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Patterns in the Sand: Experiences with Bartenieff Fundamentals

by Elaine Pelletier, RCC

The Skytrain doors open and I move quickly to grab a seat. Directly across from my seat by the door, my suitcase anchored between my legs I see two, very tall women with suitcases much larger than mine. Athletes travelling home? One of the women leans with her back against the wall, feet firmly planted to the floor, while the other stands upright holding her large suitcase with her legs and pelvis. She and the suitcase seem symbiotic as her lower body stabilizes allowing animated upper body expression and discussion with her friend. A man wheels his bicycle onto the train. These ladies are in the spot for bikes, he pauses a brief second as all his intention of movement holds, but as he quickly waves and smiles to the women, who to offer to move, he turns his bike into the area that connects this car to the next. Parking his bike against the wall, still holding onto the frame, he grounds in his lower body, one leg before the other, seeking stability, and his entire torso leans forward in the space between his hips and his bike, also shaping to his environment, meeting his immediate need of rest. Looking diagonally across the aisle from me I see a person sitting heavily into the seat, wrapped thoroughly with winter coat, scarf, and hat such that no face can be seen, body inert, no breath visible. Sleeping? Maybe, but her hands firmly grasp a large shopping bag from a downtown store. Exhausted perhaps. No movement. As the train begins to fill, a youth maybe in the mid-teens now stands off to the left of me, near the support pillar, but not holding on. The train doors close and the train’s force of momentum carries us. The youth nearly stumbles and I wonder if he is trying out his core-support and adaptive flexibility? He is lithe and carries his centre of weight high in his body. He continues to be unstable, having to grab the bar multiple times, re-establish his footing and try again. I briefly watch his breath, high and shallow. Seeking grounding, with or without intentional goal, perhaps exploring the option of playful awareness. I continue to wonder about the boy’s spatial intent and resulting spatial tension.

I am returning from a workshop on Bartenieff Fundamentals (BF) observing myself and those around me. BF stems from the Laban Movement Analysis System and is a somatic, body-based practice, founded in developmental movement patterns, efficient movement functioning and personal expression, with the goal to help people “…discover and pattern inner connective pathways in the neuromuscular system which leads to full body integration and connectivity” (p. 1).1 Filled with internal sensing, a lively awareness of my own body, my spatial shaping and spatial intentions, I feel connected to this environment of the train which moves and shapes internally as it speeds toward its destination. And then there is my breath, that all important first tool of self-awareness. The process of breathing grows or shrinks the shapes we hold with our bodies, while spatial shaping occurs with a bodily initiated spatial intent toward an ‘object’; the object embraced or repelled being the beginning of a spatial tension2. The study of movement developed by pioneers such as Rudolph Laban and Irmgard Bartenieff has a long and deep history. This body of knowledge is foundational to the fields of movement analysis and dance movement therapy, both of which have much to provide in the rediscovery of the importance of the body in psychological health.

Currently, sensorimotor focused psychotherapy and the research supporting is a fast developing field of work with clients who have experienced trauma. Different than the psychodynamic approach of talking about the trauma, somatically focused methods work directly with the body, the location of the first impact of trauma and where the cascade of physical and physiological effects are held3. This view suggests that “…traditionally trained therapists can increase the depth and efficacy of their clinical work by adding body-oriented interventions to their repertoire.”(p. xxviii )4 This evolving body of knowledge and the resulting methods of helping clients through their bodies5 are being researched and validated.6 Exploration and practice with mindfulness, a skill developed through meditative awareness, has contributed to the foundations of the this new field of psychotherapy.7, 8, 9 There seems to be a coalescing of diversity, a coming together of distant relatives, a gathering of souls, while at the same time an expanding of awareness and a recognition of the role of variability and the emergence of self-organized properties in what makes for a healthy person.10

“We can only observe behaviour, but we can also develop the skills to better intuit what a client’s behaviour in the moment is telling us about the state of their nervous system and what they have learned to do in order to survive. A client’s physical posture is one component of this — how does the client carry his/her body, is there evidence of “bracing”, do we see “collapse” or a lengthened spine?”(p. 11)11 I attended the BF workshop to re-establish my grounding in movement work, the roots of my therapeutic skill. While body and movement awareness are only some of the skills required to work therapeutically with the mind~body relationship of traumatized people, being aware and working with my own embodiment and mindfulness is instrumental, and as important as is the need to understand my own attachment patterns.12 BF, along with related and extended methods13, are an experiential system of movement analysis for the integration of skills and knowledge that can then be used to observe, evaluate, and interpret a client’s movement expressions. Other skills helpful to working with the body in therapy are to be able to tolerate, perhaps even be comfortable with, uncertainty,14 to understand the empathy inherent in nonverbal communication, bodily movement, and verbal communication, and to be aware of one’s own movement, inner sensations, and feelings.15 While these studies can become extensive, an initial exploration of the BF by a therapist begins the process of developing a deep comprehension of how people emerge through their embodied selves. This skill contributes to both therapeutic alliance and therapeutic response. I especially like how Bonnie Cohen expressed this: “I see the body as being like sand. It is difficult to study the wind, but if you watch the way sand patterns form and disappear and re-emerge, then you can follow the pattern of the wind or, in this case, the mind” (p. 11)16.


1 Redlick, D (2008). Who was Irmgard Bartenieff. Introduction to Bartenieff Fundamentals Workshop handout.
2 Bartenieff B, Lewis, D (1980/1997). Body movement: Coping with the environment (8th edition). Neatherlands: Gordon and Breach Publishers.
3 Buczynski R, Ogden P (2016). How to Help Clients Build Their Body’s Resources to Heal from Trauma. Transcript of Webinar: Why the Body Holds the Key to the Treatment of Trauma. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.
4 Ogden P, Minton K, Pain C (2006). Trauma and the body: a sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W.W.Norton.
5 Fisher J (2017). Changing Roles for Client and Therapist. In Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
6 Ogden P, Fisher J (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
7; Buczynski R, Siegel D, van der Kolk B, Ogden P, Porges S, Lanius R, Borysenko J, Schore A,Levine P, O’Hanlon B (2017). Transcripts of Webinar Treating Trauma Master Series. Connecticut: National Institute of the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.
8 Kabat-Zinn, J (2011). Some reflections on the origins of MBSR, skillful means, and the trouble with maps. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 281-306.
9 Bien, T (2006). Mindful therapy: A guide for therapists and helping professionals. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, Inc.
10 la Torre-Luque A, Bornas X, Balle M, Fiol-Veny A (2016). Complexity and nonlinear biomarkers in emotional disorders: A meta-analytic study. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, June. DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.05.023
11 Manley R (2016). Attachment, Trauma, and the Therapeutic Relationship. BC Psychologist, Summer, 10-12.
12 Manley R (2016). Attachment, Trauma, and the Therapeutic Relationship. BC Psychologist, Summer, 10-12.
13 Kestenberg Amighi, J & Loman, S (1999). The Kestenberg movement profile explained. In Kestenberg Amighi, J, Loman, S, Lewis, P & Sossin, KM (Eds). The meaning of movement. Developmental and clinical perspectives of the Kestenberg Movement Profile. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach Publishers.
14 Wengrower, H (2009). Chapter 2: The creative–artistic process in dance/movement therapy. In Sharon Chaiklin and Hilda Wengrower (Eds.). The Art and Science of Dance/Movement Therapy: Life is Dance. New York: Routledge.
15Fischman, D (2009). Chapter 3: Therapeutic relationships and kinesthetic empathy. In Sharon Chaiklin and Hilda Wengrower (Eds.). The Art and Science of Dance/Movement Therapy: Life is Dance. New York:Routledge.


An art therapist and clinical counsellor, Elaine Pelletier BFA MSc DVATI RCC, works for a not for profit agency in the Okanagan helping children, youth and women who have experienced sexual abuse or assault. Elaine also has a private practice Art|Mind|Movement Therapy providing individual and group therapy and workshops. This practice is primarily focused on the integration of, and recovery from, traumatic experiences for children, youth and adults. Elaine has extensive background with healthcare system critical incidents and can help people heal from the trauma experienced from other areas of complex system failures.