The ExpressIt and Creative Movement program increases communication, accelerates the healing process and empowers domestic violence survivors with emotional tools. Shelter Director and ExpressIt and Creative Movement developer Earla Lloyd, LCSW, has found that movement and creative expression are catalysts for the healing process.

Survivors and their children arrive at our emergency shelters after fleeing an abuser. During their time in shelter, residents address housing, employment, and legal issues. Additionally, domestic violence survivors need to overcome emotional, mental, and spiritual issues that manifest as a result of or in conjunction with their life hardships. The majority have experienced other traumas in addition to domestic violence.  However, by NYS law, residents can only stay in an emergency domestic violence shelter for 180 days – an extremely short period of time for healing and starting a new, independent, healthy life.


In addition to the significant time constraints, Lloyd observed many residents unwilling or unable to discuss their experiences and emotions with their case workers; residents were more responsive to non-verbal expression than they were to talking. To initiate and develop the internal healing process, Lloyd developed the ExpressIt and Creative Movement program for residents.

The ExpressIt and Creative Movement program has two components: ExpressIt movement pieces performed by shelter staff and Creative Movement expressive sessions for shelter residents.

Shelter staff including the Director of Social Services, Case Managers, and recreation staff, volunteer for the ExpressIt group. The group learns movement and non-verbal acting pieces to be performed in an ExpressIt and Creative Movement performance for all shelter residents put on by Lloyd at least three times per year. The ExpressIt pieces cover topics such as support, trust, and the five stages of grief. Without using words, they communicate that the staff will support the residents throughout all their hardships and reinforce ideas about healing and empowerment that residents discuss in traditional one-on-one and group support settings. The ExpressIt group staff also design and hand make all of the costumes and props for the performances.

Shelter residents voluntarily meet weekly with Lloyd for Creative Movement sessions. In each session, Lloyd and the participants work on a different topic. Topics include “Baggage,” “The Honey moon Stage,” and “Mourning the Death of a Relationship.” These are the same ideas discussed in the Center’s Empowerment groups and in one-on-one counseling with Case Managers, but in the Creative Movement sessions participants are asked to express themselves and interact with others non verbally through drum and movement improvisation. Participants learn a creative movement piece for each topic. In addition to learning the pieces, participants engage in trust exercises, interpretive choreography, and calming breathing strategies.

At least three times per year, Lloyd rents a church basement space and puts on a performance of the staff ExpressIt  pieces and the Creative Moment group resident pieces to bring the ExpressIt  and Creative Movement program to her entire shelter. The ExpressIt group and the Creative Movement group perform and a narrator reads a short introduction to provide context before each piece. The performance actively engages all audience members. For example, the staff will perform an ExpressIt piece titled “The Five Stages of Grief” with performers representing each of the five stages. After the piece, the staff asks all shelter residents, performers and audience, to identify which stage of grief they are in by standing with the performer of that stage of grief. This leads not only to a discussion among some staff and residents, but a new way to understand and internalize and express the complex ideas and emotions.

Oftentimes discussion breaks out during workshops among the participants or after performances between the audience members and the performers. Watching or dancing the movement pieces give survivors a venue to start talking about their experiences. Participants share more than they typically do in a talk-only session with a Case Manager. Participant reactions can be non-verbal or completely internal.

Survivors benefit immensely from participating in the program. They feel a sense of community, take ownership over their work, and rediscover the creative parts of themselves that have been buried. They hold themselves and each other accountable for attending the Creative Movement sessions, and often begin the warm up before Lloyd arrives. The Creative Movement participants become a family within the larger shelter family and they look to each other for support during difficult times. They take pride in the help and support they provide to other survivors. Residents will often ask staff to perform a certain ExpressIt piece for a fellow resident who needs it. Additionally, after seeing an ExpressIt piece performed by staff, residents will request to join the Creative Movement program. Participants, as well as shelter staff, feel deep gratitude and passion for the expressive dance program because it allows survivors to open up and heal in ways that other forms of therapy do not.

Over the past fifteen years, Lloyd has expanded the program to bring the therapeutic process to more domestic violence survivors and to her neighbors. Shelter staff perform the ExpressIt  pieces for residents of the Center’s other two shelters. Lloyd also teaches the ideas and pieces to the Directors of Social Service of the two shelters so they can implement similar programs. Shelter staff perform the ExpressIt pieces and lead discussions as part of a larger Empowerment event that Lloyd hosts in her home backyard for her neighbors and fellow social workers.

Residents’ attitudes towards the ExpressIt and Creative Movement program indicate the program’s effectiveness.  Shelter residents are extremely busy dealing with their current issues and preparing for life after shelter and they are required to attend many workshops and groups. Additionally, they have many in-shelter recreation activities and support options. Despite this, the Creative Movement program remains a priority for at least half of the residents. Of the twenty five women living in the shelter at a time, about thirteen attend the weekly Creative Movement group sessions for six weeks or more.

Another indication of the program working is that shelter staff and residents utilize the pieces as teaching tools for newer residents. Residents who have seen or participated in the pieces will ask staff members to perform certain pieces for another resident who is struggling. For example, a shelter resident suggested that the staff perform the “Five Stages of Grief” ExpressIt piece for a fellow resident who was deeply mourning the death of her relationship.

Overall, Director of Social Services Kellee Burnett explains that like other staff members, she participates in the program because of the noticeable change she observes in Creative Movement participants compared to the other residents. Creative Movement participants tend to communicate more openly with shelter staff and other residents and handle crisis situations more effectively.

The results of the ExpressIt and Creative Movement program continue to be dramatic and positive.