Psychology graduate incorporates dance in therapy

Melanie Mann

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Averi Harris graduates

Averi Harris poses with her parents after her graduation ceremony. Though she is leaving Southeastern to attend Pratt Institute, she brings with her a love for dance and the desire to help those in need. Courtesy of Averi Harris

From birth, human-beings communicate through movement, whether by curling fingers around their mother’s hand or writhing in pain. It is this primitive sense of movement common to all  humanity that allows those overwhelmed with grief or isolated by mental illness to communicate their inner world to others. 

Psychology graduate and dance student Averi Harris is pursuing a master’s degree in creative arts therapy at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York to heal others through dance and movement therapy. 

“Creative art therapy uses art and the active participation of creating something as a form of therapy,” said Harris. “I am specifically [studying] studio dance and movement therapy. It allows for self-expression of emotion through any and all forms of movement. When I say dance therapy, many people tend to picture a dance studio, with the mirrors, the barre, etc. However, this is not the setting at all. A session can take place in a studio but can also occur in a classroom, a private office, a hospital room. Any movement can be described as dance, and this idea is what lends itself to the title of dance therapy.”

One thing that makes dance and movement therapy so effective is the neurological phenomenon of mirror neurons. According to a scholarly article by dance/movement therapy researcher Cynthia Berrol, the same neurons are activated when witnessing a person’s movement as those that would be activated if the viewer was also performing the movement. Thus, using dance and movement as a form of expression can ignite empathy by creating a powerful psychological connection between the dancer and viewer. 

During her time at Southeastern, Harris has danced in several performances, including “Firebird” and “There Will Be an Answer.” Her experiences as a dancer have developed into a faith for the healing properties of dance and movement therapy. For Harris, dance expresses feelings for which there are no words. 

“From personal experience, I know exactly how dance can be so therapeutic,” said Harris. “It has helped me physically and emotionally. From extreme personal loss, to coping and healing from a personal injury, I’ve been there, and that’s why it makes so much sense to me. Dance and moving to express your emotions can do so much for an individual… It’s hard to put things into words, and moving around is such a basic and primitive act. A single facial expression does just that; it expresses an emotion to others without the mention of a single word. Moving your entire body conveys the exact same thing, just on a larger scale.” 

Dance instructor Dr. Martie Fellom has gotten to know Harris on a personal level through her years of instruction. She has confidence in Harris’ potential as a dance and movement therapist. 

“She is the kind of student that every teacher wants to have in their class because they know they’re going to get 100 percent from that student because they’re dedicated and committed to excellence,” said Fellom. 

With an undergraduate degree under her belt to symbolize her academic achievements, Harris is moving on to bring her love for dance to Pratt Institute and to the lives of those in need.

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