“The body does not lie,” Martha Graham famously said. With these five words and her stage work, Graham brilliantly countered the fixed belief that the body and mind are separate entities. Inspired by this revolutionary view, Marian Chace (1896–1970), who briefly studied with Graham, began exploring the mind-body interrelationship on a very different stage—the wards of psychiatric hospitals—and in 1942 she became the first government-paid dance therapist. For three decades Chace helped shell-shocked soldiers, sexual abuse victims and the mentally ill use movement to communicate their feelings. Her work forever validated dance therapy as a profession. The former Denishawn dancer proved that dance isn’t just entertaining and beautiful; it could free the deepest parts of the soul and strengthen an entire person.
Born in Rhode Island, Chace relocated with her family to Washington, DC, where she would briefly study painting at the Corcoran School of the Arts. A profession in concert dance was almost as unheard of as a profession in dance therapy in the early 1920s. The reigning American dance figures either hailed from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes or the Denishawn Company. Chace trained with the latter group in New York City one summer, which culminated with her joining the company. She married fellow Denishawn dancer Lester Shafter and, in 1925, gave birth to their daughter, Sunny. Six weeks later the 28-year-old mother was back onstage. Moved by the exotic images and texts in Ruth St. Denis’ ballets, Chace began to develop an anthropological perspective on movement. “She became aware,” wrote scholar Martha Schwieters, “of the infinite numbers of ways one moves, based on cultural and religious backgrounds.”
After five years touring the vaudeville circuit with Denishawn, Chace and Shafer decided to establish a school in DC. Chace’s years running her school and company proved remarkably productive and demonstrated her forward thinking. She was one of the first white dance teachers to accept black students during the 1930s, and she also taught learning-disabled children. Chace wrote of her experience teaching the latter, “Instead of feeling frustrated when they lagged behind the more adequate ones, I tried to empathize with these students.”
But as the Great Depression unfolded, running a business and dance company, especially without the help of her husband (who had left her and moved to Los Angeles), was too much for Chace. She tried to take her life in 1936. Following hospitalization, she went to live in the home of a general practitioner who had an interest in her work. Two years later, Chace began working at an institution for abandoned children. Her work came to the attention of Dr. Winfred Overholser, the superintendent of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, who learned about Chace through writer Edith Stern. Stern’s Down’s syndrome teenage daughter had studied with Chace and always seemed happier and calmer after the lessons. In 1942 Chace was invited to work at the hospital.
With her silver hair tied in a bun, Chace walked St. Elizabeth’s halls in a full skirt, brown doeskin slippers and with a dancer’s inimitable vertical carriage. Her sense that patients were just people, whether apathetic, violent or catatonic, impressed the doctors, who were developing a new approach to psychotherapy. Chace always began her group sessions with a dance warm-up to waltz music. “Warm-up served several purposes,” says dance therapist Elissa White, who studied with Chace in the 1960s. “Aside from physically warming up the muscles, joints and the whole body, it gets you in touch with how you’re feeling.” The measured, circular sounds of the waltz helped the participants, says dance therapist Sharon Chaiklin, “to organize their bodies.”
It was Chace’s ability to establish “empathy through movement” that made her a “genius,” says Dr. Claire Schmais, who, like Chaiklin, apprenticed with Chace. Her process, now called empathetic reflection, was not merely mimicry of patients’ movement qualities. “She picked up,” explains Schmais, “on the essential emotional quality of the patient.” And in doing so she was nonverbally affirming, “I see you, I accept you as you are, and together we can change.” With this establishment of trust, Chace could shift the patients to a more positive inner state. “If the patients couldn’t stand on their own two feet, she would widen their stance to give them better balance,” says Schmais. “If there were some latent anger that they needed to express, she would start where they were and slowly evolve it.”
As Chace became a renowned figure in dance therapy (Time magazine featured her in 1959), she began to accept invitations to hold workshops and train others in her method. White, Chaiklin and Schmais became dance therapists as a result, and they developed with Chace the American Dance Therapy Association in 1966. But it wasn’t easy convincing Chace that the field needed a national organization. She feared that her work would be oversimplified and trivialized. She took teaching seriously, but taught in a style that was hardly trusting or nurturing. She was known to take over a student’s session if the patients were not responding, and when asked questions by her students, Chace would answer briefly, without elaboration. Her students learned by observation rather than actual direction. “She was a tough cookie,” says Schmais.
Chace worked with patients at Chestnut Lodge, a private psychiatric hospital in Rockville, Maryland, until the day she died at age 74. Last April St. Elizabeth’s Hospital announced it would call an outpatient area the Marian Chace Wing. The decision to name a wing dedicated to people with mental illness living independently honors Chace’s enduring influence on psychiatric treatment. DT
Freelance writer Rachel Straus is based in New York City. She holds graduate degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.
Dance/Movement Therapy: A Healing Art, by Fran J. Levy, AAHPERD Publications, 1988
Foundation of Dance/Movement Therapy: The Life and Work of Marian Chace, edited by Susan L. Sandel, Sharon Chaiklin and Ann Lohn, Marian Chace Memorial Fund of the American Dance Therapy Association, 1993
“Medicine: Dance Therapy,” Time magazine, February 23, 1959
Photo courtesy of the Marian Chace Foundation of the American Dance Foundation Association