Liz Foster on ballet, dance therapy and healing through movement. By Christopher Currie.

Dance psychotherapist Liz Foster

Liz Foster watches her group of dancers carefully. She’s a teacher, clearly, and one deeply invested in the progress of her students. She stands at the edge of the class with her fingers pressed just above her clavicle, that universal sign of quiet pride. Foster is perfectly balanced, the way only those trained in ballet are, dressed in a simple black T-shirt and matching trousers worn down at the heel. Her students today are all employees of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, as well as dance teachers, or “teaching artists”, who she has spent the day training.

The class begins with movement exercises that seem simple at first but soon reveal themselves to be quite the opposite. The task of running around a room is made more interesting by the restriction that you must always be passing between two other people. A game beginning with participants matching nominated body parts soon becomes a fractious mix of unicellular reproduction and chain tiggy. What I’m witnessing, I understand later, is one of the central tenets of dance movement psychotherapy, a discipline in which Liz is a world leader: that is, that body and mind are never separate. These simple games are making their participants think about why and how they move.

Liz is here on behalf of the Royal Opera House, whose London headquarters also houses the Royal Ballet. Today’s class is something of a rehearsal for similar classes the teaching artists will be leading over the next few months across Queensland as part of We All Dance, a program intrinsic to the Royal Ballet’s upcoming Brisbane residency, seeking to engage disadvantaged communities and individuals.

After the class, I finally get to talk with Liz. It’s been a long day for her, having only arrived from London the night before, but she seems the kind of person for whom work only energises. It’s a whirlwind first visit to Australia, with a week of training in Brisbane and Cairns ahead of her, before returning in June with the full complement of the Royal Ballet, when they will bring the workshopped performances of the community groups into a cumulative piece to coincide with the opening of the ballet A Winter’s Tale. This “episodic piece of dance” will take place in the areas outside the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, incorporating the community members as well as Royal Ballet dancers. While its final form is unknown – “a moveable feast”, as Liz puts it – it feels even now full of promise and fascination.

It’s fair to say dance has been, and continues to be, Liz Foster’s life. “Ballet has always been my home,” she tells me. “My physical home. I started ballet, like a lot of girls do, when I was three.” While many of her friends slowly dropped out of class, she kept going, until eventually entering ballet school to train vocationally. She describes this as “a very risky thing to do”, a prophetic choice of words as, towards the end of her training, at just 18, she incurred a career-ending injury: long-standing peroneal tenosynovitis or irreparable stress to the tendons in her leg.

“When I stopped dancing after the injury, I didn’t think I’d dance again,” she says. “I ran away from dance.” A brief stint working in a solicitor’s office made it immediately clear that her true passion had not changed, but that her world view had widened. “I realised there were other things happening out there,” she says. “Other things I could engage with.” Liz retrained in contemporary dance, which involved much less stress in her legs, and began to establish her performance career.

During this time, she encountered a practising dance therapist, and was immediately impressed by her work. “I had no idea there was such a thing,” she says. “The seed was sown, though, that this was something that might be possible.” In her late 20s, she began a “hideously expensive” but “very illuminating” MA in dance movement psychotherapy. She took to it straight away, and it’s easy to see why. The way Liz talks is the way she teaches: open endings, possibilities, the honest excitement of creating connections. Her passion, like her philosophy, is kinaesthetic.

“I think people are a little afraid of ballet. Physically it’s very removed from most people’s everyday experience. You look at those bodies on stage and they’re doing very extraordinary things. It doesn’t look that inclusive. However, as an art form, and as a vehicle for discovering expression, it’s really hugely valuable. The roots of classical ballet are in celebration of the human form, after all.”

The workshop participants I observe are eager and able, but this is not always the case. “You’d be surprised, though, how willing people are, if they’re brought into it in a trusting, non-threatening way.” Many of her students have physical or cognitive disabilities, something Liz sees as absolutely no hindrance to teaching or learning. “The thing with dance,” she explains, “is that it’s completely non-verbal.” Dance, she tells me, is a sliding scale of movement, where the act of movement is often the important thing, not why or how you’re moving.

I ask her, inevitably, what she gets out of her work. “I love dancing,” she tells me, “and I totally believe it  can empower and enrich people’s lives. Art, and particularly ballet, for me is about transformation. You go into the theatre, the lights change, the bodies come out and do wonderful things. They are transformed. In a workshop the same thing can happen. Our bodies and mind are not separate. Our bodies do something, they open out, and we feel differently about ourselves and about the other people in the room. Being able to facilitate those moments, and being part of them as well, is so enriching. I feel privileged and delighted and lucky that this is my job.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 15, 2017 as "Dance encounters".

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Christopher Currie is a Brisbane-based writer. His next novel is Clancy of the Undertow.

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