Meet Suzi Tortora, Dance Movement Therapist and Infancy Mental Health and Development Specialist
Interviewed by Ellie Duke
“Understanding how much you communicate nonverbally and how many of your non-verbal cues are movement-based, influences your way of thinking, parenting, and experiencing life.”
note from susan
Suzi Tortora (or Miss Suzi as she's often referred to in our house) was my daughter's first dance teacher and my son's only dance teacher. My daughter (who is now an adult) credits Suzi with teaching her a way of bringing awareness to her posture from the inside-out that has been remarkably helpful - so much so that she uses it to this day!
Suzi and I met when my daughter was three and we quickly became close friends and colleagues. In the early 2000s, we collaborated on the development of movement-based mindful games for young children. Many of those games are woven through my books and the Inner Kids model. Through our work together, Suzi has taught me ways to bring a felt-sense awareness to life experience that informs the way I understand myself, other people, and the world. I'm not sure who Suzi's teaching has had a greater effect on - me or my kids.
In the profile below, Suzi talks with Ellie Duke about various ways that we communicate with one another that go beyond words and are often outside of our awareness.
If you take a class with Dr. Suzi Tortora, you might find yourself crawling around on the floor, wiggling around in mirror with your infant, or dancing around with your eyes closed, engrossed in your bodily experience. No matter what you do, the goal is to find yourself more in tune with your body and the way you communicate without even knowing you’re doing it.
Suzi is a board certified dance movement therapist and expert in early childhood development, and a Laban Nonverbal Movement Analyst. She has a private dance movement psychotherapy practice with two locations, one in New York City and one in Cold Spring-on-the-Hudson, New York. She also teaches courses and lectures on dance therapy and movement analysis.
Can you tell me about Laban Movement Analysis? What kinds of things do you look for when analyzing someone’s movement?
Laban is the foundation for much of my work. It’s a non-verbal observation that looks at the quality of a movement. Unlike a typical body language reading - where when someone crosses their arms it means one thing, or when they cross their legs it means something else - in Laban, we look at what the action is and how the action is performed. That how is the important piece and has to do with several factors. One factor is the effort of the feeling tone of the action. Another factor is the shapes that the body makes: how the person is moving through space, the directionality of movement, the various levels of space — whether they’re on the ground, mid-level, or what we call high-level space. In other words, we’re looking at how someone moves in relation to the larger space around them. We also look at the phrasing of a person's movements - how does their movement action begin, what happens in the middle, and how does it end. Analyzing phrases of movement is a lot like analyzing phrases of speech. The last factor we look at is how a person's body moves - what parts of their body do they move, how do the various parts of the body move together, is there a lot of articulation. For instance, if you think about Michael Jackson, he had a lot of movement articulation, in a very sequential way his movements would ripple through his body. Whereas with Martha Graham, much of her work involved shaping through her abdomen, often with pelvic work and with large body shapes. Ultimately, what we look for is how someone puts all of these details together to inform their personal movement signature. Similar to the way we have our own handwriting signature, we have our own way of moving. You see examples of this all the time. If you’re walking down the street, and you see a friend in front of you, you can tell it’s your friend even though you can't see their face because of the tilt of their head, or the way they sway their hips, or the way they move their arms. Those are a few of the movement qualities I'm referring to, and this example shows how people cluster these qualities together to make their personal movement statement.
I teach parents this way of looking at movements to help them understand their child's non-verbal communication and their own. Parents communicate much more through their body language than through their words. Very often, a parent's words may be saying one thing, but their body is saying something different. That can be quite confusing for a child! This is especially important for parents to remember because children and infants are deeply attuned to the sensations around them and pick up more on nonverbal cues than words alone.
In a nutshell, understanding how much you communicate nonverbally and how many of your non-verbal cues are movement-based, influences your way of thinking, parenting, and experiencing life.
Do you have advice for people who have difficulty getting in tune with their bodies?
Everyone has a nonverbal style of engagement and is communicating nonverbally all of the time. Even where there is no physical movement, there is communication. In my work, stillness is movement and something to analyze.
There’s a lot of talk about embodiment among psychologists, but most of it is just that - talking about embodiment. In my work, I help people understand embodiment through felt experience. To me, that is what true embodiment is: owning the experience of being in your body. Many people have a hard time with that. The rise of yoga and mindfulness have been helpful in my field because people are starting to slow down. Breathwork, mindfulness, and yoga are useful tools, to get people to start listening to their bodies.
In my world, we understand the body as a map to all of our experiences. Everything that’s ever happened to us is held in our bodies, quite literally. I talk about the body-mind-emotion connection, there’s a continuum, and in my therapeutic work, my goal is to help people see how to enter into that continuum at any point and understand how all three are influencing one another and influencing their experience.
There’s a technique called Authentic Movement that's similar to a mobile or embodied meditation. We start with our eyes closed standing in a room. Someone witnesses the mover while the mover keeps their focus inward. We encourage the mover to breathe and wait for sensation and movement to come from within, and when it does we encourage the mover to follow that sensation. It’s a remarkable process, where experiences that are held in people's bodies unfold in their movement. They might start moving around the room or they might stay still for a long time. Either way, they’re letting their body move them, rather than having their mind direct their body.
People usually have actions that go along with their language and verbalizations. In my therapeutic work, I might draw attention to an action and ask someone to quiet their talking and elaborate on the action instead. That’s where the Laban work will come in. So for example, I had one patient who made a fist with his hand every time he finished a sentence. He might be gesturing with his hand, and then he would make a fist. I drew attention to that. I asked him to try, instead of ending with a fist, to see what it would be like to open his hand. Then I encouraged him to play with different ways of opening his hand, instead of ending each gesture in a fist. That process triggered a remarkable change. When he opened his hand, he was exploring this idea of opening, of possibility, of reaching out rather than closing up. This person was living in a very closed-off way, was isolated, and was feeling misunderstood. He was not aware of how much he wasn’t sharing. He was shutting down, quite literally, through his movements.
How does this link to your parent-child work?
Imagine a scene where a toddler has just made a mess and the parent notices the mess only when it’s time leave the house. The parent is in a rush and wants the child to clean up but the child is engaged in play. The parent may enter the room quickly, might be firm in their facial expressivity and abruptly pick up the child. The parent is probably not aware that their actions are communicating a more aggressive stance than the one that they're feeling — they might just be in a rush! So it’s about helping a parent become aware that body actions might be communicating something that they aren't aware of that's not consistent with what they hope to communicate. A child is going to pick up the raw energy of what’s coming across through those movement qualities. That’s a typical example of a struggle a parent and child might have, where a parent is unaware of how much they’re conveying through their nonverbal style.
Can you tell me about the importance of infancy mental health?
I’ve been involved in the infant mental health field since the early ‘80s. People used to think that babies were basically a blank slate without a sense of themselves. It was only in the ‘70s or so that people started to realize that babies are fully people from the time they are born. They have feelings and needs and wants that they express to us. If we slow down and pay attention, we realize that babies are communicating all the time, not just by crying, but through their other actions as well.
There are three factors that influence how a baby develops - temperament, genetics, and environment. The third factor - the larger context of what a baby is experiencing - is a relatively new idea in the field of child development. Two children from the same family might have very different environmental factors during formative stages of their development. For instance, right now there’s a great deal of political stress in our country and many families are preoccupied with that - even little babies can feel that tension. If one child in a family is an infant right now, and another was an infant a few years back when there wasn’t this level of global anxiety, the formative infancy stage for those two children will be quite a bit different even though both children were raised in the same household by the same parents.
When working with kids with learning disabilities, it's especially important to hold in mind this idea that a child's environment factors into their development. Learning challenges often manifest as behavioral issues at first. If kids are in a school where the education system is not able to work with diverse learners, that child will feel unsupported and may end up acting out or withdrawing. But if the child is in a classroom where there’s both an understanding of learning differences and diversity in instruction, that classroom will be a nurturing environment. All three factors - nature, nurture, and the environment - are at play from infancy and affect how a child feels about his or her self throughout the lifespan.
What’s the first thing you do when working with parents and their babies?
In my parent-baby dance classes, I use dance, movement, and music as a way to help parents engage with their babies in a more attuned way. The first thing I do in a dance class is put music on — babies love rhythm — and ask parents to step back and watch their babies moving. Then, I ask parents to respond to their babies by copying their movements. If their baby is on the floor crawling, parents get on the floor and match the quality of the baby’s movement so the baby can see them. Parents and babies then start to have what I call a “dancing dialogue” as parents engage with their baby by mirroring his or her movements.
The next step is teaching parents to actively attune to their babes. Rather than just mirroring and doing exactly what the baby is doing, this mode of active attunement is when parents match some action or the quality of what the baby is doing; but parents don't have to do the exact same thing as their babies. By matching the feeling tone of their child’s movements, by providing eye contact with the baby, by noticing how physical the baby is and matching the babies physicality as best they can, parent and child begin a dancing dialogue.
I developed music and dance movement activities for parents that are similar to contact improv with your baby. The baby does a move, then parents do a move, then the baby does a move. With babies who are learning to walk, a parent will follow the baby almost like a little train. That’s a really cute thing to watch — the baby will turn around to watch their parents and get really excited about that. I also have organized activities. For example, for parents with young babies, eight months and younger, we move in a circle kind of like a square dance, we bring the babies into the circle, taking turns, and have the babies engage with each other. Throughout my class, I have the parents pause to stop and attend to their babies and the babies actions.
I watch a lot of videos online of dance classes and parent classes, and the big thing I see now are dance classes where parents have their baby strapped to them in a carrier. It’s very fun, but no one is paying attention to the baby. It’s like a fun workout for the parents, with the baby on them. They’re not pausing and engaging with the baby, the baby has to go along for the ride. I’m not saying don't do that, but that’s not what I’m doing. What I’m doing is about dialoguing with your baby, using dance and movement as a way to attend and attune to your baby, and to thoughtfully engage with your baby through music and dance. These are all ways of being present with your baby.
What books have most inspired you? Are there any books that you work with a lot, or you recommend to people who are interested in your work?
Well, I wrote a book! And one of the early books that I loved was The Interpersonal World of the Infant by Daniel Stern, which came out in the ‘80s. A book that helped me understand nonverbal analysis is called Body Movement: Coping With the Environment by Irmgard Bartenieff and Doris Lewis. I love Janet Adler’s work on authentic movement, specifically Offering from the Conscious Body: The Discipline of Authentic Movement. There’s a book by the art critic John Berger, Ways of Seeing, that has very much influenced me.
I loved the novel All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I can’t describe how deeply that book moved me. He wrote about felt, lived experience in a way that resonated with me. I also loved The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. And there’s a children’s book called Wonder by R.J. Palacio, about a child who is born with a facial deformation, that I love. I have another children’s book I adore called The Invisible String by Patrice Karst, about how we're all connected, through love.
I also read historical fiction, especially fiction that goes back and forth between the past and the present. This interest relates to my work, for when I work with people of any age I help them reflect on how their current behaviors fit within the context of their family dynamics and history. This is based on a concept called "transgenerational transmission" of traits. Some of my favorites books of historical fiction are New York by Edward Rutherfurd, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith, and The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani, a recent find that relates to my own immigrant Italian family’s story coming to New York.
How do you take care of yourself? Do you have a daily practice?
I believe that to stay healthy you need to do something that is centering and balancing, something strengthening, and something aerobic. I try to make sure that in my week (or sometimes in my day, when I can) I reach all those categories. I practice yoga, breathwork, and mindfulness. I dance and often learn new dance techniques. I'm enjoying ballroom dancing now because its social. To get around New York City (where I work) I don't take the subway but instead grab a Citi Bike. Being in nature soothes me - walking and hiking, for instance, and working in the garden. I live by the Hudson River and have a stream on my property, so the natural sounds are very much a part of my self-care. I don't listen to a lot of music when I’m home because there are so many beautiful sounds outside. But I often listen to music in the car and, because I do a lot of swing dancing and contra dancing, I listen to music related to those kinds of dancing.
Visual pleasure is also important to me, I love beautiful things and beautiful scenery, I’m particular about my spaces and how I decorate them. I love the color purple of all different shades, so I have a lot of purple things around me. Also, friendships are an important part of self-care! I like to bake and usually have a craft project going - knitting or sewing. I like to do complicated knitting projects to play around with the color and the texture of the wool. And the last thing I do to take care of myself is take baths - I love taking baths, with lots of scented candles!
Suzi teaches in several settings. In addition to working with children and families, she has adult students who she trains in how to work with families, and an international training program webinar called Ways of Seeing. Suzi trains therapists, mental health specialists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers.