"OK, let's try and identify your problem," said Terry Brathwaite, dance movement therapist at the Birmingham Centre for Arts Therapy. He works with stress sufferers, and also offers dance workshops on Managing Bullies at Work.

According to the blurb, Terry would assess my "use of space, awareness of body parts, rhythm, body actions and touch ... enabling me to arrive at a mere satisfying mode of behaviour". I had arrived prepared for a fair bit of jiggling about. "What triggers stress for you?". Terry inquired, after he had taken down a few notes about my lifestyle. "Is it work, family, relationships - let's try to find out."

"Actually it's none of those things," I replied. "It's sudden noise. If a car backfires, or someone drops something right next to me, I have a terrible, almost violent reaction. I hyperventilate and my heart almost stops."

Terry, a former principal dancer with the Trinidad Folk Performing Company, said that he would do his best. To my surprise, the session began not with a few warming-up exercises but with a video of Martha Graham performing Damnation, a portrait in dance of extreme grief.

"Now, she's telling a story", said Terry, thumping the television set to improve the picture. "And we all tell stories about ourselves by the way we move." He slipped a cassette into the music centre. "Born free ... " sang a male voice to the accompaniment of a vast orchestra, "as free as the wind blows ... "

"Now, Isabel, you were born free", said Terry, raising his voice above the strings, "and you mustn't forget that. We're going to work on the freedom, which is the freedom to be in control."

In one corner of the small, carpeted room was a set of percussion instruments. Terry asked me to move around the room in a semi-dancing, relaxed way, acting out in improvised semi-mime, a stress-triggering situation. I was glad there was no one else there to watch my toe-curlingly embarrassing performance.

"Now, Isabel, I'm going to be the force that gives you stress," said Terry, picking up a pair of drumsticks. "I'm going to give you a sudden shock, OK?" In a flash he had smashed the sticks down on the snare drum like two sledgehammers, leaving me gasping for breath.

"Now Isabel, you saw I was going to hit the drum," he said, with a slightly disappointed air. "And you know that drums make a loud noise, and still you reacted violently. We'll have to explore this." He then put on a different piece of music and made me stand immobile and impassive while he made a series of sudden, violent lunges towards me, accompanied by ferocious stares. "That's right, you're an oak tree, you can take it," he yelled encouragingly between pseudo punches. "By the time I've finished I should be able to fire a gun in your presence and you won't even flinch."

Then he got me to make exaggerated expressions of shock in the mirror, so that I could observe my own reactions. It struck me that so far I'd done very little dancing. But then Terry put on some music and got me to dance. "Yes, that's quite good," he said appraisingly, as I gyrated around the floor. "But I need to see more movement. You see, you're behaving like a frightened pigeon, but really you're an eagle."

"Gosh, am I?"

"Yes, and I want to see you dance like one." I obliged by throwing my arms and legs about and leaping up and down with such vigour that I broke my necklace. "That's better," he said, as I collapsed in a hyperventilating heap. "I'm afraid that's the end of the session. But if you were able to come back three or four more times, I'm sure it would help."

Would dance movement therapy really help me to find a "more satisfying mode of behaviour" for myself, I wondered as I walked outside to the bus- stop. Suddenly a passing car backfired and I nearly died of shock ...


BCAT, tel 0121 628 9009 or 0121 693 6008; one-to-one therapy pounds 25 per hour

further information

British Association of Art Therapists, 11a Brighton Road, Brighton BN2 3RL

Association for Dance Movement Therapy, c/o The Arts Therapies Department, Springfield Hospital, Glenburnie Road, London SW17 7DJ

Association of Professional Music Therapists, 38 Pierce Lane, Fulbourn, Cambridge CB1 5DL

The British Society for Music Therapy, 25 Rosslyn Avenue, East Barnet, Hertfordshire EN4 8DH, tel 0181 368 8879

For a list of play therapists, Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education 0171-704-2534