Empowered Health: Fighting eating disorders through dance
For years, Tannis Hugill endured eating disorders. Not that anyone around her knew.
“I was a choreographer, an experimental dance theatre artist, and I was fully in the world,” recalled Hugill. “The eating disorder was a hidden thing — which is very common.”
The Montreal-born Hugill was living in New York City at the time and seeing a psychotherapist about her condition. “But I knew in my gut talking was not helpful. I knew that I needed to see a dance movement therapist.”
In New York, Hugill studied dance and theatre until moving to San Francisco to look after her parents. She returned to Canada in 2001 and moved to Vancouver, where she practises dance therapy with clients in her east Vancouver home.
Hugill, who is a registered clinical counsellor, a board-certified (through the American Dance Movement Association) dance movement therapist, and a registered drama therapist, treats people with the same disorders she once had. She also treats people who are struggling with trauma.
“I help people connect with their strengths and resources,” Hugill said. This boosts her clients’ self-confidence and “gives them the resources that help them come back to more of a sense of centre for themselves when we go to the more emotional places we need to go.”
Dance therapy, or dance movement therapy, isn’t about doing the cha-cha. In some ways, the process resembles mindfulness meditation.
“We’ll check in verbally and talk about bringing them to their bodies, and noticing and being able to talk about what the sensations are, what they feel like,” Hugill said. “One has to be in the moment, so we’re using a mindful observation process. We explore whatever thoughts and feelings and images might come up. Then we might go into a more experiential modality.”
Some of her clients have difficulty setting boundaries with other people. “Instead of being able to mobilize a protective response, they freeze,” Hugill said.
So she might do something as simple as toss a ball to them and have them push it back. “It’s new information just to push the ball back. So we talk about what that felt like — to push something away. Then we’ll start looking at core beliefs, and looking at building new patterns and new behaviours.”
Hugill also helps her clients to feel grounded. “I have them imagine they’re sending roots into the earth so that they’re experiencing themselves as centred and not easily pushed around. That goes a long way toward helping manage anxiety.”
Clients are encouraged to sense their energetic and physical boundaries by imagining a sphere around themselves, and then moving within. “The sphere can be constructed out of whatever they want — bricks, flowers, waterfalls. Some people have images of clear plastic or cement with holes in it, depending on their level of need for safety and protection.”
Many of the people she sees in her practice (http://www.awakeningbodywisdom.com/) and at the Chopra Addictions and Wellness Centre in Paradise Valley, where she works twice a week, are “constricted,” Hugill said.
“It’s a new experience for them to feel their spines long and really be as large as they actually are, and to take their full space in the world and not be intruded upon. Some women will just start to cry because it’s new for them to have their own space.”
Hugill’s own problems stem from her childhood. “I had been heavy as a child,” she said. “This was painful for me.” She lost the weight in her early teens but then began to put it back on. So in her mid-teens she began to diet and before long was starving herself. “I got really hungry and couldn’t help myself,” she said. “I’d eat ravenously, then make myself throw up.”
She hid her bulimia for years, even as she went in and out of therapy. Finally, at 41, she began to see a dance movement therapist. “Within the first three or four months, my body started to enact sexual abuse from when I was very little,” Hugill said. With the new information, it wasn’t long before she was able to stop her self-destructive dieting habits.
She is now committed to helping others with eating disorders enter into a positive relationship with their bodies. “The war is in the body,” Hugill said. “That’s where the behaviour and symptoms are enacted.”