Many people are choosing to become psychoanalysts as a second, or third career. For the launch of Analysis Now, Lee Katz Maxwell, faculty and supervisor for the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, explores her journey from a career in modern dance to psychoanalyst.

Dance as a Metaphor in Psychoanalysis

By Lee Katz Maxwell, LCSW

Everyone who comes to psychoanalytic training brings many layers of experience that are relevant to their psychoanalytic practice. Before transitioning into my work as a psychoanalyst, I toured with two New York based modern dance companies. While I loved dancing, I always knew I would eventually pursue another career. I hoped becoming a psychoanalyst would be a career that would allow me to continue to work with others in the domains of self-expression and self-actualization. During the course of my training I was able to find my own voice as a psychoanalyst, and I believe others’ pursuing training may find that the experience of self-actualization is one of the most fulfilling aspects of becoming an analyst. I also found a home in the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis, a place where finding your own voice is built into the fabric of everything we do as analysts.

My background in modern dance informs a particular experiential and emotional range in my work as a psychoanalyst. Sandra Buechler writes of psychoanalysts,

“Like the poet who can capture fine gradations of meaning in apt phrases, we must be able to catch hold of minute degrees of our own and others’ emotions just as they make their appearance, so that we may search for adequate words to embody them.” (1977, p.295)

My experience interpreting emotion and expression nonverbally in dance helps me to help my patients access and articulate nuances of their experience and of our experience with each other. Modern dance is like a nonverbal form of poetry. Feeling states and intonations are the impetus for many dance movements. Dance expresses some things that may not be easily expressed in words. Sometimes I think of a session as a dance; a duet. It unfolds in a series of steps. Each phrase has a particular emotional hue. I think of the different kinds of dances I am involved in with different patients. Dance has become a metaphor for me in my thoughts and experiences with my patients.

When I was dancing, improvisation was a big part of my work. The choreographed dances I performed in were often created with movement developed during improvisations. The improvisations frequently incorporated aspects of contact improvisation. Contact improvisation is a dance technique in which points of physical contact initiate a movement exploration. Dancers use the physics of bodily contact and weight in the exploration. What a great metaphor for interpersonal psychoanalysis!

I reflect on the types of connections that exist between my patients and me: the particular quality of contact, and/or how we might miss each other. With one patient I feel we are balanced partners. We are working well together with spontaneity and having a great time. With another patient it seems she is dancing and dancing and I feel trapped in my seat, an uncomfortable audience member rather than a partner. Such dynamics can be a rich and fruitful starting point for exploring the emotions involved in how a patient relates to me and to others outside of treatment.

What metaphors, and sensitivity to what particular emotional nuances from your layers of experience do you bring to your work as a psychoanalyst? Are you an athlete or sports fan? A former lawyer or businessperson? A comparative literature major or artist? A fly fisher? The possibilities for metaphor are vast.

Buechler, S. (1977) The Right Stuff, Contemporary Psychoanalysis., 33:295-306

Lee Katz Maxwell, LCSW is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. She graduated from the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis in 2006 and is faculty and supervisor for the One Year Program in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy.

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