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Alternative facts: Reflections on a critical arts-based project and co-teaching in graduate level mu

Teaching clinical competencies while integrating real-world, social justice issues around power, privilege, and oppression in society is core to our pedagogy.

During January 2017, I (Rebecca) found myself in need of responding directly and artistically to the anxiety that I was feeling and observing in my practice and on campus in our student and faculty community. The general election process revealed ‘fake news’ as a term and technique to manipulate truth. An example of this was the use of the term “alternative facts,” used by one of the president’s counselors on January 22, 2017, to explicitly manipulate the truth in response to a question asked about crowd size at the inauguration. In response, I proposed the Alternative Facts and Collective Anxiety project that Spring semester.

When Rebecca invited me (Nancy) to join her in an integrated arts social action piece, I shared the idea with my dance/movement therapy students. I also observed the hostility and racial, ethnic, gender-based and anti-immigration discrimination in our community and on campus. I proposed that we present the outcome at the Arts in Health Annual Conference hosted by Lesley University. As women in the world we both had conversations about our worries and fears about our rights, empowerment and voice. As women in positions of power, we also felt the need to take responsibility for our privileges in order to harness ‘movement’ to uncover and unpack the critical roots of shared anxiety about the manipulation of truth in the media and in politics.

Through our collaboration we wanted to provide an arena in and out of the classroom to learn about how this particular moment in time impacted mental health. Most of all, we were interested in how the emergence of alternative facts as a social construct impacted how the pursuit of truth was being manipulated and used as a divisive and avoidance mechanism. The project also gave us an opportunity to bring together structured improvisation in both music therapy and dance movement therapy to illuminate our concerns as well as techniques that facilitated reflexive, intentional, cultural awareness and humility.

For example, the Spiral Integrated Learning Process (Beardall, 2011, 2017) is based on DMT theoretical concepts and provides experiences to move, sense, create, witness and dialogue as the students become more mindful and empathic community members, assisting them to embody and transfer their knowing into action. The music used to build out the performative part of the project came out of Rebecca’s work with graduate music therapy students in her critical improvisation lab which focused on anxiety from clinical, critical social and collective perspectives using clinical improvisation (Zarate, 2016a, 2016b, 2017).


The music therapy students began with a method of critical listening - cultural listening as a way of understanding anxiety on multiple levels and improvised with a combination of acoustic, electronic instruments and voice on the topic of alternative facts. Motifs from those improvisations were then transcribed and transformed into musical pieces and products, sharing feedback from analysis sessions at several points along the way. Congruence between certain motifs and phrases, instrumentation, and so on were captured in the lab and within the group so they would be integrated and added into emerging music products. “Alternative Facts” included three musical movements using a combination of technology and acoustic approaches and reflected the anxiety process of onset - loss - resource and symptoms of nervousness, inability to relax, and fear of the worst happening.

Once the music was ready, Nancy brought it to the dancers for their initial response in improvisation. Teaching clinical competencies while integrating real-world, social justice issues around power, privilege, and oppression in society is core to our pedagogy. The first part (or musical movement) represented a sense of “collective anxiety,” being disconnected from body and breath, feeling isolated and a lack of trust. As DMTs there were many disconnected and connected images that were shared and moved. Observing that the class expressed a palpable individual and collective anxiety, Nancy had the students take recuperative breaks while trying to embody this state.

The second part (or musical movement) of the dance/movement process revolved around the notion of “alternative facts.” Students attempted to relationally move in duets and trios while movers representing “alternative facts” tried to split them apart and disconnect them from each other diminishing their empowered voice. This was a challenging process but gradually an authentic collective or community began to emerge. And the third part (or musical movement) was a sense of community developing and becoming stronger in connecting and resisting these “alternative facts.” The idea that together we can resource ourselves, feel a sense of connection against falsehoods, moving forward together was powerful, visible and felt.

Once movement motifs and themes had emerged, we brought the students together to compose the piece. The students worked with each other to embody the themes in the music and respond musically to the movement. This was powerful to observe after facilitating the process.

Student Responses

Music Therapy Student response:

What I found most valuable was the deepening of understanding I felt for my relationships with some of the "invisible" forces that make up the fabric of social anxiety. Not just to elucidate some of the institutions-at-work that create unease and tension but engaging and learning with this emerging understanding of my (and other's) relationships to these powers is what I found to be the most valuable part of this experience.

Dance Therapy Student Response:

We were working together and in addition to helping ourselves, we were bringing an awareness and a sense of community healing to the group. Participating together, bringing attention to what was all around us felt as if I was doing something/we were doing something to address the anxiety we were all feeling although differently. This process was personally so very important to me in understanding the power of the arts in communicating these feelings.

Working together across specializations inspired us to continue our collaboration, specifically with regard to approaching the arts-based lab in an interdisciplinary way. Most important, we were able to engage in the creative process with each other and our students as therapists, artists, educators, and activists.

Rebecca Zarate Ph.D., MT-BC, AVPT, LCAT – Assistant Professor/Coordinator of music therapy at Lesley University, USA. Rebecca has a background in clinical improvisation and vocal psychotherapy. Her clinical and research interests are in anxiety, aesthetics, and improvisation theory.

Nancy Beardall, PhD, BC-DMT, LMHC, CMA - Associate Professor and the Dance/Movement Therapy Coordinator at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. As a dance/movement therapist, consultant, Certified Movement Analyst, and educator, Dr. Beardall’s work has focused on the physical, cognitive, social/emotional and relational development of students using dance/movement therapy and the expressive arts in the schools in building community and preventing relationship abuse.


Beardall, N. (2017). Dance/Movement and embodied knowing with adolescents. In V. Karkou, S. Sycouris, S. Oliver (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Well-Being. Edinburgh, England. The Oxford University Press.

Beardall, N. (2011, June) “Spirals dancing and the spiral integrated learning process: Promoting an embodied knowing,” Journal of Applied Arts and Health, Vol 2.

Sajnani, N., Marxen, E., Zarate, R. (2017). Critical perspectives in the arts therapies: Response/ability across a continuum of practice. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 54, 1-10.

Zarate, R (2016). The social architecture of anxiety and potential role of music therapy. Voices: A World forum for Music Therapy, 16, 1. https://voices.no/index.php/voices/article/view/847/712

Zarate, R. (2016). Clinical improvisation and its effect on anxiety: A multiple single subject design: The Arts in Psychotherapy, 48, 46-53.

#musictherapy #dancemovementtherapy #socialjustice


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