Who can I play with today?

An interview with Jenn Ben-Yakov about THE POWER OF PLAY

Jenn Ben-Yakov

     After studying at Yale Drama School and with Joseph Chaiken and Uta Hagen in New Haven, Jenn joined the Open Theatre in 1967. She has been directing and´┐Ż creating collaborative theatre works in Holland since 1978. Alongside oh her theatre work Jenn has a history of immersion in the dance and movement field. She studied modern dance with scholarship from the Martha Graham School of Contemporary dance and with Judith Dunn. She was introduced to dance therapy by Irmgaard Bartenieff, who worked in the NYC psychiatric wards in the 60ties. She continued her dance therapy education with Johanna Climenko and did training programs with Laura Perls, Bruce Reed, Bill Solomon and Jay Stattman. Jenn Ben-yakov became a well-known international director/teacher of actors, dancers and dance therapists. In Holland she teaches at the Theaterschool in Amsterdam and taught at Danceacademie Tilburg for 22 years, developing a unique drama program for dance and movement therapy students.

Power of play

     Perhaps the most unique contribution of Jenn to the dance and movement therapy field is her introduction of play techniques as a therapeutic tool for both dance therapy teachers and clients. Drawing from a background in the theatre and coming to the field through the stage door of acting and directing,, Jenn discovered that play elements offer a unique combination of creative possibilities to be applied to the field of movement therapy. Jenn calls the power of play a soft technique on issues of fear and loneliness but interviewing her about it, the power of play has a much broader scope.

Which road led to the use of play techniques?

     Jenn Ben-Yakov's first introduction to dance therapy was through the work of Irmgaard Bartenieff. Irmgaard Bartenieff taught how to observe and diagnose movement, and to then connect with people. Then another pioneer, Johanna Climenko introduced Jenn to "chase-ing" dance therapy. The impact of a dance circle has been recognized as an ancient and intrinsically therapeutic way of asking a group to respond in movement. Jenn practiced the basic Chase circle as a means of teaching the power of play to groups through their natural responses, not super imposing a system. Structure emerges from the group process; the dance therapist is always choreographing the themes. With music and in the here and now, the group provides its own rhythm and flow and finds its own connections. It is a perfect setting for the self-healing quality of movement. In her theatrical career Jenn Ben-Yakov has created and directed many plays. She continued her commitment to an ensemble approach in the creation of theatrical pieces. She coached actors and professional dancers both in and out of the Theatre School in Amsterdam, London and New York.

In what sense is play powerful?

     "Play is not a technique. It is rather being caught in the moment unburdened by conscious reality or the weight of the past and continual self-consciousness. The power of play lifts us from stress and anxiety. But rather than allowing play to release power, people are often blocked by shame, ambivalence and guilt, repressing playfulness rather than releasing it. For example when we take the computer to the beach.

     Play is both an activity and a state of mind. In play mind and body are often united- we are not just thinking or just doing. Our mind may think psychologically about: the way I was, the way I am or the way I could be- our wish for the future. In play we can re-enter the nonlinear situation of our childhood, where past, present and future overlap. Time just is and we are in it. Our actions and activity touch and stimulate a core sense of self. Curiosity is one of the allies. The power of play is to strengthen our self-definition. In a game or exercise you begins to act AS IF what you are doing is real. And what you do is real - even if it has no "consequences", even in a game. But is real in movement and action, and so it is real in self-development and expression.

     When we are playing we make free choices: we reveal what we choose to do, not what we have to do. In the absence of habit and boredom we can surprise ourselves and get a stronger identity, because we become more flexible in our reactions and we are not too much impressed by difficult or unexpected situations. Play is also powerful because it works by giving the person many chances to rebalance. In all cases the conditions that make it possible to play are having a safe place and temporal suspension of future plans.

     In our western society play is not enough respected. Play is most of the time seen as trivial, a time out or an indulgence, but in my opinion it is not. Play reflects the brains we actually have. Located in the frontal lobe of our brain is the ludic center. It is proven that when the brain operates on a playful level, it can find more solutions, increase flexibility and overcome fear or anxiety. One has to enter a certain state of flow in order to play. When a person is in his/her flow it means that all his/her systems are available to respond, interact, open /close etc. It works by engaging the person in a different state of being. In play people may recline, stretch, turn around and jump, or splash and explore, just for the intrinsic fun of it. And as I said before, play reveals what we choose to do, not what we have to do. In this it provides an antidote (with laughter) to the compulsive obsessive tendencies in individuals and in our culture. The power of play is that it can recharge us and restore optimism. Sometimes it changes our perspective and stimulates creativity. It is temporarily an alternative way of being in the world."


     Jenn works with individual clients in her studio. In an individual session Jenn may use the studio floor, the walls, a large gymnastic ball and a swing. There is an innate desire to play in each of us. Playfulness stimulates a mentality of suspending future plans and catching the moment. The therapy involves both body and mind. The body part is released in physical action. The mental part involves choosing themes in relation to problem solving. The goal and focus is on each person as a unique system in his or her efforts and strivings towards centering, grounding, boundaries and expression. "I encourage through various exercises the awareness of personal space and territory. Affection and intimacy issues are often reflected through movements (near/far), social improvisations (in and out) and power exploration through dynamics of up and down. My work is designed to stretch people's possibilities through their imaginations, and their physical and emotional abilities to sustain and contain strong feelings." Entering her studio with an individual client Jenn might ask: "What delightful thing can we do today?" This is not a flippant question. When power is released through play it produces a flexible sense of self. By for instance simulating aggression in a play fight without arousing the real fight or fight response, a person might center him/herself and better respond to whatever danger is presented; increase the ability to respond to what ever life is presenting. This can be started by thumb wrestling, and working with passive and active resistances on a physical level.

     Grounding, centering, boundaries and expression are more important to Jenn Ben-Yakov than only releasing emotional responses. In that sense expression is related more to body language and sensory response, as well as in more obvious emotional response. Expression of emotions is not the foremost aim. Expression and novel activity is sometimes even confused with play. This is probably why Jenn calls play a soft technique rather than a cathartic technique. Her aim is foremost to rebalance the human organism. When the body is energetically in a good balance, a person feels well. Finding the meaningful connections between client and therapist offers a wider range of possibilities. Sometimes the starting point is responding to a rhythm or throwing a ball against the wall or finding the flow of swinging. Play provides new energetic choices to add to and vary our human repertoire.

The impact of joy

     "Ruth, you ask about the place of joy and enjoyment in play. Good question. Numbness is the enemy. In the more sober and strict societies, enjoyment may be seen as trivial, are of lesser value. Often play is only considered a way to come back to work and be more efficient than ever. At school, play is a break in order to work better. But when a person is really absorbed in play they may experience more extreme feelings safely. The feelings of ecstasy and joy, through to despair and suicide are censored often from our normal consensus reality. As play helps to connect us to all of our feelings, a player can safely feel, own, and eventually use more of his/herself. I don't separate my body from my feelings. In play I am free to want and need and feel, desire and respond. I can practice with repetition and express myself without doing damage. When a man can play it can be a sign that he has mastered his aggressions to be a father and a non-abusive husband or lover."

     Very important: thanks to the safe play space, family rules and taboos may be suspended and broken. For example, we hear the parent say: "Stop play with the chair. Chairs are just for sitting." This is compared with the suggestion: 'You can play with every aspect of what you can do with this chair." Being grounded and still, may be followed by dragging the chair or leaning on it and shifting from side to side, or swinging the chair between the legs or even standing on top of it -releasing quiet feeling of joy and power. Another example, in lifting a large gymnastic ball over the head and throwing it, our physical stamina increases and our system sometimes opens to receive and give. So yes, there is pleasure and enjoyment in being in the flow of a good play. With this open awareness, we can also make stronger connections with others. We can also walk away from those who are too closed or have failed to master their aggressions. Making better choices leads to overall enjoyment and mastery."

Who gets what

     In her career as a non-Dutch speaking actress and director, Jenn has chosen to work with professional players in the theatre, rather than doing group therapy sessions. But in choosing to teach the power of play to movement and dance therapists, Jenn draws from her theatre background -introducing entrances, sense of place and space, clothing or costume, objects, and then text. Through the years of experimenting and refining her work, she can be considered one of the stimulators of play in the field of dance and movement therapy, and dance education. She focuses dancers on how to work with combinations of language and movement, teaching them also to find their voices. Movement therapists need to be able to bring across the content of their work, also daring to use their voices especially in a psychiatric setting not used to talking about movement and body language.

Dance therapy and performance

     "Dancers are sometimes asked to speak on stage. This happened to me. I originally came to Holland on tour with the Open Theatre Ensemble (NYC) which inspired a high level of on stage interaction and performance. But I saw that performances of course were created with the audience in mind. When I am making or directing a play, not all creative ideas can be rewarded, but it is I who chooses the theme for development (not a client). Whereas dance and movement therapy is primarily for the growth and the development of the client, in individual therapy I can seriously consider the needs of the weaker or more troubled people and the mentally ill. So when Anna Dijkstra and Sima van Dullemen invited me to teach play to the dance and movement therapists, I can contribute what I knew. Also by teaching dance therapists, I could get the work out to a broader segment of society."


     While teaching for B.E.T. Jenn developed a three year training program for the Dans-academie in Tilburg, teaching dance and movement therapists. Her students use these play techniques and apply them to their individual needs and particular focus. Some of the former students work with children or with elder people or in a clinical setting or mental hospital. Her advanced work encourages the study of the therapists' role in connecting to people in difficult places. How to choose, sustain and develop the exercises, is related to the students understanding of the therapeutic tools involved in play techniques.

     The play program is taught as part of a larger curriculum and do not focus on group dynamics and psychology. Other teachers in BET cover those areas.

Anti-burn out

     Now it is the work on improvisation, intimate relationship and the creative process that continues to inspire her. Jenn Ben-Yakov now works both inside and outside her studio. In July 2002 she is going to Moscow to work with Irena Biryukova whose article appeared in a recent copy of the Nieuwsbrief. Jenn remains more interested in people and the environment than in fixed principles and ideas. "What's happening now, what do I really feel, and who is out there to play with?" are basic New York City playground questions, that set off a unique approach to both the energy curve and the energy source involved in play.

     When I first met Jenn at the Martha Graham School in New York, she casually asked me what it was like to live in Amsterdam. We have a lot to thank that Jenn Ben-Yakov chose a homebase in Holland as a starting point for her unique contribution to our field. She thanks the Dutch writers Johan Huizinga and Desiderius Erasmus, who inspired her already in her american period, when she read their books about play:" Homo ludens" and "Lof der zotheid"?.

     Ruth Meyer is danstherapeute en heeft zich met name gespecialiseerd in het werken met Eerste- en Tweede generatie oorlogsslachtoffers bij het Centrum 40-45. In Nieuwsbrief 62 en 63 stand een uitgebreid interview in 2 delen met haar over haar werk.

     Eindbewerking: Ellen van de Gruiter