THE Netherlands is a society where dance therapy is an established part of the social health-care system.

And that was where 38-year-old Singaporean Elizabeth Rutten-Ng spent the last four years, training to become a certified dance therapist.

According to the American Dance Therapy Association, dance therapy is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of individuals.

Ms Rutten-Ng says: “We are not dance instructors teaching dance techniques; we deal with the psychological aspects.

“We are trained in movement observation and analysis, but we don’t just move with our clients, we do counselling as well.”

A dance therapist uses dance and movement to achieve psychotherapeutic goals in providing social and psychological services to children, youth, adults and the elderly.

“It was very difficult for me at first because the official language is Dutch and I had doubts as to whether I could work with mental health patients, as I had a fear of facing them,” she recalls.

But together with creative arts therapists from other disciplines such as art and music, she learnt to conduct group treatment for people with post-trauma stress disorder, many of whom were sexually and physically abused.

She says: “To my surprise, they are just human beings like any one of us. The only difference is that they are in pain and suffering due to their disorders.

“In fact, my patients taught me so much about humility, simplicity and the power of human touch, which I might otherwise have never known.”

Fostering relationships

Dance therapy is not just for the mentally ill. Ms Rutten-Ng also conducts dance/movement therapy workshops for couples and parents with children to foster their relationships.

“Dance/movement therapy is a wide and very rich field. I never get bored with it because there is so much to learn,” she says.

“We are also encouraged to undergo personal therapy with a mentor or senior therapist, and we constantly update our knowledge by reading research journals and attending workshops and conferences.”

Turning point

A former primary school English teacher, Ms Rutten-Ng first heard about dance therapy from a friend who knew about her passion for dance.

After much research at the library, she decided to follow her heart and take the less trodden path.

To ascertain her career move, she first enrolled in a five-day intensive programme at the Antioch University New England in the United States, which is accredited by the American Association of Dance Therapy. It was there that all her doubts were removed.

She recalls: “I was moved to tears by a video of a dance therapist working with a young autistic toddler.

“It was so touching and beautiful when the child, with the aid of dance therapy, made a breakthrough... At that moment, I knew I wanted to become a dance therapist myself.”

She eventually enrolled in a postgraduate programme at the Rotterdam Dance Academy, Codarts University for the Arts, in the Netherlands.

The programme requires an audition involving elements of modern dance and fundamentals of movement.

Knowledge of human anatomy and human psychology helps, but most essential are an intuitive sensitivity to how the body moves, a passion in helping patients through psychological woes and a keen eye for observation analysis.

Above all, one needs a non-judgmental attitude and an empathetic heart towards the clients.

“As one of my teachers would say, we have to first love our patients before we can even work with them,” she says.

Her biggest challenge is the personal therapy that she has to go through to “embody” all the techniques she has learnt and use them in her sessions with clients.

“I would say I’m a changed person, I learnt to listen to myself in every aspect — body, mind, emotion and spirit — to embody and embrace myself as a whole person.”