapy group where a group member might go from observing to dynamic interaction with a process. The witness is active in her participation, but contained in her response. The discipline of witnessing supports the mover's drop into the depths of self.
Authenticity and the Emergent Self
"The symbols of the self arise in the depths of the body (Jung, 1940, p.173)
Authentic Movement offers the opportunity to develop a deep, self -sensing awareness. Authenticity is not a goal to be achieved, but rather a constant process of becoming. It is both sought for, through deep attention, and waited for with humility. Each individual has to discover it in their own way - listening, tuning into, internally generated cues...a sensation, an image, an impulse, a feeling. For some it comes as an urge to embody a rhythm, and then the rhythm itself takes them further into unplanned movement.
Mary Whitehouse described the core of the movement experience as the sensation of moving and being moved. " To feel 'I am moving' is to be directed by the ego. To experience "I am moved" is to know the reality of the unconscious. Ideally, both are present in the same is a moment of total awareness, the coming together of what I am doing and what is happening to me." (2) Whitehouse was influenced by her Jungian analysis and by the pioneering modern dancer Mary Wigman. The movement critic John Martin first used the words "authentic movement" in 1933 to describe Wigman's expressionistic dancing: "Its externalisation...comes not by intellectual planning but by feeling through with a sensitive body. The the appearance of entirely authentic movements which are as closely allied to the emotional experience as an instinctive recoil is to an experience of fear."(3) In this sense Wigman's dance was comparable to Method acting.
Whitehouse took this principle of "feeling through" into her movement therapy work, deliberately discarding the word 'dance' as implying a finished product. She encouraged the development of kinesthetic awareness, an embodied internal sense. She also drew on Jung's method of active imagination to invite free association in movement. This allows gestures, impulses and movements to emerge from all levels of conscious and unconscious. The body becomes both vehicle for expression and a sounding board for a deeper sense of self.
For newcomers to Authentic Movement, a sense of self-consciousness and inhibition may be overwhelming initially. Some people find a way to embrace their own paralysis, waiting in the deadness till stirred. Others accept the mechanicalness, the difficulty with letting go control, and then notice when a flicker of something unbidden happens. Rather than being 'authentic' at each moment, movers struggle with moving in and out of the self. In this excerpt from The Diary of a Mover, there is a sense of conscious effort, stiffness and fragmentation in the beginning:
To get started I focussed my awareness through various body parts - noticing first the block or tension, and then, as I tried to release it, connecting it with a feeling or situation [...]
pelvis - felt like a buzzing energy wanting release, too inhibited to do anything, eventually put my feet against the wall and pushed
head - enormous head - weighing me down, very hard to hold up, dropped to one side, sad.
Stiff shoulders. Tried to loosen my right arm, found my left arm covering my chest, protecting my heart.
Arms cradling head, protecting, tender.
My drawing was off a body with the lower half on fire, and the top being protected.
Next day I realised I always have difficulty sitting up straight, and particularly holding my head up.
A few weeks later an image arises more spontaneously: "a noose, something from above pulling out my heart, being led by my heart. As soon as I started talking, I knew it was about passion, the danger of being led by my heart, losing my heart and having it broken or not returned."
Witnessing: Conscious Commitment to Another
Janet Adler took the Whitehouse approach to another level. Developing the role of the witness, giving it to the movers, not just the therapist, was a radical act. It was the first step towards working with the collective, and taking authentic movement out of the realm of therapy. The words of body psychotherapist John Waterstone, writing about witnessing in supervision, are relevant here:
"In existential terms the fact of being seen is essential to the process of existence. The individual ex-ists, ie. stands out via the dynamic process of showing the self to the self and to others. The self is defined (comes into being) [...] by being /doing in the eyes of another, in the eyes of the self, and in the witnessing of the impact of the self on the other."
For Adler, Authentic Movement is as much about the witnesses longing to see clearly, as the mover's desire to be seen.. The witness learns to cultivate their capacity to attend to the inner experience, as they are stirred by what they see and feel. Through this engagement, they are affirming the immanent happening in the body. Adler speaks of herself in the witness role "my intention is to practice towards an emptying of myself, which paradoxically means entering the fullness of myself, my feelings, thoughts, sensations ". Witnessing is like meditation in that it aims for an accepting awareness. But the crucial difference is that the inner witness develops in conscious commitment to another. And the commitment is
reciprocal. Adler insists we need each other "in order to stumble towards embodied wholeness....:Our compassion completely depends upon our experience of each other, our relationship to the whole."
In our culture so much looking is mere scanning - seeking the highlights. A longer look is often objectifying or voyeuristic. Just as we may overeat because we feel empty inside, so we often greedily consume images without finding resonance with or satisfaction in them. Our eyes may be become weary from too much looking, too much stimulus,. We forget how to soften and relax the eyes, to receive images and let them touch us. ' Witnessing' deriving from the old English word 'wit' encompasses the sense of knowing and affirming, as well as humour, seeing unexpected connections. Bearing witness has a vital function going beyond simple acknowledgement. It gives meaning to experience. The witness in authentic movement receives the mover. She then gives back to the mover the impression, the effect on her of the movement, not as the truth but as a real human response.
Elaboration, Creativity, Meaning
The reality of the body is not given
But to be made real, to be realised (Blake)
Participants in Authentic Movement come from all walks of life to engage in exploration. Authentic Movement is not therapy but it can nourish and be nourished by a therapeutic or creative process. Every shape or gesture is a seed, suggesting a new possibility of being or making. It is the gift of space, time and attention that allows the seed of an impulse or image to be elaborated freely, without pressure or goals. Elaboration is allowing the body's wisdom to take you on a journey. Material is often primitive, and yet intricate and subtle in its emergence. As when we explore a dream, even a small fragment can harvest a wealth of meaning. Some times, it unleashes intensity, buried passions and visions. Sometimes it allows the joy of play to well up and take form.
Two contrasting entries from ' The Diary of a Mover':
"Found myself in a foetal position, and then suddenly swirling that was chaotic, turbulent - kaleidoscope of colour - loss of control.."
"K and I played playful cats - the contact and immersion in fantasy was great. Then pushing and pulling against each other. Then I turned round and sat in her straddled legs. We did rocking, pulling oars and made wind sounds - boat journey. Sound "wee ahh!" became "we are" to me, with wonderful feeling off union. Then K lay back and I was born out of her, sitting, but with legs and arms floating in joy and freedom. Felt calm and happy even when I sensed K getting restless and angry. She moved off and let out an extraordinary ROAR - I was thrilled, startled, frightened by the depth of it."
The attention given during and after the movement process allows for the image to continue reverberating. The group acts as an energetic web as well as some kind of container. Adler comments, "When each individual does as he or she must do, regardless of content, we notice that the group as a whole seems to be in synchrony". Stories unfold of conflict, loss, separation, birth, passion, meeting, dying - with links to each individuals personal stories and to archetypes and myth.
The Embodied Collective
Adler's development of Authentic Movement has shifted increasingly towards an emphasis on the collective, with both political and spiritual implications. Her work has been associated with nonviolent community action, with ecology, with Zen, and with the transpersonal. She evokes the idea of the body as a collective, millions of one cell units forming clusters which create organs, bones, muscles. She asks "How does the human body, as a collective in itself, mirror the collective body ? In the collective body we can see the intrapersonal work of each person, like each cell doing its job. We can see combinations of two people in relationship, the interpersonal connection, like two cells working together. Now, like a cluster of cells creating an organ, such as the heart, we can see clusters of people some small like the family and others including more people, like a village. Just as many clusters of cells create a whole person, many villages create counties, states, nations, the whole world."
The collective becoming conscious must prepare to safely hold that which is too great for an individual to hold alone. There is plenty of evidence for the hunger for an embodied collective experience -whether it be to mourn, to celebrate or to create something new. "We need our tribe desperately. We need to feel membership, especially in relationship to the mysteries, the unknown, the ways in which spirit moves."
Roz Carroll is a body psychotherapist (UKCP reg) and a trainer at the Chiron Centre for Body Psychotherapy. She has twenty years experience of working in groups with movement. She studied Authentic Movement with Anne Hebert Smith in the U.S. and with Linda Hartley in the U.K. For details of her Introduction to Authentic Movement weekends and on-going group, email
(1) All quotations from Janet Adler are from her essay, 'The Collective Body' in Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow Ed. Pallaro (London, 1999) or from her interview with Annie Geissinger 'Toward the Unknown' in A Moving Journal: Ongoing Expressions of Authentic Movement Vol 5, no 3, Fall-Winter 1998
(2) Mary Whitehouse Physical Movement and Personality (1963), p.3-8
(3) In Dance Movement Therapy: A Healing Art Fran Levy (Reston, 1988)
(4) The Diary of a Mover (unpublished)