dance therapy
Cheryl Bartky: dance therapist, children's book author, etc.

This therapist helps clients dance through their grief

Name: Cheryl Bartky

Age: 64

City: El Cerrito

Position: Clinical counselor, dance-movement therapist, owner of Counseling for the Soul

J.: You’ve had a rich and interesting career, working in many venues throughout this country, as well as in Scotland and Israel, and it seems that there have been two constants in your professional life — creative arts and therapy — that you have always merged. How did you come to combine creativity and the counseling process?

Cheryl Bartky: Dance was always a natural thing for me. I have an older sister who danced, and my mother loved to dance. When I was growing up in Brooklyn and Queens, my mother, who had a great sense of humor, took me to Broadway shows, and I majored in theater at Queens College, where I also took a lot of dance classes. In addition, I sustained a serious accident when I was 8 years old, falling through a trapdoor and landing on concrete. I was hospitalized for six weeks, unconscious for the first two of them. The situation was dicey. Afterward, I had a lot of physical pain, including headaches. So I think that I have a comfort level with and acceptance of trauma in life, which has led me toward helping people with trauma.

After spending a year on a kibbutz in my early 20s, I went to Scotland, where I worked with children with psychological limitations. That’s where I found my calling. I came back to the States and enrolled in a graduate program in Philadelphia at Hahnemann Medical College, now part of Drexel University, which combined creative arts therapy with a phenomenal foundation in counseling and psychology. I specialized in dance therapy.

A lot of your work with clients involves helping them process pain and grief, particularly in your capacity as a counselor with Sinai Memorial Chapel’s Mourner Care Program. Do you have an overriding philosophy on how to help people who have sustained a significant loss?

Our culture doesn’t teach us how to deal with these difficulties, with the terrain of grief. We are told to “move on” rather than “move through.” It is important to move through. I think that we have art in our culture because it is healing. It connects us to God. It nurtures us; it is something larger than us. When my mother died, it was a traumatic loss. I wrote a play about my mother and the last days of her life. One of my clients who had lost her partner created some amazing artwork that was profoundly healing for her. I encouraged her to use Sukkot as a theme because that was a holiday important to her and her partner.

You are also the author of a children’s book, “Angelina’s Prayer,” which centers on a child’s longing for the father who abandoned her and her mother, and you have been a professional storyteller. Do you have a favorite story?

One of my favorites is “The Elevator That Had a Dream,” about an elevator with a 9-to-5 job transporting people but really wanted to travel to the moon and the stars and beyond. All of my stories were told through word, song and dance. I used to perform them at community centers and senior residences. They were stories of healing that would move people emotionally to make positive changes in their lives.

Dance, though, has always had primacy in your life. Why is that?

I have always said that dance is our native tongue and that we are all natural-born dancers. We are moving before we learn to talk. We are moving through every stage of life — from birth, when we are moving out of womb, to death, during rigor mortis. While dance is not part of my regular clinical practice, I give myself a dance class every day. And I love [the TV competition] “So You Think You Can Dance.”

Tell us about your upbringing and how Jewish traditions continue to inform your work.

I grew up in a religious home. We were kosher. My mother would light candles every Friday night. I loved watching her do it. We were also part of a larger family circle that would gather for Hanukkah parties and other occasions.

To do the grief work that I do, it is good to have a sense of spirituality of one’s own tradition, whatever that may be. I try to bring that into the conversation. Our Jewish tradition offers so much support for the mourner: shloshim, the first 30 days after burial, Kaddish, shiva, yahrzeit. They are all guideposts. [In Jewish practice] we are here to comfort the mourners and to give them strength.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.