GirlPower!: How a dance-based wellness practice equips adolescent girls for puberty
by Bonner Odell
Wellness, the state of being healthy in both mind and body, can occur naturally, but more often it takes work and awareness. Helping people achieve this state is the personal passion and professional goal of dancer Susanne Liebich, founder of Dancing Wellness in Concord, Massachusetts. Both a proprietorship and an approach, Dancing Wellness blends dance and various mind–body disciplines to facilitate body awareness and healing in a wide range of populations. Liebich’s students include people with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and muscular dystrophy; veterans with PTSD; pediatric burn victims; and clients who simply want to tone their bodies and center their minds.
Susanne Liebich incorporates African dance, belly dance, yoga, and a range of somatic practices into her GirlPower! movement classes.
There is one group, however, that is especially close to Liebich’s heart, and to whom she owes the idea to start Dancing Wellness: adolescent girls. She created her first wellness program, which she named GirlPower!, just for them.
The birth of GirlPower!
The idea to start a program for adolescent girls came to Liebich in 2008, when her daughter was going through puberty. At the time, Liebich was working in sales and marketing while looking for a way to transition into a career that would combine her love of dance, which she had studied since she was a girl, with her background in business. (She holds an MBA and worked in banking for several years.) In addition to working full time, for more than 20 years Liebich had taught dance and movement, including modern, jazz, and somatics. She also found time to gain certifications in the Stott Pilates®, Total BarreTM, Nia®, Moving to Heal (a Nia teacher training program), and Dance for PD® methods.
During this time, Liebich also became aware that her daughter’s sense of self was starting to be shaped more by social and cultural values than by family life. Inherent in these external messages was a strong pressure to measure up. It seemed to Liebich that physical appearance, social acceptance, grades, even healthy outlets like sports and the arts had become criteria by which her daughter and other girls her age felt compelled to judge themselves (and be judged by adults and peers alike).
Wanting to offer a different perspective on the coming-of-age experience, Liebich drew on her teaching background to create a workshop to help girls discover their unique voices and make connections in a safe, nurturing, and nonjudgmental setting: an immersive experience that blends expressive dance, mind–body exercises, nutrition, cooking, verbal and written expression, art, and self-care. Nine years later, GirlPower! has gained a reputation as a life-transforming program for girls in the Concord area, many of whom have participated more than once. The enthusiastic reception to GirlPower! led Liebich to believe she could craft a full-time career helping people through movement and holistic self-care. For the past four years she has done precisely that, focusing full-time on Dancing Wellness and its programs.
The GirlPower! experience
GirlPower! workshops are offered as one-day, four-day, and weeklong sessions. Liebich varies the location; past venues have included The Emerson Wellness Center for Mind and Body (where Liebich teaches many of her classes) and Thoreau Farm (the birthplace of Henry David Thoreau) in Concord; Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts; and, for a backpacking version of the workshop, the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Maine. In addition, schools, churches, and organizations including the Girl Scouts hire her to create customized workshops for the girls they work with.
Each GirlPower! workshop has a theme, such as “Simplicity” (for the Thoreau workshop), “Coming of Age Through a Cultural Lens,” “Empowering Girls by Exploring the Wild,” and “It Takes a Village,” in which business owners served as mentors.
For a November 2016 workshop called “Connection Through the Ages,” Liebich took a group of girls into the residential Alzheimer’s unit of a hospital where she teaches to assist with movement and art projects with the seniors. Beforehand, Liebich discussed with the girls some techniques for working with individuals who have memory disorders and she assigned a journaling exercise: to write about what it would be like not to be seen. Among other workshop activities, the girls assisted in a class for the residents that incorporated breathing exercises, stretching, and movement to music including a variety of props such as ribbon wands, instruments, scarves, and balls. “The girls embraced the challenge and even exceeded my expectations,” Liebich says. “They were extremely helpful in distributing and collecting the props, but more important, they each spent time with all the residents during the class, adding joy and pleasure to the experience.”
The GirlPower! program revolves around three tenets: circle discussion, journaling, and movement. “The circle discussion is not therapy,” says Liebich, “it is simply talk. It helps the girls learn to express themselves and to really listen to each other. Even the quietest, most awkward girl has a chance to share and be heard. I see quiet girls gain so much from this, because they aren’t always listened to [otherwise]. They’ve gotten used to fading into the background.”
At most sessions, Liebich says she’s prepared to see “how the flow of the conversation goes. The questions are as open ended as possible to get the girls to talk and think openly and freely.” Recent discussion prompts have included such questions as “What makes you similar to everyone in the class?” “What makes you different and unique?” “Have you ever felt ridiculed or made fun of because of this uniqueness?” “If you could wake up tomorrow with a superpower, what would it be and why?”
Throughout the day and after most activities, the girls use journaling as a way to process their experiences. The practice has proven especially transformative when it follows the daily movement and dance sessions. Liebich incorporates African dance, belly dance, yoga, and a range of somatic practices into her GirlPower! movement classes, as well as Nia, a technique that combines dance, martial arts, and healing arts. (See “A New Look at Nia.”)
“Nia is perfect for girls this age because it allows them to move the way their bodies want to,” Liebich says. “Some girls have never danced; others have studied dance for years. In Nia there is no competition—the point is to move with the emotions, to let go, and to find pleasure in [moving] one’s body.”
Liebich transitions frequently and quickly between movement activities, which keeps the girls from growing self-conscious. (“Walk around like you’re in high heels. Now move low to the ground like an animal. Walk through the space and look every person in the eye. OK—all together as a group: skip hops moving forward!”) She starts with popular music the girls are likely to know, then moves into the more ethereal soundscapes and tribal beats used in Nia. Class ends with loosely structured floor work (also a Nia hallmark), which allows time for play and relaxation.
Liebich says many girls say they feel more free and open after a dance session. She recalls one girl sharing something she’d written in her journal—that she felt silly at first, but by the end she “just didn’t care anymore.” She was too busy enjoying herself. Liebich believes that such experiences foster awareness and confidence in the girls, changing their attitudes toward their bodies, which tend to become sources of insecurity during puberty.
Woven throughout the workshops are periods of down time. “None of us should feel overstressed about what we are doing,” says Liebich. “I don’t want it to feel like school. The girls should feel like they can relax and take care of themselves.”
That message of self-care, simple in essence, is often neglected by preteens, teens, and adults alike. For that reason, wellness practitioners like Liebich never lack for opportunities to make an impact. “Someday,” she says, “I would love to consult with other organizations and help them design their own girl-empowerment programs that are sustainable within their communities.” In the meantime, Dancing Wellness will continue to inspire the Concord community to strive toward that state of mind–body health at the heart of wellness.
Bonner Odell has served as editor of In Dance, a lecturer at California State University–East Bay, and a teaching artist for Luna Dance Institute. She holds an MA in dance from Mills College.