What Is Psychomotor Therapy?

Dan Harkins

Created by American husband and wife dance instructors Albert and Diane Boyden Pesso, starting in about 1960, psychomotor therapy has evolved into an alternative discipline of psychological inquiry using improvised physical movements to tap into a patient's inner turmoil. Literally blending the root words "psycho," or mind, and "motor," or bodily movement, this technique has evolved into a complex method of analyzing a patient's problems and conquering traumatic memories. A therapist guides patients through a series of motions or exercises used to gauge attitudes about certain memories, and then employs various verbal and nonverbal techniques to patch and balm any problems that are discovered.

Many toddler toys are designed to require basic psychomotor skills.
Many toddler toys are designed to require basic psychomotor skills.

An essay from psychotherapist Louisa Howe's 1990 book Moving Psychotherapy, published online by the official Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor Web site, traces the official origin of psychomotor therapy to the couple's Wallaston Dance Center in Quincy, Massachusetts. At this dance center in the late 1950s, improvisational dance students were taught some of the most basic exercises that would form the spine of what would become psychomotor therapy. In the early 1960s, as both Albert and Diane became professors of dance at Emerson College, the exercises had become more formalized into a technique still used in 2011 by therapists around the world.

Psychomotor therapy involves a therapist gauging a patient's attitudes about certain memories.
Psychomotor therapy involves a therapist gauging a patient's attitudes about certain memories.

By 1963, Albert Pesso was ready to write the first tract about the discipline, an essay titled "New Perspectives in the Generation of Movement: With Implications Important to Dance Composition, Criticism and Appreciation." In it, he described the three main components, or "modalities," of psychomotor therapy: a natural, primal stance of relaxation; volitional, or improvisational, movements said to develop abstract thinking and allow for a sense of control or mastery; and emotional movements, which sprout from internal urgings. This latter modality reportedly gives therapists cues about the emotional shortcomings of patients.

Howe's essay describes a few psychomotor therapy exercises used to tap into the emotional well. One she describes is called the species, or "reflex relaxed," stance, which is often the first pose a teacher will have students assume. This is perhaps the most basic pose and involves standing in as relaxed a position as possible without going to a knee, sitting or lying down. The other exercises continue from this point into various directions, depending on the issues or emotions being experienced by the students.

In 1969, Albert Pesso's Movement in Psychotherapy was published. The book is still used as a guidebook for therapists interested in employing the tactics. The psychological elements of the therapy technique, however, have continued to evolve ever since as the couple and other adherents have applied the exercises to their own emotions and those of their students.

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