Pole as Metaphorical Mother Part I: The Holding Environment
Amy H. Olson, LCSW, CEDS-S
It is well known that bodily experiences mirror the narratives of our lives, particularly our earliest developmental experiences. Our bodies "know" and "speak" without words. Creative dance and movement artistically and therapeutically access the interrelatedness of the mind and body through gesture and expressiveness. This three-part essay explores the unique aspects of Movement Based Expressive Arts using the chrome 45mm dance pole. This apparatus and the space around it offer the mover parallel aspects of "the holding environment," "transitional object" and "secure base" as conceptualized in psychoanalytic and attachment theory. I propose, that when used reflectively, the pole has much to offer professionals working in the field of creative and expressive therapies as well as a non-clinical population looking to move creatively for pleasure, growth, and development.
We have complicated relationships with our mothers*. This complex relationship contributes to the texture of future relationships, including the one we have with our bodies. Our mothers are our first erotic relationship - meaning, the bond is very sensory based. A mother holds, strokes, nuzzles and suckles her baby. Her comfort in her own body and mind is communicated to the baby. Mother's feelings about her own sensual or erotic nature determine how she will hold and respond to that same energy in her developing daughter. Because we initially learn to love in this sensory-based way, it follows that we can explore how we love, and maybe even improve our loving, by returning to our bodies, our senses.
I have come to believe that a good number of women, with expressive, freestyle, pole based movement practices grapple with the residue of complicated maternal relationships. When used as part of a movement based expressive arts (MBExA) practice, the pole becomes a pathway for growth. In motion, we create forms where we see aspects of ourselves, reflected back to us. Imprints of who we are, how we love and how we have been loved are stored in our tissues, waiting to "speak" to us. It is the philosophy of MBExA that interpreting or making meaning of these forms is highly personal and can only be done by the individual herself. Even when assisted by a trained professional, or supported by a group, it is the mover who looks upon her dance, communicating to herself, "I see you! I know you! Let's try to understand!"
Here I ask the reader to take an imaginative leap and explore the pole as a metaphor for a mother. Through this lens, we understand why, when some of us begin our practices, we are so enchanted. In a sense, we are finding a home base, a secure base. The pole becomes highly significant in our minds, routines, and homes. Our poles take up residence in spare bedrooms, basements and family rooms. After the initial strangeness, families seem to easily integrate the pole into community space, as if it were, oddly, a person. In psychological terms, we may say that the pole becomes a highly cathected object.
Metaphors work on us on many levels, deep in our unconscious minds, making them compelling and useful for physiological and psychological transformation. When we work with the pole reflectively, we enjoy the pleasure of the apparatus and accompanying movement, and, we are re-creating and rewriting incomplete developmental processes. And maybe, we are changing how we love.
In the first (and longest) of this three-part post, I'll explore the pole and space around it as a "holding environment" based on the work of D.W. Winnicott. Part two applies Attachment Theory's concept of "secure base" to the steel pole. Part three looks at the pole through the lens of Winnicott's "transitional object."
Moms, Mergers & Separations
Life is all about navigating closeness and distance. Moving near, and moving away. The degree to which we can navigate this complicated relational process determines, to some extent, our level of well-being throughout our lives. Maya Angelou's poem, "A Cradle to Hold Me" poignantly depicts the love and pain of the embodied closeness, and distance, between mother and daughter. It describes the early state of merger in this dyad, a sense of shared skin. As mother and baby bond, the space between them loses features of ordinary space and time. It is an oceanic resting place for both baby and mother to "fall in love" with one another.
"Your voice, it was shaped and tuned to soothe me,
Your arms were molded
Into a cradle to hold me, to rock me,
The scent of your body was the air
Perfumed for me to breathe."
Mother's body is a sensory adventure of touch, sight, smell, and rhythm. This oceanic bliss, however, is not sustainable, nor is its permanence desirable. Here, the paradoxical nature of our human-ness begins. We need our mother to be resilient, to provide enough stability for our safety. We also need her to use her resilience, to tolerate some instability in the environment. She has to let go a little, so we can move away from her, explore, maybe fall, and then return. But not too much, not too soon.
How much should she let go? How soon does this happen? Each mother/infant pair can only determine this. If it occurs too late, the child's sense of self, undermined, her ability to tolerate frustration delayed. Too early and the safety of the bond, jeopardized, the child is overwhelmed. Fortunately, these aspects of a "good enough holding environment" are accomplished by a "good enough mother." She doesn't have to be perfect. The process of getting it wrong, the failures and trying again, develop trust and empathy in the child.
Later in the poem, Angelou describes the gradual reckoning a child experiences as she discovers she is only part of her mothers' world, not her mothers' entire world. Mother has other children to tend to, a partner of her own, work and interests outside of the home. This is a major developmental shift for this dyad - the mother will come and go. Children rail against this reality with anger, anxiety and physical force, destructiveness. "Good enough holding" means that mother endures these times, without retaliation, and while keeping the child safe. Angelou writes of this reality settling in:
During those early, dearest days
I did not dream that you had
A large life which included me,
For I had a life
Which was only you."
Complicated. Wonderful. Painful. These words describe our relationships with our mothers, and subsequently each person we will grow close enough to love. Themes of coming together and separating continue throughout the entirety of our lives. Our experience of this is found in our dance if we look. Coming together and separating is the experience of pole based movement - we grasp and let go. We pull close, we wrap around, rest and then move away. Externally the forms, the movements, may look more complicated. Underneath it is quite simple.
The Pole & The Holding Environment
The pleasures and struggles of the "holding environment" are articulated in Angelou's poem. This term was introduced in 1960 by psychoanalyst and pediatrician DW Winnicott. Between 1943 and1962, his reverence for mothers was demonstrated through over 50 talks given on the BBC. He broadcasted his ideas about the "good enough mother," the mother who needn't be perfect and who was allowed to fail. Until his death in 1971, he continued to write and see patients. Some of his final works focused on themes of the rigidity of gender norms and the mixture of genders in all human beings. His attention to the primacy of human relationship, particularly on a somatic level, has made his work notable in the fields of dance movement therapy and other body related psychotherapies.
More than anything, Winnicott was interested in how someone becomes a person. What favorable and unfavorable conditions inspire, or inhibit, creative, autonomous living? Through my study of Winnicott, and my experience in MBExA, I find that the pole and the space around it share vital qualities with "the holding environment." And despite the pole being essentially a neutral object, movers project onto it, at times consciously, at times not, elements of early developmental triumphs and struggles. This unique apparatus has the potential to activate internal dynamics, and thus holds potential in creative arts and movement therapies.
There is something natural about the desire to dance with an object, making it who or what we need it to be at that moment. In personal contact with Dance Movement Therapist and Jungian Analyst, Tina Stromstead, Ph.D., I shared my interest in expressive pole based movement. In return, she shared the delightful story below. She references Janet Adler, also a Jungian analyst, and Dance Movement Therapist.
"Interestingly, when doing Authentic Movement* in Janet Adler's first studio here in California, we were in an old Creamery out in the countryside that was converted into a lovely, contained dance studio that had a post in the middle of the space! Jan wrapped it with a rope so we could move about safely with eyes closed.
During those years it became so many things as you say - support, spine, dancing partner, masculine, father, axis mundi, a place to lean - as many things as there were movers and witnesses".
In another personal communication, Expressive Arts Therapist, trauma specialist and creator of Dancing Mindfulness, Jamie Marich, Ph.D., reflected on the delights of dancing in her family's basement as a girl, with a support post as a de facto dance partner. My enthusiasm for using the pole reminded her of this very organic experience. I'm sure there are many more stories such as these!
The "holding environment" between a mother and child, and with a mover and her pole, have both literal and metaphorical aspects. On a basic level, the mother provides for the child's physical safety and comfort. Winnicott used the term, "tissue aliveness" (1960), to describe the way her touch encourages vitality in the child. With her own body, she props the child up, to take in the world. The child then has access to experiences she cannot have on her own.
So, too, the pole encourages tissue aliveness, through pressure, rolling, grasping, gripping, pushing and pulling. Bodies curl in fetal positions around the base of the pole. Spines and tailbones rest against its support. The mover feels her impact as her own body warms the pole. She hears the satisfying rattle when force is used to push off of the pole. It reverberates but does not yield. The pole supports the discovery of movements not otherwise available.
During spontaneous movements, boundaries can blur, obscuring for the mover, a sense of where she ends and the pole begins, much like the early state of merger for mother and baby. In the beginning, it's all the same to the baby, what is her, what is her mother, what is the environment. Only slowly, the developmental insight of "me" and "not me" is defined. As movers integrate spontaneous movement with a slowing down and tracking, boundaries between inside and outside the body become more clear.
Experienced movers embrace, gaze, reach for and push away from the pole in ways that mirror early dyadic, as well as other love relationships. The pole "becomes" and "dissolves" again and again. The eroticism commonly associated with this apparatus invites women, if they wish, to experiment with sensual movement. It grants permission and support to explore in the presence, metaphorically, of the mother. "You, your body, your desires, are alright here" - something so many women long to know.
Of course, depending on a woman's preferences, and trauma history, some types of sensual movement may not be appropriate. The pole is not limited or defined by any one kind of movement. A MBExA practice defines the sensual in the broadest sense - use of the common physical senses. Societal erotic associations to the pole are transcended, and imprints of our first erotic relationship are evoked. These imprints live deeply in our unconscious minds and our tissues.
The actual space around the pole is also reflective of the "holding environment." The physical area required is quite small, a radius of 6 feet, lending to a particularly womb-like feel. One can move quite a bit, and experience many movement qualities in this fairly small space. Of course those who move freely to and away from the pole, or between poles, may appreciate more space. Small areas offer containment and centeredness.
Mover: Mother Thyself
Winnicott noted that the child sees herself reflected in her mother's facial expressions and gestures. So too does the artist see aspects of herself reflected in the forms she creates. She sees her own "coming close" and "moving away." Her tender gestures, angry pushes, and awkward hesitations. Quite literally, in the stainless steel pole, the mover sees her own reflection! Movement can be more difficult to ponder than a painting or sculpture in hand. But it is still a creative work reflecting the experiences and feelings of the mover. "…In (her) creative work, the artist both senses, and gives form to, structures of (her) own experience, as though she has taken into herself, the role of attuning mother" (Wright, 2014, p. 312)
In creating forms with our bodies, we create a snapshot of ourselves, our state of mind, at that one unique moment in history. And as we create, we can study it, observe it, play with it. We experiment with holding our sweetness and rough edges, in our symbols and metaphors. "Our art speaks back to us if we take the time to let in those messages" (Rogers, 1993). Perhaps those who seriously pursue art suffer from a deficit in maternal care, and attempt to right that by bringing the self to life with forms (Wright, 2014, p. 312) in the way mothers bring vitality to their babies.
"When I look I am seen, so I exist" (Winnicott, 1971, p. 114). We all deeply desire to be seen, known and understood in ways reminiscent of the early holding environment. When we engage in MBExA process, we act as our own "good enough" mother. In recognizing that it is process, not perfection that is important, we may even identify ourselves as a"good enough mover," or a "good enough artist."
The pole and the space around it is an emergent field, reminiscent of "the early holding environment." The metaphor of the pole as a mother offers an artistic and therapeutic dimension to the space. We may find this space in a home practice, community studio or with a helping professional. This MBExA practice helps us plumb the depths of our inner life. Here we can explore, and rework, aspects of early maternal love. We can study our movement, our forms, to understand how we love, and perhaps learn to love more completely. Here we enter a special conversation with ourselves.
*I use the term mother in these essays, as she is often the primary caregiver. Specifically, I am referring to the caregiver who provides the maternal function, recognizing this can be a man. However, there are significant implications of same-sex identifications of a mother and her daughter, specific to this pair that will become relevant in later posts
**Authentic Movement is a practice I will detail, as well as its applications to pole based movement, in following essays
Angelou, M. (2006). Mother: A Cradel to Hold Me. New York, NY: Random House.
Rogers, N. (1993). The Creative Connection: Expressive Arts As Healing Paperback. NY, NY: Science & Behavior Books.
Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. , 1-156. London: Tavistock Publications.
Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 41:585-595.
Wright , K. (2018). Maternal Form in Artistic Creation. In The Winnicott Tradition. Lines of Development: Evolution of Theory and Practice Over the Decades (pp. 305-313). NY, NY: Routledge.