top of page

JASON KEENAN-SMITH

Tell me about yourself and your background.

I’m a Senior Lecturer in Dance at the University of Chichester, Artistic Director
of Three Score Dance, and I’m also a freelance dance artist and non-practising
dance movement psychotherapist. Prior to this I was a performer for many
years, then I went into teaching and then I went into dance movement therapy.
Now I’ve arrived at lecturing so it feels like there’s a cyclical nature to where
I’m at.

So when and how did you first start getting interested in psychology and the
possibilities of dance movement therapy?

My interest in psychology actually started much earlier than my interest in
dance. I knew already at GCSE level that I wanted to do something around
sports and sports psychology. My A Levels were in Biology, Sports Studies and
Sociology, so I thought I would try and go down the sports psychology route.
I took some time out between finishing college and starting university. At that time I was working as a hairdresser, and it was then that I went into dance. So although the interest in psychology went on the back burner, it was always present because I had family members that were in psychology – I had uncles and aunts that were both quite prevalent in their fields; my cousin went into clinical psychology; my sister did her MA in Psychology.

When I started performing, I was doing a project with Protein Dance in a children’s hospital in central London. It was really interesting; a moment of realising that dance has the potential to do so much more than just entertain, or just be something for me. It has a scope for healing that I didn’t really understand. For that reason, I decided that I wanted to get to know it more and understand it better, which led me to taking a summer workshop on dance with psychotherapy and then applying for an MA in Dance Movement Psychotherapy (DMP) at Roehampton University.

Did the MA enable you to start using dance in different settings?

That first year of the MA was a real eye opener – it was a bit of a baptism of fire. I remember my first day on placement, it was a clinical unit in the NHS. I remember being in the office stretching and doing my thing, and they were like, “What are you doing?!” I said, “I'm getting ready for the session!” Because that was my go-to, you know, I would physically get ready for the session, and in doing so also psychologically get ready for the session via my body without realising I was doing it.

And then we went into the ward. And a series of doors closed behind you. And I was like, “Ohh, this is what it is.” I was told we would need to wait in a room because actually someone has a chair at the moment and they're quite angry. It was therefore not a good time to be doing a walk around.

Very quickly, there was a process of realisation that happened. I took a sabbatical, trying to process, digest, integrate and understand some of those experiences that I’d gone through. When I went back to complete the MA, my placements were always in clinical settings, always with inpatients. It was environments where people were really struggling and you get to people see people in their most vulnerable moments. It's a privilege, but it's also a real challenge to understand what I can do with this practice – people are feeling all sorts of things through their bodies, they have all sorts of associations with their bodies. How can I work with that in a space that they can begin to feel safe with me, and more importantly, safe in their body? That's a lot more to manage for them than it is for me, but for me it’s understanding how I process this information, how I work with that and help them along their journey.

After the course, I did some more hours so that I could eventually become registered with the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). But it’s hard – a lot of colleagues have come away from training thinking they’re going to do all this amazing work but they still have to do more hours because the modality isn’t respected as much as it should be. That’s for a number of reasons, not least because it’s body-based and people don’t really know what that means. It has a title of dance in it, but people often remove that and refer to it as movement psychotherapy rather than dance movement psychotherapy, especially when working with male populations, because there's this idea that “I can't dance”, at least in Western modalities and frameworks. I felt that I wanted to support people, not fight the system or constantly have to justify or explain the work that I’m doing.

It also comes back to the book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – I think that there is a part of me that was tired of being in contemporary dance. I'm constantly trying to explain what contemporary dance is, trying to explain the Black experience as a dancer, as a man, whatever that may be, and then having to explain DMP. I was like, “I'm not sure if I can do this anymore.”

 

So what happened next, did you continue to work after you registered with the UKCP?

Actually, that's when I started at the University of Chichester. We have modules in DMP that were originally set up by Jill Hayes which is amazing, and over time they were handed over to me. So I haven’t left that world entirely, and actually you use those DMP skills in the studio in some way – there is either a holding or listening, or there is an awareness that's always present if you've had that training.

What sorts of skills do you bring in from that training when you're teaching technique or choreography, or making work? And do you do this consciously or is it almost more unconscious?

I think it's both conscious and unconscious. There are certain practises, frameworks and ways of being that I try and bring in that are therapeutically-minded in the sense that I'm trying to listen to as much as possible, have a sense of what the student is saying and communicating, be that verbal or nonverbal. The work is different according to the space that you're in. So sometimes it is about getting this piece done, but sometimes actually it's just about the group needing to be cohesive because actually in this moment, it's really not. So before we can even think about doing any work, we need some group cohesion here, because this isn't going to work otherwise. I constantly keep adapting while knowing that, with the best will in the world, I'm going to make mistakes no matter what I do. But I'm open to the fact that I might make mistakes, because it means I can then adapt as quickly as possible to the group’s needs and repair those ruptures that occur. It’s important to remember though that this isn’t therapy. You need to understand the similarities and clear differences between teaching and psychotherapy. So, you are looking at a person in the space and thinking, “there's something going on here. I need to be able to hand this over to people that can deal with this.” You’re making sure that that person is held in mind, even if it's not your job to do that particular role at that particular time.

Can you take the example you gave about group cohesion and give some strategies as to how you would deal with that? Because I think anyone who teaches dance will know exactly what you're talking about, when there's an atmosphere or something's not working!

Sometimes it’s about naming it or being curious about it. I think curiosity is the biggest thing and that's one of the great things about being dancers, because dancers are naturally quite curious. So you can just bring that curiosity in; it doesn't have to be a kind of therapy. Say, “I'm curious about what's going on. There's some dynamic here. I'm not sure what this is about.” Or maybe it's being playful with it, without having to unfold it massively. These are things that I’ve seen some teachers do quite naturally; there are some great practitioners out there and you can see that they naturally have just learned certain skill sets and ways of being that can address those issues that come up in the room.

What I think is happening now that is really useful is that some of this is extending to professional practice. More and more pieces have a psychotherapist involved in the creative space.  I experienced that a long time ago as a performer, because the choreographer was aware there were issues going on, not just with us as a company, but also just because of the nature of the work that we were doing, it was bringing up stuff. I think when you’re exploring personal themes in the creative space, it's really helpful – perhaps vital – to have someone who can hold that environment for you. There are a lot of pieces that are utilising dancers’ experiences, and you do hear all sorts of horror stories of people really pouring their hearts out, but then being left exposed. The consequences of that exposure can be almost like a re-traumatization. So it’s good practice to have a psychotherapist involved. Having said that, there are ethical questions to ask around it. If someone is bringing in a psychotherapist to a space where someone is working, does that mean that they have to be involved in this therapy to be able to do this job? These kinds of questions need to be spoken about and dealt with – that person needs to have options and agency over their involvement in the project.

How does that work within Three Score Dance Company?

We'll talk about stories, but often I remind the dancers that they don't have to share those stories with me. They can put that story into motion and see how that moves in the body. The other thing to consider is if it's a story that is resolved enough for the dancer to be able to look at, or is it something that's still raw? Maybe it's something the dancer need not be using in this space. But there is that tension because you can see when something is quite present for someone; their body inhabits it in a very interesting way, and there's an interesting way of moving that comes as a consequence. So I can see why choreographers do it, but it's a balance. In Three Score we’ve also talked about the idea of having a toolbox: how can you, as dancers, keep yourself safe first and foremost, and also just reminding them that they always have the power to say no without it affecting their time in the company. It’s important to emphasise that agency, because sometimes there’s that power dynamic where the dancers want to please the choreographer. It’s finding that balance of the dancers opening themselves up and being vulnerable, while being held at the same time; how do we empower our dancers but still find a way to create work that's interesting and intriguing.

Do you think there are other benefits to bringing in DMP training into the studio in a non-therapeutic setting?

I think it’s the awareness of people and what might be going on with people, an awareness of how there's all sorts of things that might be going on, and how it can manifest in behaviours that might be perceived as aggressive or angry for example. It means that you have a different understanding and approach to how you can resolve those kinds of behaviour. Again, it's about how you hold people in mind, how we hold our students in mind, so there's a lot of processing that I do between sessions that the students wouldn't necessarily know about. I might be thinking about, “OK, there was that thing going on for that person. How can I make sure that we address that in the next session?” Or maybe it's there's something going on with this person; what can I do about that? I've had some students that were very anxious, and this is where training can come in useful in terms of how we position ourselves in relation to that person, literally. I’ll stand so that we’re side by side because I feel that standing right in front of you will be too much for you right now. I can see what your eyes are doing; you're looking somewhere else. So let me stand side by side and we can talk as though we're in the car. So that kind of awarenesses can be quite useful.

Your students and dancers are lucky to have you! Does this align with relational pedagogy? You mentioned this term in one of our earlier conversations so it would be great if you could define it.

It's actually quite new to me still! It’s something I came across in a paper written by Ljungblad in 2021, and I found it really chimed with the work I was doing in terms of therapy and a more relational focus. I'd heard of  a relational shift in the literature as well in dance and therapy where we’re moving beyond a didactic approach, and becoming aware of what's going on between people in the space, what's happening between us in this space. I found a definition: “Relational pedagogy is ontologically based on the idea that people share a social living space with other people. Thus a human being is born into relationships and lives her life with relationships and in a community with other human beings” (Ljungblad, 2021, p.863). My understanding is that teaching is a shared practise between people. I think bell hooks talks about this in her work, from a more feminist perspective. It’s also to do with addressing balances of power, thinking about how can we engage people in learning rather than just sharing knowledge? I'm thinking about how we address the power in the space, how we encourage different types of learning. Each group has its own kind of life, so there is a space between those people, where knowledge is formed and created.

It's challenging. Any space where you're looking to change a practice, change what's known and address issues in the space takes time, takes thought, takes energy, and also takes for me to feel uncomfortable, and be OK with that discomfort and really question my own priorities. It’s something I’m striving towards, this approach where we could create together. But at the same time I’m also wondering if the other people in the space are able to manage their own feelings about the desire to assist. Desire to assist is great; anxiety around assisting is not. So how can I feel like I'm giving and allowing space for agency without just projecting my own anxiety onto the group, which the group then has to deal with? And that's a fine line. You still need to have some authority within the group and be able to hold the space and make decisions. So much of what we do is relational, so it’s questioning how we get better at managing those dynamics.

 

Jason’s recommended reading:

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2018) Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Expanded edition. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

hooks, b (2009) Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. Oxford, UK: Taylor & Francis Group.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Ljungblad, A.-L. (2021) ‘Pedagogical Relational Teachership (PeRT) – a multi-relational perspective’, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 25(7), pp. 860–876. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2019.1581280.

If you'd like to enhance your toolbox of mental skills and strategies, have a look at my online dance psychology courses. They cover a range of wellbeing topics from stress and anxiety to motivation and optimism. And don't forget to check out my free courses in self-confidence and resilience!

bottom of page