Beyond Translation


Janet Lemon Williams is a dancer, academic, movement therapist and teacher in Guelph, Canada. Chatting with her was like traversing a landscape. She had opinions on just about everything; we talked for a good hour. Below are some snippets from our conversation.


Tell me a little about yourself and what you do through dance and movement therapy?

I got my Masters in Dance Therapy in 1991 from Antioch New England in New Hampshire. I did my dance therapy internship at Langley Porter Psychiatric Hospital in San Francisco, which is part of UCSF. I also did an internship in Vermont at Austine School for the Deaf. After I graduated, I worked in mental health with the deaf and with women in rehab. I then left mental health and went back to school and got my Bachelors of Education so I could teach in the schools. So between 1994 and 1999, I was doing that and running a dance company for young women – the Horizontal Dance Co.

I was also trying my hand at private practice, but initially I found it difficult. Later on, after I completed other training in Alexander Technique, Pilates, fascial work and anatomy, I developed a movement education model where I am comfortable. I work with people on their relationship with gravity instead of the psychotherapeutic model. Psychotherapy tends to focus on the major relationship in life – like parents, lovers, spouses and children – whereas I work with our relationship with the planet. I work with space, time and effort in order to recognize patterns and help people be aware of themselves on a very nuanced level so they can make changes in how they move through space and time.

My work is about each person’s own relationship with themselves via their body. I believe strongly that a person’s relationship with gravity is more pivotal than any other. If you have issues with your parents, I’m not saying those aren’t important but, ultimately, whether you can literally stand your ground and find your center is going to make you move through life more effectively, and perhaps face those other issues.

I’m back at school now, so I’m not working in private practice much, but I still apply the same concepts to the movement classes I teach. I’m currently working on my PhD in Dance Studies at York University in Toronto. One of my areas of research is: what is embodiment? What is dance therapy? My dissertation is going to challenge the current norm of what that is, particularly how it’s defined by the American Dance Therapy Association. Canada is differently laid out as a country than the U.S., so I argue that the American model doesn’t work for us since we don’t have 350 million people. We have 35 million people, and a lot more space. So I’m looking at what a Canadian model for dance therapy would look like. I’m investigating Australia’s model, for instance.

I’d like to push the envelope of what the American Dance Therapy Association recognizes as dance therapy. The definition as it now stands centers on the psychotherapeutic use of movement. There’s money in psychology and psychiatry, so it was a way for dance therapy to attach itself. Music therapy, art therapy and drama therapy have done the same, but they’ve had more successful growth, particularly in music and art.

Janet’s thoughts regarding dance training:

Dancers have been told to hold their bodies the way they were trained, so when I work specifically with dancers it’s a little different because there’s a strong rehearsed set of movements. We all have our preferred movements, but those of us with a lot of training in a particular set of movements can have a strong attachment to the identity that goes along with that movement repertoire. Helping people change that, whether they’re athletes or not, can be emotional. I find that people who are particularly well-trained may have good awareness, but perhaps have more to shed. For people without training in movement, it’s all new, so I experience less resistance – but that’s not a hard and fast rule.

There’s a balance though to working with body awareness with dancers. As a dancer and choreographer, I believe those rehearsed movements are critical to success. When I was training dancers, I told them to take ballet because ballet is the language and the nomenclature, the meat and potatoes of Western dance. You don’t have to agree with it or even use it all the time, but you have to know it. There’s a strength and comprehension of lift and being centered that comes with ballet training. It’s the closest we’re going to get to a universal language in Western professional dance.

On understanding one’s relationship to gravity:

As a dance therapist, the most common wall I come up against in the common person, as opposed to a dancer, is they think they must collapse into gravity. That they can’t possibly win and so they may as well give up. Dancers, on the other hand, feel the opposite, but the wording is still negative. They think they have to defy gravity. In both scenarios, there’s a negative relationship with gravity that is promoted throughout advertising, from getting Botox to getting a boob job and fitness aparati — it’s all about fighting gravity. But no one is going to win against gravity. If you’re beating a cosmic force, I want to know how you’re doing it. Gravity gives us our shape and form; it allows me to be separate from you. It’s what gives us the sense of our feet on the ground. We need it all the time, so our relationship needs to be framed in a positive. It’s a matter of language. Instead of “defying,” we can say “I’m working with…” or “I’m tuning into…”


On aging as a dancer:

You have to approach aging with the idea of change, and that change is positive. I think that’s difficult because of the Western dance model that says: if you’re not in a dance company, you’re not a real dancer. The dance world is full of those kinds of unspoken rules. While with aging comes pain and new limitations, there is a smaller playing field. There are less and less of us – and we know we’re not going to be in a company, so a lot of stress goes away.

For example, I like to go to beginner ballet classes because then I don’t feel like I have to work on the fancy stuff. I can focus on the plie and the tendu, which is what it’s all about. If I go to fast, I’ll hurt myself. As I age, it becomes more about the technique in my body than to keep up with the girl in front of me.

On dance’s cultural capital:

Dance scholarship and research suffers the same way dance therapy does – in fact, anything to do with dance seems to suffer from a real insecurity. There seems to be a complex around trying to prove we’re worthy all the time. As a dancer, I always feel like dance is at the bottom of the grant-getting barrel. Music, theater and art always seem easier to promote than dance. Many people say they can’t paint but enjoy art. Most of us know nothing about the film creation process, but we all watch movies and have opinions about it because our culture is steeped in film and television. With dance it’s different – it’s as my husband tells me — he doesn’t have the vocabulary and doesn’t know what’s going on in contemporary dance. And ballet still suffers from a feminine mystique that many the man – no matter how feminist — does not wish to engage with. The same insecurity is seen in academia as well.

On dance in academia:

In one of my classes for my PhD coursework requirement, we read an article where dance scholars assert that dance is a form of research in itself. It’s not something you research; it’s the way to research. We’re trying to argue for that, but it’s really hard because we work against ourselves. We hear our professors say, “Okay, now I need you to talk about this.” It seems backward to me that even in a dance PhD program, written/spoken discourse is prioritized over non-verbal discourse. This is the constant tension, whether you’re a dance academic, dancer, choreographer, teacher, body worker or dance therapist: the professions inform us about things that can’t necessarily be articulated; movement is not really translatable. And if it isn’t translatable, then it can’t be worth anything in our dualistic culture that prioritizes mind over body. Or is it? We end up questioning ourselves. Are we on the cutting edge of something? Or is movement/dance too primordial, too primitive, and too representative of a moment in evolution after the humanoid but before the written word. I believe we in the Western dance world – no matter which faction – all have to face this conundrum, and I suggest the more we can help each other with it the more we can figure it out. Get out of our silos and visit each other’s worlds without judgement.


irish dancing