Caring through movement

The doctor’s out. So are the nurse, chiropractor, psychotherapist, orderly, massage therapist and hospice worker. They’re out doing something many of them almost never do: caring for themselves.

Specifically, they’re at Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theater “Caring for the Caregiver” workshops at the New Studio of Dance in downtown Asheville.

“The workshops provide a creative outlet for health-care professionals to process a lot of the stress and the very complex emotional issues they go through every day,” explains Stuart Pimsler, co-director (with Suzanne Costello)of SPDT, based in Columbus, Ohio. And in Asheville, where an informal survey revealed a ratio of roughly two healing artists for every healee, that can add up to enough stress and emotion for a year’s worth of Hallmark specials.

At the three-hour workshops (which are running this week), caregivers are encouraged to contribute stories from their own experience and to reflect on how they themselves provide support in their daily work. They are then invited to explore the purely physical realm of support through movement: holding and being held, supporting and being supported.

One health-care professional who appeared in a documentary video about Pimsler’s work explained that the SPDT workshops had taught him “how important movement and touch is in everyone’s life.” For this workshop veteran, “the experience of touching each other emotionally, then touching each other physically” was particularly rewarding. The emphasis, for him, was “on freeing up your emotions and your body to experience the feelings of dealing with loss.”

“We focus a lot on issues of support and loss,” Pimsler notes, “and how the health-care professionals can start to create rituals for themselves and perhaps deal with particularly the amount of loss they go through every day.”

This focus on “real people and real places” has also been an aesthetic concern of SPDT’s since the company’s inception, Pimsler reports. Their performances, as well as community-based programs like the health-care workshops, are “inspired by real life — personal events and incidents that we hope will have universal resonance,” he reveals. Evidently, it’s working: Since 1992, Pimsler and Costello have taken “Caring for the Caregiver” to health-care communities from Tucson to Boston, Israel to Taiwan.

Although SPDT sometimes brings workshops geared toward other groups into communities (they’ve worked with high-school wrestling teams, senior citizens, and kids, as well as groups made up of parents and their kids), the co-directors have found “a real sense of connectedness with the health-care folks,” Pimsler explains. Costello was at first surprised by how candid participants were about intense feelings and experiences. She feels that “there’s something sacred” about what health-care people do.

SPDT creates both its workshops and performances from the stories caregivers share about their own work, says Pimsler: “Caregivers are very willing to work collaboratively. We see a willingness to delve deep into subject matter that has an emotional underbelly.” In the group’s stage performances, they “like to work with … unanswered questions. We feel connected with caregivers because they share that concern.”

The caregivers themselves often find the discussions and exchange of stories as supportive as the workshops’ physical component. A healing artist who participated in a previous SPDT workshop said that “discussing our feelings was just as important as the moving.” Nevertheless, she added, “The moving was real different for me: I like the challenge.”

Asheville’s health-care community can thank Giles and Susan Collard, co-directors of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater, for setting up the Asheville SPDT workshops — in collaboration with Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC). “Our company likes to work with people we don’t know about in our community and society,” says Giles Collard, “to connect on an emotional, mental, and spiritual level … to make our work relevant to the people who see it.”

And, during Pimsler and Costello’s stay in Asheville, according to Collard, they will collaborate with ACDT to “create a [performance] piece relevant to the health-care workers here, that will probably [be staged] at the end of August, open to the public.” If workshop participants are “really interested, really fanatic, we’ll design a piece they’ll participate in,” promises Collard.

Pimsler says he has found the workshop experience a cyclical process: “I’m learning a lot about a certain part of the workplace that I knew very little about and — from what health-care professionals tell us about the workshops — they’re learning a lot about themselves and about ways to affect the workplace in what is sometimes a powerless situation.”

One caregiver summed up the workshop’s philosophy and benefits in one tiny package: “To really lean on one another — we don’t do that very much in health care (actually, [to] physically do that, and have somebody lean back on you).”

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