Ellen Searle LeBel, LMFT, BC-DMT

ellen-labelIn a span of nearly two decades, Ellen Searle LeBel has built a private practice in Arcata, California by integrating dance/movement therapy, Authentic Movement, Jungian theory, depth psychotherapy and Sandplay. A licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Board Certified Dance/Movement Therapist (BC-DMT), and Sandplay Practitioner, she uses an awareness of movement as a bridge between traditional verbal counseling and the montage of therapeutic arts mentioned above. A kind and gentle spirit, Ellen enters into each session with an openness “to the moving mystery,” using her knowledge and experience to help clients “understand conscious and unconscious obstacles” that affect their ability to grow and change.

Ellen began her undergraduate studies as a fine arts major at Wells College. She danced through school, kept dancing after earning her BA, and danced right into the field of dance/movement therapy. In 1978, she attended graduate school at Cal State University Hayward. The university did not house an approved ADTA supported DMT program, thus Ellen completed the requirements for the degree as an alternate-route student. By the time she graduated in1982, she had completed a dual degree in dance/movement therapy and clinical counseling. During her graduate work, she was fortunate to learn from influential dance therapists including Cynthia Berrol and Neala Haze.

Her journey in the healing arts, from beginning to present, is rich with personal and professional experiences. As a student, she engaged in and explored dance therapy with developmentally delayed adults. Ellen’s first years as a dance therapist found her working with elderly clients and adults surviving head injuries. In order to get her LMFT license, Ellen set aside her dance therapy work and shifted her focus to verbal therapy. While her professional life was taking a temporary dancing hiatus, she cared for herself by studying Authentic Movement. “This was wonderful for me, it kept me moving.” She immersed herself in long-term study with Neala Haze and took wisdom-filled workshops with Janet Adler, Tina Stromsted, and Joan Chodorow. Her early experience in Authentic Movement inspired the eventual integration of DMT, Sandplay, Jungian analysis, and verbal therapy in her current work with adults, couples, and teens.  Joan Chodorow, also Ellen’s private clinical consultant, taught her much about linking these healing arts. This integrative evolution began in the early 1990’s, as Ellen set about interlacing the various modalities of her therapeutic work.

She began by weaving together verbal therapy, DMT, and Authentic Movement. Sandplay therapy soon followed. Sandplay involves the use of a box of dry or damp sand and a variety of miniature figurines. Clients may choose any figure(s) to incorporate into their session as they manipulate the sand and “create a sand world, an imaginative play that illuminates their inner world through the symbols in the sand.” The inclusion of this therapeutic art form came naturally, as the similarities between sand work and Authentic Movement are many. Authentic Movement is a practice involving moving and witnessing which encourages both mover and witness to bring the unconscious into conscious awareness, and rests upon the idea that a safe container and intentional therapeutic relationship is paramount. Both practices contain ritualistic elements, are self-directed processes that welcome exploration into the unconscious realm, and invite an internal somatic response. Both also require a safe holding space which fosters healing by allowing clients’ imaginations to activate. “It is really what I’m passionate about – the combination of movement awareness with sand, the body, and symbols.”

Ellen approaches her current therapeutic work with elements of these frameworks in mind. She strives to create safety by devoting attention to developing a trusting therapeutic relationship. With some clients, her somatic work is subtle and involves gently bringing body awareness into the present moment. Verbal therapy sessions are sprinkled with thoughtful somatic encouragement, and clients are often introduced to breathing and grounding exercises. Others engage in more typical Authentic Movement or DMT practices. These sessions start with a warm-up to music before transitioning into body-centered or Authentic Movement explorations. The music warm-up enables Ellen to assess a person’s emotional and physical state while building trust. Sandplay sessions can be experienced as a sort of Authentic Movement practice; Ellen contains the space and silently witnesses as clients move, push, sculpt and create with the sand. Authentic Movement and Sandplay can be combined in single session either beginning with movement and followed by Sandplay or vice versa. Traditional DMT techniques are seamlessly introduced into sand work. Each figurine holds a shape, a certain posture, or gesture. Ellen may invite a client to embody the figure’s shape, explore it imaginatively, and to notice their emotional or physical response to this exploration. With each client, Ellen uses her many lenses to witness and guide the process.

Ellen finds challenge in fostering somatic awareness with those who come specifically for verbal therapy. She strives to create a relationship that enables clients to move through their inhibitions, so they are able to experience the full benefit of healing through body, mind, and spirit. Ellen is inspired by those “moments when clients let their bodies speak for them.” As the push for short-term therapy continues, she is grateful for opportunities to develop and sustain a long-term relationship with those who need it. “To develop and maintain the long-term relationship is an extraordinary gift. Sometimes a commitment to a long-term process can really create transcendent change.” Her ability to trust the process, and non-judgmentally trust herself in the process, provides her spaciousness to follow the psyche without knowing where it is going to go.

In addition to her work as a therapist, she also finds time to facilitate consultation groups, offers continuing education for therapists, and has recently become a member of the American Journal of Dance Therapy’s editorial board. Her journey is ever-evolving as she learns from her clients and students and honors their presence in the perpetual cycle of exchanging wisdom. Ellen’s passion for her work compliments her scope of knowledge and propels her into new territory. Her current endeavor involves further explorations of Sandplay and DMT, training Sandplay therapists to witness movement, and introducing DMT’s to Sandplay therapy. Ellen Searle LeBel is truly a master of integration and forward motion.