UPMC Life Changers: Angelina's Story | UPMC HealthBeat

From an early age, Angelina, R-DMT, loved to dance.

“No matter what, I wanted to be dancing,” she says. “I tried a couple of other things. I was doing Girl Scouts for a little while and other things kids usually would try to get into, but dance is really the only thing that’s stuck. And dancing was what I really wanted to be doing.”

But dancing was more than just a hobby. It became an outlet for herself and her emotions — even if she didn’t realize that until later in life.

“I’d say from middle school on, if I was feeling really upset, I wanted to be in the dance studio,” she says. “If I was really sad, or angry, or almost anything I was feeling — even joy and happiness — I wanted to be in the dance studio dancing and expressing myself nonverbally.”

Today, Angelina uses her love of movement and dance to help others express their emotions. She works as a dance/movement therapist in the Creative & Expressive Arts Therapies Department at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital.

Her job involves helping people dealing with mental health burdens express themselves through movement in times when words are difficult.

“I’m helping people utilize movement as a coping skill to find ways to express their emotions, feelings, and thoughts,” she says. “Also, how to process and heal from a variety of life situations.”

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‘This Is What I Want to Be Doing’

Angelina, who grew up in Ohio, took up dancing when she was 3 years old. She tried all of the classical dance forms — ballet, tap, and jazz — and expanded her knowledge to more modern and contemporary styles as she grew older.

Although she knew how much she loved to dance and wanted to pursue it as a career, she didn’t realize its emotional benefit at the time.

Her connection to psychology began when she arrived at Point Park University to study dance. She took a Psychology 101 class and it piqued her interest.

“I was intrigued by my Psych 101 class, so I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll take a few more of these,'” she says. “Psychology was really fascinating to me.”

It was through that introductory class that Angelina learned about Dance/Movement Therapy.

As much as psychology interested Angelina, dance remained her first love. She minored in psychology but began a career as a dancer.

Over the next several years, Angelina taught dance and worked for a dance company. Her company taught and performed at outreach events for children, and she saw the connection that dancing created for people.

“Seeing the joy and the expression of movement from all of them, I just realized, ‘I actually do want to do this,'” she says. “This is what I want to be doing: sharing dance and helping others just express themselves.”

So, Angelina went back to school and got her master’s degree and certification as a dance movement therapist. After that, she began working at UPMC Western Psych.

‘A Little Bit of a Deeper Level’

The Creative & Expressive Arts Therapies (CEAT) Department at UPMC Western Psych features licensed art therapists from a variety of art disciplines. They use their experience in psychology and specific modalities to help people communicate their emotions through various forms of art.

In addition to Angelina, the CEAT Department features art, music, recreation, and yoga therapists.

“People with mental health burdens sometimes have trouble expressing themselves verbally,” Angelina says.

The various forms of art provide a different kind of outlet.

“Words are great, but there are things that movement can communicate that often words cannot. It’s a little bit of a deeper level,” Angelina says.

Angelina’s work mostly entails a handful of group sessions per day. The participants can range in age from young children to seniors. And they may have to deal with a wide spectrum of mental, emotional, behavioral, or intellectual conditions.

Because of that, Angelina tailors her sessions to the needs of the people in the group.

“It’s a creative process,” she says. “So, even within the group structure, I kind of go with where they’re at in the moment.”

‘A Joyful, Amazing Feeling’

People may have a complicated relationship with the word “dance.” That’s why Angelina likes to emphasize that her groups are not about teaching the types of dance. They’re geared toward getting people to move and express themselves.

Sometimes, her groups begin with the slightest movements — inhaling and exhaling, followed by easy body movements. Other times, they can turn into “dance parties,” with people moving around freely and having fun. Angelina says it all depends on the people in a particular group.

“It’s not about what the movement looks like,” she says. “It’s allowing our muscles to move, to see how we feel, bringing awareness to the body, and inviting our mood to shift. Movement can increase our energy and boost our mood. We can also use movement to release energy that’s not beneficial for us or serving us.”

Angelina advertises her group as a “movement group” more than a dance group. If someone is reluctant, she’ll provide some gentle encouragement. But she says she’ll never force someone to try it if they don’t want to.

“I do my best to find a common ground no matter where anybody is on that spectrum, no matter how they feel about dancing or moving,” she says. “I try to offer a safe and supportive space to explore their relationship with movement.”

The dance movement group offers both mental and physical benefits, she says. On a physical level, it gets people moving — whether their movement is gentle or robust. On the mental side, it allows a group of people who might have trouble expressing themselves to have an outlet for what they’re feeling.

“We may have an unconscious emotion or feeling or even tension that could be held in the body,” Angelina says. “We store a lot of energy and emotion within the body. Using movement is another way to express it. Language doesn’t encompass all the emotions that a human is capable of feeling, but movement can. It’s very universal, and it’s innate, too.”

When Angelina sees someone reaping the emotional benefits of one of her classes, it brings her happiness as a therapist.

“It’s just a joyful, amazing feeling to see it really connect, to see them benefit from the movement,” she says. “I see a sense of relief on their end of it. It’s a relief to release the tension, to feel like they’ve fully expressed themselves. Perhaps they’ve been seen in a way that they never expected to be seen or just to be able to feel something when they were feeling stuck and weren’t able to before.”

‘I Still Dance for Myself’

Outside of work, Angelina doesn’t get to dance as much as she used to. In addition to her job, her family keeps her busy. She does plenty of impromptu dancing in her home and takes advantage of streaming options via local studios.

It’s just another way for her to stay connected to the art form that’s brought her and so many other people joy over the years.

“I still dance for myself,” she says. “I hope to always continue that.”

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.