November 15, 2012

Salsa Dancing and Deep Dialogue. ~ Joe Elliott

Photo: Brendan Lally

The Dance of Relational Dialectics.

When I was a teenage boy, my friend Miles and I would put on James Brown’s greatest hits and practice dance moves in my family’s living room.

Miles was named after Miles Davis and grew up listening to jazz, r&b, and the cool sounds of his dad on the harmonica. Together, we developed completely original moves.  With no prior learning or experience, almost everything we did felt new, and brilliant.  We glowed with creative energy.

He would show me a new move and I would try to replicate it.  We went back and forth for hours first copying each other and then trying to out do each other, filling the room with sweat and laughter. As my mom hit the front door, she would say, ‘It smells like teenage boys in here.’

As an adult my passion for dancing led me to learn Latin styles; such as salsa, bachata, and meringue.

For me Latin dancing has been a mix of combustible emotion, requiring an openness to the passion, tenderness, and longing that is evoked within me.  This type of dancing paradoxically requires a steadiness, a maturity, and a bit of grace in which to learn.

The dancer must enter a state of flow that is both active and receptive, requiring them to change their measure of steps, to stay on rhythm, and to perceive the possibilities for where the dance can go…with many options to change direction along the way.

Within this stream of focus, there is a dialectic evoked between dancers.   A dialectic is a process by which two opposites sharpen and transform each other.

A dialectic occurs because two dancers occupy different backgrounds of style, expression, and experience. With sustained practice, the interplay of these factors culminates in the quality and cohesion of the dance.

As a couples and family therapist, I work to create such a dialectic among my clients, and foster it with a practice of structured dialogue.  A dialogue is a structure that replicates qualities of a secure attachment relationship, with the therapist guiding and protecting the participants as they journey closer to the fear and desire for intimacy that comes with close relationships.  The dialogue has a designated speaker and listener and has three components.

In the first part, participants work on mirroring.  Mirroring requires incredible attunement through listening, observation, and using mindful speech in order to accurately reflect the inner landscape of the speaker. When someone feels heard with clarity and accuracy; in an environment of safety, they can begin to let their experience flow.

The second part of a dialogue involves validation. The listener works to understand the reason behind a speaker’s experience.  When someone feels validated, they trust the flow of their experience.

In the third part of a dialogue, participants work on empathy.  When the listener can help the speaker to articulate a feeling accurately, the speaker is able to formulate meaning out of what was once bewilderment and confusion.  When the speaker can add reason together with sensate experience, they can feel a deep sense of confirmation that is rare in relationships.

In three parts, the process takes someone through the experience of being seen, being appreciated, and feeling cared about, but it rarely comes together with the grace and stillness that I hope for.

Photo: Paul Devoto

In my life, I have been told sometimes that I act like I know what’s true for people and that I’m stubborn about my own point of view.  While I have had many long standing disagreements with my critics, I will concede that sometimes I get in power struggles personally and professionally when I feel a compulsion to say or act on what I believe is most true and honest for me.

There has hardly anything that has given me the joy and release of going out and dancing, but when I go out, it’s sometimes hard to escape the tumult of expectations that I place on myself and others.  There is a firm idea of how it should be that I come up against, but the dance offers a remedy.  Dancing offers a release from letting go into the flow of the experience, and it is there that I am taken to the center.  It is there that all that I have learned is available to me and where I can be a really competent dancer.

And it’s not that different when I am working with a couple or family.  When I can help guide someone to enter the mystery of a partner or family member’s experience we escape into an attentiveness and awareness that brings us to a truth or understanding that is entirely new, and that shines a light towards healing and resolution.


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Editor: Lorin Arnold

Joe Elliott has been working to help families for the past thirteen years. His specialties are in couples counseling, family therapy, death and dying, parenting, financial management, and adoption. Joe received his undergraduate degree from Naropa University in Psychology and Religious Studies and his Masters in Counseling from Regis University in Denver. Joe completed a Post-Graduate Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy from The Denver Family Institute. Joe has also taught Family Therapy to students at Metro State University of Denver. Find out more here.

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