Thursday, January 24, 2013

An Interview with Dancer, Therapist, Author Kathleen Rea: Art-making can save your life.

The Healing Dance: 
The Life and Practice of an 
Expressive Arts Therapist 
by Kathleen Rea

Buy it at

On Friday December 7, 2012, I made it out to celebrate the launch of Kathleen Rea’s book, ‘the Healing Dance’ at Café Arts and the Norman Felix Gallery in Toronto.        
The gallery was packed with Kathleen’s family, friends, mentors, peers, students and fans. During her introduction Kathleen’s sister, Lovisa commented “only Kathleen could have a book launch like opening night for one of her shows.” Indeed it was a wonderful evening of art, readings, and with original music performed by Kathleen’s long time friend, Ariel Brink.  
Her former ISIS Canada-mentor, Steven K. Levine started the evening with a lovely, heartfelt endorsement, saying “this book demonstrates to me that my student, Kathleen, might know more about being an Expressive Arts Therapist than I do.” 
Having anticipated this book for sometime I was blown away by how captivating it was. Kathleen’s tells a very personal, deeply moving, and powerfully transforming story. 
I caught up with her a couple of weeks later in her home for the following interview.   

Robbie Wychwood (RW): I was at the book launch and it was a wonderful gathering. It is wonderful to see this book come out knowing the story, and that it was a big project for you. So I would like to start there.

There are many arts to Kathleen Rea, the artist, the dancer, the choreographer, the ballet company director, the expressive arts therapist... and now Kathleen Rea, the author. Tell us about becoming an author, and the process. I gather this was not an easy book to write?

Kathleen Rea (KR): The book began as my Master’s Thesis which actually started in 2000. There was two years of writing even before I though I should make this Master’s Thesis into a book. 

My Master’s thesis supervisor, at the end of the process said, “I think you have a learning disorder.” I said, “Yes, I have known that my whole life.” 
She suggested I get tested. I never thought to get tested before. It was always something I hid from everyone. The thought of getting tested and being publicly open about it was a paradigm shift for me. I applied to the Government, and they funded me 3000 to get tested. I did three days of testing with a psychologist who does tests for learning disorders. 

It turns out that I have very little desk space. ‘Desk space’ is like ‘working memory,’ or kind of like your desktop that you use to arrange concepts on. If you are given a math problem, 2+4+6, it would be the desk space that you figure it out on. Mine is in the fifth percentile, which means 95% of the population have a bigger desk space than me in their brain. I like to call my desk space [laughs] “a sliver; -its not even a desk.” 

When I write a word, three or four letters in I loose my spot in the word, because it falls off my desk space. So, I am not actually dyslexic, but if you look at my writing it looks like I have dyslexia. Getting the words out is extremely hard for me. 

When I finished writing my Master’s Thesis I felt driven to continue and to form it into a book. I wrote pretty consistently for ten years and had different people helping me, who would look at the book and give me advice. At the start I was a really horrible writer [laughs]. It was just a process of learning how to write and just get the words spelled correctly, so that people could actually read it and I could start to get feedback. 

It was a really long process. About eight years in I could feel things get sharper. Its like my neural pathways changed, because I kept practicing writing. Its actually easier for me to write for me now because I practiced it for ten years. 

I have even started to get the same thrilling feeling I get from dancing as well. I would write something, and be like [expression of joy] “that’s so exciting.” As I started to sharpen up my skills it became easier to feel what was good writing and what wasn’t, and what was working because of the kind of adrenaline rush I would get out of it.

RW: Wonderful! Great! And also, congratulations on your book, because it is terrific and it is really the fruits of labour that has been a big project in your life. So Congratulations That’s wonderful!

KR: Often art is a struggle for artists. It was a struggle creating this book. Now its finished and out in the world.

RW: Is there another one?

KR: Yes! [Laughs] I am going to start writing in January.

RW: Yay! I was thinking at the book launch, “this is the first book, but its not the only one.”

KR: Well, a lot of people have said that to me. They finish reading it, or are part way through, and they say “you are an author.” Some people need to write something. So they write one book and they are not necessarily authors. They might not have the need to write another book. People have read it and come to me and said, “the way you write and the skill of it, you need to write another book.”

I met my grade six teacher at a party last week. She is an author too. She said, “first book, -ten years, second book -five, third book -two and a half, fourth book....” and so on. Then she said “at some point it will slow down. You never really get quicker than a year writing a book.”

RW: In your book, you talk about the arts as a powerful agent of change, that can hurt as well as heal. You know this first hand as a result of your experiences as a dancer. Can you tell us about that?

KR: Any art that is practiced in a very perfectionistic way, where there is only one right way, has the power to really hurt and actually kill people. One can see this from ballet, which has such a strict view of what is beautiful, and people will kill themselves dieting to maintain that ideal. One can also see this in art used as propaganda. During the nazi regime there was a lot of artists doing art to bring the word of the nazi regime to the world. That art is very dangerous as well, because art can move people and stir people, and if the message is very perfectionistic than it is a scary thing.

RW: Your book is born out of your own pain from having created art or interacted with your art form in a way that was potentially fatal to you. Can you tell us a bit about that young person who was wrestling with bulimia and the need to fit in?

KR: Yes! When I was little I danced for joy. I loved dance. Then I became part of this world where to continue my love of dance I had to fit into this very narrow ideal of what was beautiful. Around teenage-hood I became naturally curvaceous. So I didn’t fit anymore, and the only way to fit was to diet.

Extreme diets lead to eating disorders. If you are not nourishing yourself, first of all you are not giving your brain the proper nutrition.  It is also going to bring disordered eating behaviors into your life. 
I was borderline anorexic. and also bulimic. My weigh would really swing, from thin to really gaining weight. That lasted for ten years. I was sick for a very long time. 

The biggest problem was that I bought the message the ballet world was giving me a hundred percent. I never once considered “oh, maybe they are wrong.” These people in positions of power were telling me I was ugly and I was fat, and I believed them one-hundred percent. It took away my voice, my natural expression, because I was trying to conform to this outside ideal. 

Part of the healing process was finding a therapist who helped me realize I could have my own ideal for what is beautiful. ...Which, I think is just being healthy: -being ones natural weight.  I didn’t have to buy their message. I could say “no thanks.”

RW: You describe in your story the need to tell your story. Why did you feel the need to tell your story?

KR: There is such a view of the ballerina as this perfect ideal in our society. Every little girl I’d meet was like “Oh, you’re a ballerina? Oh, you’re with the National ballet company!” 

It upset me that people did not know the behind the scenes view. Not everyone is suffering. Some people are naturally thin and a good fit for ballet. But for those of us that weren’t, there’s a lot of pain, of self hatred of our bodies, and of eating disorders.  

Also, just personally, for ten years I kind of kept my ‘no’ quiet. If I had really listened to my intuition I would have told these people to go ‘F’ themselves. (I don’t mind if you put that in your blog) [ Laughs ]. But I had suppressed that for so long.

When I first started therapy, my therapist helped encourage my voice, “what do you want to say to these people that said these things to you?” 

When I started to let that come out, it poured out of me. I couldn’t stop telling my story. Everyone I met, I would tell it. I would go to a party and tell my story. There was no ‘stop’-button. I had kept it secret for so long. 

I am an artist. I had already started choreographing. So, It just made sense, with this craving to tell the story, I would choreograph a dance piece about having an eating disorder. In the piece I became this strong person saying the truth, bravely. 

People who came to see it were weeping in the audience. My ballet friends were, because it was their story as well as mine. 

When the piece was over that powerful, strong woman speaking the truth felt so different from me that I could not assimilate her into my life, “I did that? I really did a pice about an eating disorder and people sat in the audience and actually watched it?” It took a long to realize that person was me. It took about ten years to kind of assimilate that I had that kind of ability.

RW: Would you say this is your art laying the ground work for you to come out?

KR: Yes, I came out in ‘that’ piece, but in my every day life I hadn’t come out as the full person I could be.

RW: When did you realize there was a therapist in you that could help people?

KR: After creating the eating disorder piece and leaving the National Ballet Company, I knew I wanted something to do. I was scared of just having a year of not doing anything. 

I enrolled at ISIS Canada to study to be an expressive arts therapist, but I never actually wanted to be a therapy. I wanted to go for personal process of discovery. I wasn’t quite ready to enter the workforce; working at Starbucks. I wanted to go to school. It was like “this is this thing I am going to hang onto for a year. As a student no one will expect me to be living a real life yet. I don’t have to be a therapist. I can quit any time.” It was a noncommittal movement towards this expressive arts therapy thing. 

The first year was really hard. There were these people really expressing themselves. The ballet world is so ordered, it has its own boundaries within its structure. So as a person I didn’t need to have those boundaries. Suddenly, I was in this really free-form community where everyone was expressing themselves. Every one’s emotions were just flooding me all the time. It was really intense. 

Back then it was a full day program. At lunch time I would be so overwhelmed that I would curl up in a blanket under a table and fall asleep. I was 26. I was too young. Not ready yet.

Stay tuned for Part Two of “An Interview with Dancer, Therapist, Author, Kathleen Rea: Art-making can save your Life.” Former Ballerina with the National Ballet Company, now twenty-seven year’s old, Kathleen makes her return to the dance world as a modern dancer, before coming back around to give being an expressive arts therapist a closer look.

Kathleen's Website

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