Wellness and Dance, a Profile on Molly Heller

16 January 2018 Published in News and Announcements

Molly Heller’s focus on wellness began long before her work in graduate school. By the time she was working on her thesis as an MFA student in Modern Dance at the University of Utah, her ideas for holistic approaches to life, in and outside the studio, were turning into focused dreams. Over the past year Heller has begun to see her work come to fruition, with programs and research that she considers to be just the beginning of exciting development in the fields of dance and the health sciences. 

With Assistant Professor Pamela Geber-Handman, Molly Heller wrote and was awarded a Dee grant through the Council of Dee Fellows, which provides “funds for the improvement of teaching in the College of Fine Arts and the College of Humanities”. The grant will fund the next steps in the integration of wellness practices into the School. The Wellness Immersion is a five-day forum designed to approach wellness holistically, to broaden one’s understanding of emotional health and to welcome diverse methods of approaching wellbeing within an artistic context. This Immersion was created in an effort to address the needs of the student body and to emphasize wellness within our School’s curriculum.

The primary objective of this project is to infuse the School of Dance with new ideas and transformational research/practices that will allow students and faculty to work together to create an environment where the whole person can thrive. With a goal to enrich student and faculty learning, this Immersion will welcome in the spring semester as a time to embody, integrate, and honor wellness.

The week will consist of lec-dems, movement and performance practices, panel discussions, and small group break out sessions - discussing what it means to embody wellness even when we’re off the mat and not in a setting that’s deemed a place of wellness. How do we bring mindful-living into the complexity of our everyday lives? Guests will include University of the Arts Assistant Professor, Jesse Zaritt (re-writing our relationship to dance and dismantling hierarchies that are present in practice and teaching), Michelle Boule (NYC artist and Body Talk Practitioner), and Debra Clydesdale who is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner (LA-based, certified through Trauma Institute). Boule and Zaritt will also share their physical research through a performance and post-show discussion.

Heller hopes that the immersive week, and other offerings that are in development, will influence how faculty are designing their curriculum, creating a ripple effect that will trickle out to create positive change throughout the entire School. Through these efforts, Heller hopes to be preparing the students to navigate a complicated world after graduating, giving them solid tools to help support their journeys ahead.

Molly Heller is also a part of the Arts-in-Health Initiative in the College of Fine Arts, led by Sydney Cheek-O’Donnell, Ph.D. Through the Initiative, Heller teamed up with Shelly White in the Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Wellness and Integrative Health Center, who has worked with Heller to create a workshop series on the expressive body. The workshop series for outpatient cancer survivors will primarily consist of healing movement practices, integrating other modes of expression, including talking, writing and painting, with a focus on allowing participants to have autonomy in their choice-making of creative expression. The goal of the 6-week workshop, beginning at the end of March 2018, is to help improve the quality of life for participants, an effect which may be quite different for each individual in the class. Heller expects that healing may be experienced through the community aspect of the classes, or through the weekly practices of rhythm, duration, and freedom of choice. An improved quality of life may mean an energetic or physical shift, increased mobility, or other physical and/or internal improvements.

On the horizon, Heller is hopeful for grant funding to continue the clinic work that she’ll be exploring at Huntsman. It’s the tip of an iceberg and all brand new for her, she says. Heller has mainly written about her research ideas and conducted studies inside of creative processes, so she’s excited about new partnerships and this opportunity to expand the ways in which she works.

A big goal of Heller’s is to create a certificate in Dance in Medicine within the School of Dance. Toward this pursuit, Heller is planning a trip to visit the University of Florida this year, which is currently a great model for Dance in Medicine programs right now.

Heller is also interested in continuing her education in the somatic experiencing realm, and is looking to get certified through the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute (TI) based in Boulder, CO, which she describes as a methodology that considers “the body as healer”. Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, and founder of the TI, has greatly influenced Heller’s research, including her thesis work which investigated the effects of trauma in the body. She is particularly interested in how this work and dance can come together, an interest shared by Debra Clydesdale who, along with visiting as a guest for the School of Dance’s wellness week, is trying to build a facet to the TI program that is dance specific.

Fully integrated into her wellness practices is Heller’s love for both creating dances and performing. As she navigates her new tenure line position, interests within the SoD, and the Huntsman Center, she is also excited to continue her journey as a dance artist. She doesn’t know if this will lead to a company model of some sort, but it seems sure that we can look forward to experiencing more of her dance works regionally and nationally. Satisfying her itch to continue moving with and learning from others, Heller will be joining recent Salt Dance Festival guest artist, Joanna Kotze, in May for a three-week residency at the Yard.

Wellness is about integration…for me nothing is ever one pod or compartment of practice. I don’t know how to separate my practices, so for me the way that I engage in making a dance, (which I’ll be doing this semester), the way that I hold a technique class, the way that I hold a lecture class, they’re all part of the same practice for me - it’s this way of being in life, so you’re in all versions of yourself, you’re in life, rather than accessing it from this teacher hierarchy or separation of self. Dance is just the best way that I know how to access this way of becoming, which goes back to my thesis research. I wrote my thesis on becoming – Becoming Incredible; Healing Trauma through Performance. You’re in being all the time. It’s not even about transformation… it’s about befriending yourself.”
 –Molly Heller

By Modern Dance Graduate Student Nichele Van Portfleet