Shake It, Baby! Dance Therapy for Trauma Release

By April 15, 2023July 31st, 2023Trauma
dance therapy for trauma

In his helpful book, Healing Trauma: A pioneering program for restoring the wisdom of your body, Peter Levine explains how gentle shaking and trembling are a part of the body’s natural way to release nervous system overactivation. 

Why does this matter for women in recovery from addiction, mental health problems or trauma? In short, when triggered into acute fear or anger, we feel it as uncomfortable distress, and if that intense discomfort doesn’t find a healthy pathway out of the body, we can end up going down bad roads trying to get relief. 

Whether we pick up negative thoughts, launch patterns of self-destructive behavior, or just freeze up and dissociate, trauma energy is toxic and better not let it linger too long.

Shaking Is Natural

Animals can be seen shaking and trembling as a way to release energy from the body that they don’t need anymore. In A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle shares his insight that ducks in a pond always take a few moments to beat their wings after any kind of fight or showdown. After shaking off the excess energy, they return to a state of apparent peace and calm. 

What about us, do we easily return to peace after we get triggered? I don’t know about you, but I’m well capable of stewing and churning unproductively for days after a moment’s exposure to something that touches on my core wounds. 

Even though this gets better over the years, I’m always interested to learn more how we might more wisely engage the resources of the body to have a better journey through healing episodes!

Shake it Off

Calling it the “shake it off technique”, Peter Levine incorporates the idea of conscious trembling into his body therapy methodology, Somatic Experiencing. 

Somatic Experiencing therapists are trained to be able to guide their clients to learn to self-soothe, observe their own sensations, and reorder their responses to life through deliberately activating the gentle shaking response when in need of a release.   

Somatic Experiencing has the goal of supporting clients to learn to regulate their body’s responses, through conscious witnessing, monitoring, and working with the nervous system. Rather than suppressing or trying to avoid the traumatic response, the idea is to support the body to do its thing. 

It’s a little bit like saying, the body needs to have its trauma response in order to be able to get over something that shook us up. Rather than resisting the signs and mechanisms of trauma processing, we can become an ally and support the body. Engaging the trembling mechanism is one way to be a friend to the body as it does its work of releasing excess activation energies. 

The end result is a settling in the nervous system – a return to peace. 

Put it to Music!

The method of shaking and trembling is used in dance therapy, too, and works wonderfully with music. So why not try it out ourselves, putting it to music?

Before you do, note it’s important to apply the exercise very gently and gradually and to pay close attention to whether it’s making the distress better. If it’s not working, stop and maybe try again another time. It can take a few tries before getting the hang of it. The line between shaking and trembling will gradually blur, and there may be moments when the body seems to tremble of its own accord – that’s good!

Don’t just go wild, even if you’re listening to wild music. Allow your nervous system to be primary and start with a less-is-more approach and build from there.   

Steps to Get Shaking: 

  1. Choose a space where you will feel safe and comfortable shaking the body a little bit. Look for privacy and physical coziness, so that body really feels good to begin with. 
  2. Choose between lying down or standing up for this exercise. Lying down is a great place to start and tends to feel a little safer. You might get up during the song anyway.
  3. Choose some gentle, but stimulating music. As long as you like the song, it’s fine. Pay attention specifically to the rhythm and whether or not the rhythm feels inspiring to your body. 

A song that works for me for this is The Look by Metronomy ( I was just thinking “I wonder why” as I wrote this and then I heard one of the lyrics is “remember how we shook, shook.” 

So while we’re at it, it can be a fun project in and of itself to find songs that use the word “shake” or “shook” in it somewhere. There are so many! 

Here are some relatively wholesome songs I like for this exercise: 

Shake It Up ~ the Cars

Shake It Baby ~ John Lee Hooker

I’m All Shook Up ~ Elvis

There are plenty of less wholesome ones too. What can I say? I’ll leave that part up to you 🙂   

  1. Once you’ve selected your song, press play and start out in a stable, neutral still position. Softly begin to very, very gently let the body shake, starting with your feet and legs. Do not hurt your body. Shake in only the ways that feel good to you. Explore to see what pace, what angles, what kinds of motions feel positive. 
  2. Allow your arms and hands to get involved. If the music really affects you, your shaking will be partly a dance, of course – let that happen! It may end up as a whole body movement. Do this as long as it feels good, but do allow rest and pause when that’s what the body seems to wants.
  3. At the end of your song, take a few moments to breathe deeply, rest and let the body settle, in a restorative position, such as child’s pose or lying on your back with your knees bent and your legs together, feet flat on the floor. Enjoy the effects you created in just a couple of minutes of shaking around. 

How do you feel? All shook up in a good way?

Thanks for reading! 

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