An Interview With Amber Elizabeth Gray, MPH, MA, BC-DMT, LPCC, NCC,
Keynote Speaker for
The Rhythm of Resilience:
How Dance Movement Therapy Supports the Development and Sustainability of Resilience
April 8th & 9, 2016 at Naropa University
Our very own Melisa Sanzone, vice president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the ADTA, spoke with Amber to ask her about resilience, how she defines resiliency and how it shows up in her work around the globe.
Melisa Sanzone: Good Morning Amber. The Rocky Mountain Local Chapter is excited that you have accepted to be the keynote speaker for our 2016 Conference:
The Rhythm of Resilience: How Dance Movement Therapy Supports the Development and Sustainability of Resilience.
I want to start by saying that I am honored that you are willing to share with us today some insights on how to cultivate resiliency in ourselves as therapist while creating the space to support others in finding their own resilience.
Melisa Sanzone: With that said, my first question to you is:
How do you define resiliency for yourself and in what you do?
Amber Gray: Oh! That’s such an interesting question. It’s interesting because what I noted is that the first thing my mind did was remember a Willow tree. The Webster Dictionary has a nice definition of resiliency that’s about returning to ones original shape; I am not recalling it precisely but the essence is that after adversity, it acknowledges bending vs. breaking.
When I was a little girl, I spent my first years (age 1-5 or maybe 1-6 in) West Caldwell, New Jersey and we had an amazing weeping willow in the back yard, and that’s always my image, a sweet memory, that I “go to” for resiliency. Because I remember that no matter how windy or snowy, or rainy it was– just watching how
elegantly the branches would sway and bend and literally flex, and, how even if there might be leaves that had fallen off in the morning: Things in the tree would’ve changed but she (she was always a she tree to me)– she was intact.
So I think that for me resiliency is the recognition that any experience we have in life, where it be one that we consider positive, or beneficial, or easy, or happy; or one that we experience as challenging or stressful, difficult or traumatic, (and certainly I don’t want to clump them up all the same category because we respond to them differently and they have different impacts that will affect us distinctly); but that every experience is an opportunity to courageously grow, and take on a new shape.
Resiliency is a recognition that things that we encounter, the wildernesses that we walk through and navigate are going to change us, and so it’s not being stuck to a sense of who we are, but recognizing that we are going to flex and flux and change; and that we can adapt. When things happen and especially when difficult, painful or horrific things happen, we can still have an intact core, the Kreyol term is Poto Mitan: the center of us.
We will be different, we may look different, and we may even speak differently. We may function and move differently in the world. It’s that connection between what’s changed in us and how these changes can support innovation and newness
and probably contributes to new perspectives and new ways of perceiving the world, that threads us that back to the core of who we are. Perhaps resiliency is being intact without being stuck.
Melisa Sanzone: Being intact, without being stuck, I love that.
Amber Gray: I do too! I’ve never said that before.
Melisa Sanzone: Being intact… without being stuck, to think about that idea that one can be intact and still allow one’s self to bend toward growth and change; it’s a really beautiful image. Thank you for saying that. I’ve never heard it put that way.
Amber Gray: Me either, but you asked the question. You inspired it.
Melisa Sanzone: Amber Gray you’re awesome.
Melisa Sanzone: So, as you so beautifully shared this definition of resiliency, I couldn’t help but to wonder, how you, the Dance/Movement Therapist and you Amber Gray maintains this resiliency in both your professional and personal life?
Amber Gray: Another great question. I’ll share something that just became clear to me: I was teaching in Australia the second half of November to mid-December and I was there when the San Bernardino shooting happened. The shooting that happened in a place for people with disabilities and challenges.
Anytime there is a shooting in this country it hits me, and as someone who has an American passport and yet feels very much like a global citizen, this one just really
hit me hard, because I was in a country, Australia, where people do not bear arms, where there is an amazing policy around arms and guns, a tremendous respect for everyone’s right to live on that level, and because I had to teach that day or the next day; I remember looking at this group of people who signed up for a three day clinical training and I opened up my mouth and said something completely unplanned. I said something like, “I know you are probably here for clinical skills and I really hope to impart some, but what I really hope to promote is each and everyone of us stepping into the full humility of our personhood.”
I always like to teach from my edges, and that’s my edge right now, with full respect that as a person there are certain things that I would not disclose in my therapeutic life or in my therapy life with clients, but how do I bring the place where humanity resides within our personhood. How do we bring that into the therapeutic relationship, because I think that is as important if not more important than anything else. I think that’s the key to resiliency because in working with trauma, all my work has been with torture, wars and political violence, so as a clinician or therapist one of the things that I really summon for help is my Naropa training because of the contemplative approach. I‘m not even sure that I fully understood that that’s what I was signing up for at Naropa when I got there. I don’t think I recognized how deep it was to be taught and encouraged to listen with the willingness to engage and swim
in the unknown and to bring that front and center to a therapeutic process. Another edge for me is my understanding of transference and countertransference, which is very different than people with more mainstream training. I think there is a flow, there’s more of a focus on the present moment as it lives and breathes and moves in a human body and in the space that we in the therapeutic process are in together. I think that has been crucial in promoting resiliency because I’ve actually felt like those skills – both the somatic movement skills and somatic skills – allow me to surf through these dark oceans, the depths of unknown and sometime horrible places and just have an anchor in my body as here and now- always here and now. If I can do that as a clinician, then I can model that for my clients. I think that has been really important.
I also think about ritual and transition time, about which I’m very meticulous. I wasn’t always so I fried and burnt-out a few times. Transitions – transitions between sessions, transitions between my work-day and my family-day. Not that it’s always clean because I love what I do and I’m a political activist so I do not prescribe to a 9-5, but transition when I’m done with clients and I’m done with therapy. I say, “this day is done, I’ve done what I can.” Then I would make sure to self-care, walk my dog, or dance or swim or do something that was movement-based. If my mind starts to fill, then I would come back to the basic – step on the
ground if I’m walking. If I’m doing this dance step, then I have real transmission and I think that’s really important. For me I have to dance and love to spend time with my dogs and for me that promotes resiliency.
So what I say to people, who are getting into this work, is know what you love and know what you fear because what your fear is where we are going to be vulnerable and where we are going to get stuck and where we might be more at risk for burn out and secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, and what we love will give us the strength and resource us and promote flow. If I wake up in the morning and there is nothing in the world that I’m not in love with then I know that I have to take some resiliency, promotion, self–care time.
Amber Gray: I don’t know if that answer your question
Melisa Sanzone: Yes, I feel you have. I need more of that as a therapist. I love that quote “know what you love and love what you fear”
Amber Gray: Actually I said, “Know what you love and know what you fear,” but we talked about that in Vancouver three weeks ago we actually said that as well, “know what you love and love what you fear”.
Melisa Sanzone: As a new therapist, I want to thank you for that gift – “to work from the edges” and “remain engaged in ritual and transition,” – in order to be able to be more open, more fluid, more available. From reading of you and your work,
I am called by its spiritual component, in the ways in which you connect with every person that you come in contact with and relate to in your travels. I feel that from what you’ve shared, the resiliency that you demonstrate in your daily life in order to be a therapist fuels that spirituality that you bring forth in your work. So thank you.
Melisa Sanzone: In reading about some of your work I notice a thread in how you hold space, share wisdom and facilitate awareness in individuals and groups. Your work, I would say has a very spiritual component.
Amber Gray: Yeah, Yeah.
Melisa Sanzone: That I feel supports your ability to connect with your clients. It’s like what’s not being said is being threaded through the entire group, and you have a lovely way of sewing together the group experience.
Amber Grey: Well thank you! I’m very touch by you saying that, and I hope so.
Melisa Sanzone: I am calling it spiritual but maybe you call it something else, for me the spiritual is the thread that unites everyone when your doing Dance/Movement Therapy work.
Amber Gray: Yeah, I would use the word spiritual and/or sacred. Well one of the things I remembered when you where speaking, is one time when I was teaching in the Republic of Georgia and had this immense realization and I said it out loud in
the middle of the training, and that is, “where ever you go in the world, we are more alike than we are different. All you have to do is slip the skin a little bit and it doesn’t look any different underneath.”
Just in terms of the fundamentals of being human, love and connection and reciprocity and wanting to engage our minds and our hearts. That’s one of the threads and I think the more we’re connected, the more I’m connected, and this relates to the things we love, what’s spiritual. This work is a spiritual act for me. I do this work because I love it and I am that simple, I love it.
I know that we all have different ways that we practice our engagement to spirit, whether its going to church, going to mosque, or going to ceremony, or praying or dancing or divining. I think that this work, this being in service, is spiritual as well. I think we are all here to be in service to something that’s one of the spiritual threads. So my work is a spiritual thread. I know that because I love it.
Amber Gray: A lot of people will imagine and project that there are challenges in some of the places I’ve worked and there are, there is war in the middle east and Haiti right after the earth quake. I have bore witness to horrific, physical images and grief. I mean people are really suffering and yet the things that are good and holy about people shine so much brighter in those moments. It’s so clear, its almost elemental. So to have opportunities to experience that, to me is also spiritual
Melisa Sanzone: So I wonder, Amber, how as a Dance Movement Therapist who is standing in a group of foreigners that have their own spirituality and have their own traditions, how do you incorporate your own sense of spirituality and resiliency into their culture? Or how does the culture influence the work that you do. How do you weave it all together to allow resiliency to flow in each individual.
Amber Gray: Well first of all what an honor for me to have people come to my workshops in these places. What a privilege it is to be able to show up in any of these places and have people willing to give me a chance. Whether I’m doing psychological first aid as I did in Haiti, or whether I am doing training, I try to never take that for granted.
Amber Gray: You know one of the things that I have always said to my clients is that I have to earn their trust, and that I may never. I may never earn all of it, and that that’s a process. My commitment to that person is to keep checking in around that and so, I never take for granted how privilege I am. I am privileged. I’m white and I grew up in the United States, a privilege place for some people, so being really clear about that and being clear about what the American agenda brings, cause I do have an American passport and I cant pretend no matter how liberal and
open I am that that it is not part of me. But then also the willingness of people willing to show up and have an exchange, that is the first thing.
Amber Gray: Also I do a lot of listening, you know deep listening. I’m sort of drawing from aborigine traditions, but deep listening, listening as deep as our bones, and extending our bones as deep as the earth to see where they can go. I do a lot of deep listening, and I ask a lot of questions. One of my mantras is “show up, shut up and get what’s going on” and that comes from one of my teachers, Anngwyn St. Just, a brilliant woman who used to live in Boulder. I have a clear structure and I am willing to let anything go in service of the group. I do a lot, a lot of listening and not assuming and being clear. I’ll say things to people. I remember teaching in Sudan with a colleague once and it was clear within a few minutes. We were doing a training of trainers and somebody said, “well your going to give us everything we need like the manual and tell us exactly how to do it.” We were like, “no” and they were like, “what do you mean? We are here because you’re the experts.” I said, “no, you’re the expert. This is the first time either of us has been to Sudan and this is an opportunity for us to learn about you and learn about what matters to you, what’s important and we’ll built on that. We have a bunch of slides and handouts, but they will have more meaning if it is dressed up, texturized and
colored with what matters from your cultural and spiritual perspective.” By the end of the five days people were really grateful. So that willingness to relate to people as equals the recognition of that, the calling forth of that, is part of the any process that I do.
Melisa Sanzone: Thank you Amber for sharing your time and your wisdom with The ADTA Rocky Mountain Chapter, and me. I am looking forward to hearing more at the conference in April.
Amber Gray: Thank you.