Teaching artist Ambria Cunningham is a Licensed Associate Professional Counselor (LAPC) and works as a mental health counselor on a forensic psychiatric unit. She is also a registered Dance and Movement Therapist (DMT) and is working toward becoming board-certified.
We sat down with Ambria to talk about what inspired her to become a dance and movement therapist, why she teaches, and her recent presentation at the American Dance Therapy Association Conference.
How did you become a dancer?
When I was in fourth grade, my best friend took me to one of her dance classes. I went home and I said, “Mama, I want to dance,” and she enrolled me in jazz and tap classes. My teachers pushed me to do more ballet and then one of my teachers suggested that I look up Western Kentucky University, where she studied dance. I decided to look it up, auditioned for the ballet company, got in, and that was it.
What inspired you to become a dance movement therapist?
When I was in college, we had this girl in the ballet company that used to cut herself. All the other students would talk about her when we were putting on our pointe shoes and that always bothered me. So, one day, I told her to get in my car and said, “Come talk to me.” She said she used to see a therapist, but she was having a really hard time and cutting made her feel better. I let her know that if she ever needed anyone to talk to or to go with her to the counseling services, I would help her. Ever since then, I knew that I was meant to help people, but I knew that I didn’t want to do it in a traditional way. Not everyone can do “talk therapy”; sometimes you have to be able to sit with it and experience it. I think that was what shifted me from a double major in dance and exercise science to dance and psychology.
Why do you teach?
I teach because I feel like if I had a “me” when I was a dancer, I would have been able to deal with things like puberty, just being able to say “I don’t want to be touched” in school, dealing with moods and emotions. I just wish I had someone to ask me, “Are you okay today?” and know that it was okay to say, “No, I’m not okay today.” When I was in dance, it was just, “Oh, you don’t feel good? Well, just suck it up and get this 8-count.” So, I had to dance through it, and that’s why I always say that dance saved me emotionally.
What has been your proudest/most exciting moment as a teacher?
I would have to say seeing the pieces transform from “I’m learning” to “I think I’ve got this, I can do it,” to, full-blown performance. Seeing the transformation, that’s the most exciting part. When they’re learning, I go from frustration — “Why did I choose this movement, they’re never going to get it” — to “I knew they could do it all along.” It’s an emotional process and a physical process and at the end, there’s this big release and you feel so accomplished… It gives you the energy to do it again.
What has been your proudest/most exciting moment as a dancer?
When I was in high school, I did ballet on pointe for a few years and basically decided that it wasn’t for me. So, when I auditioned for the ballet company at Western Kentucky University, I planned to do it in flat ballet shoes. I brought my pointe shoes just to humor them, but I didn’t know the audition was en pointe. I was surprised to get into the company because I thought I did so horribly. Then, the first piece I got cast in was en pointe — the Snowflake part in The Nutcracker — and I basically learned and performed pointe at the same time. I had to work harder, lost a few toenails along the way, but I made it through.
Do you have a teaching philosophy? If so, what is it?
I just go with the flow. I guess that could be my philosophy because I like to see what I have in the room. Some days, the girls can be really high energy and I normally don’t even follow my plan. So, if they’re high energy, I like to do something that grounds them so that they’ll be in a place to do some choreography. If they’re really low energy, I do something feel-good to bring the energy up. I think that is my philosophy, to get a feel of the room, so I know what they need and what I need to do.
What do you like most about teaching at Moving in the Spirit?
I like the youth development model, and I think it goes back to wishing I had a person to check in with me. Not only is it dance, structure, technique, but you’re also addressing the pertinent issues for each age group because they all have things that they’re working through.
What is dance therapy?
My definition is “empowering people through the connection of the mind, body, and spirit.” Kids are not necessarily connected with the whole body. They might be connected to their feet and their arms, but how does that connect to their core, how do their heads connect to that, how are their heads connected to their tails… So, just bringing awareness to the body and how the body contains emotions and how emotions affect our impulses — that’s all movement therapy. I like to call it movement therapy because when people hear “dance,” they think ballet, or something classical, so I say movement because stillness is movement, breath is movement, just a flick of your finger is movement.
How do you integrate dance therapy and/or youth development principles into your class?
Getting the feel of the room, that’s Marian Chace, one of the founders of dance and movement therapy. She would allow patients to come into the room, get a feel for where they are, and then bring them into the circle and check in. That’s why I like to let them come in and see what they’re going to give me during check-in. Sometimes, during check-in, someone will say, “Well, I’m mad,” and I’ll say, “Why are you mad?” and then I bring it out to the group so they don’t feel alone: “I’m mad at my mom because she wouldn’t let me have X.” Then, another student might say, “You know what, my mom wouldn’t let me have that one time!” And then you can process how that person dealt with it, just to normalize it. At that age (9-12 years), they feel like they are the only ones going through a particular situation. When you bring it to the group, they realize that it’s not just them, that they’re not alone.
In performances, I deal with their frustration by letting them sit with it because if they walk away from the frustration, I consider that quitting. I tell them that quitters never win and that sometimes you have to fight through the frustration of a movement to feel a sense of accomplishment.
You recently presented at the American Dance Therapy Association conference. Can you tell me a bit about that?
I presented “An Alternative Method to Treating ADHD in African-American Males,” and what I was trying to bring awareness to is how the stigma of the Black man relates to the stigma of the Black child in class who has ADHD. So, when you think of a Black man, they are stereotyped as absent fathers, unreliable, their only way out of the community is being an athlete, thug, all of those things. Then, when you have a Black child in a class that is disruptive, now they’re the problem child, they’re intellectually limited, but actually, ADHD causes them to rush through their work or not finish it because they can’t focus, not because of intellectual ability.
I wanted to show them that the use of hip-hop texts could be a way to connect with children and could serve as a different method for ADHD treatment. I realize that that could be another stereotype, but kids connect to it, they relate to it, they know the artists, they know the songs, they want to dance to it, they can focus on that. I took the participants through different activities to do using a song, from hearing the lyrics and writing down imagery and emotions, to crafting a movement phrase in reaction to it and processing throughout. I wanted them to be able to take it away and use it with others.
Ambria teaches both GLOW in Motion and Apprentice Corporation performance companies. Learn more about her background here.