OUT OF THE CONSULTING ROOM… AND ON TO THE DANCE FLOOR

Ian Florance talks to Sören Stauffer-Kruse, a counselling psychologist and ballroom dancer

I often listen to Radio 4 when I work, and an edition of Midweek caught my attention when Libby Purves introduced Sören Stauffer-Kruse as a counselling psychologist and a ballroom dancer. A quick search turned up a number of websites – including one for the Sugar Dandies, Sören’s same-sex dancing partnership turned theatrical act. It wasn’t long before we were sitting in the foyer of the newly refurbished Festival Hall, discussing an unusual route into psychology, and much more.

Tell me about your early life.
I was born in Hamburg but went to New York when I was 18 to try to pursue a career in the performing arts. I’d applied to study medicine in Germany but in the end I made the decision to study dance.

How did this translate into working in psychology?
Well, musical theatre, which is what I was involved in, is a wonderful but harsh world. It’s highly competitive – and has become more so – and though I was good at some elements in it, I simply did not take well to the pressures. 

I’d worked with older people when I was at high school so was used to and interested in helping others. And I was surrounded by people – artists and performers – who plainly needed help.

Second, I wanted to understand myself and my own feelings. I think this is an often unacknowledged reason for entering psychology. People wrap it up in all sorts of rationalisations, but I think potential psychologists often get fascinated by their own situation and make an existential choice.

I started reading self-help books and came across A Course in Miracles and the work of the peace activist Marianne Williamson. All of these made me want to study psychology properly. Again, there’s a guilty secret here. Many psychology professionals are dismissive
of self-help books while, in fact, a number of us have been influenced by them and may even write them! 

I had a choice – to go back to medicine or move on to psychology. I chose the latter and ended up in London, studying at City University.

What was your experience of studying psychology like?
Disappointing! I wanted to live in a large English-language city with a rich cultural life, and that worked out. But I think a lot of psychology students initially feel their course is different than they expected. They want  it to be about people and therapeutic relationships and
at the beginning it rarely is.

I was also disappointed that gay and lesbian psychology was skated over during my training, since this was one of my major interests. The only input on my master’s course was from a service user. That’s why I now do talks on sexuality for counselling and clinical courses at London Metropolitan and Canterbury Christ Church Universities. I think it’s interesting that there are so few openly gay psychologists on the web. I’m listed on the Directory of Pink Therapists.

One piece if advice I’d give to students is that you should always get experience in a related area alongside your study. I worked for a nursing agency and for the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust. That really helped me to get my first counselling psychologist post with the North East London Foundation Trust.

However, once I’d started studying to become a counselling psychologist I found myself more at home. I like the flexibility of counselling psychology, the ability to be creative within the area. I did a year of studying counselling skills and then did an MSc diploma in practice in counselling psychology followed by a post-MSc practitioner diploma. I’d been studying for nine years and decided not to do a PhD. Apart from anything else my dancing was taking up more of my time.

I’d also, from fairly early on, wanted to be in private practice. I got good advice that I’d need to focus on one group, and this was obviously going to be gay men, though these aren’t my exclusive client base.

I started working from home and now have an office which I share with an alternative legal partnership.

Do gay clients present with different problems from other groups?
I don’t think so. There are the same sorts of issues: self-esteem; sexual function; relationships and intimacy. But there are issues you have to be sensitive to. Every human being is judged – but being judged on who you kiss, hold hands with or on your choice of partner is an additional burden which can cause people to withdraw.

I think that we need to start offering more formal support to men. There are women’s support structures around, but men seem to have been left out in the cold. It’s as though we’ve acquiesced in their silence.

I work with the Terrence Higgins Trust Counselling Service, which addresses these issues for gay men through a low-cost service called ‘Connect’.

Finally, gay men feel pressure and guilt in their teenage years. The experience of coming out can be traumatic and can affect their mental health for the rest of their lives. This issue goes back to my desire to understand my own feelings when I was studying dance in New York. I knew I was gay at a very young age – maybe four, certainly 11 – but I didn’t come out to my parents till I was 18. What’s that all about?! In fact I was luckier than some friends. My father simply said: ‘Well I don’t know about it so how can I judge it?’ Working with families on acceptance is an important area of practice that needs strengthening.

Your initial interest might have led you to study to be therapist or analyst rather than a psychologist.
Yes, and I still think about it.  I wish studying psychology had been more therapeutically inspirational. The predominance of the medical model of psychology has made solid therapeutic work even less valued than when I started. I still remember a patient in a hospital I worked in when I was studying saying: ’Thank God for the cleaner, who talked to me.’

We haven’t talked about ballroom dancing yet!
I met my partner Bradley at a gay choral conference in Tampa and for a year I commuted to where he lived in New York. Then he moved to London. We were more welcomed as a couple here because at the time the US did not have an immigration provision for same-sex partners, and still doesn’t. We married in 2006.

Bradley was the one who discovered ballroom dancing. He went to classes which I thought were rather silly. I got bitten by the bug at a tea dance. We became competitive dancers and founding members of the UK Same-Sex Dance Council. We’ve been dancing together for nine years and are the first British, same-sex couple to compete regularly on the mixed-sex competition circuit. That’s one of our aims: to bring gay ballroom into the mainstream.

You talked earlier about being judged, yet ballroom dancing is all about judgement.
Yes, that’s certainly part of it. Getting a good score from the judges is all about going through the same moves in the ‘most correct way’, conforming to a norm. The Sugar Dandies are the theatrical and expressive counterpoint to this. It’s the Strictly Ballroom phenomenon of us pulling in the audience but not necessarily the judges, and I like that because it fits with our personalities.

On another level, the ballroom world is also incredibly warm and accepting. We were worried about the reception when we entered our first ‘mainstream’ competition but the vast majority of competitors, the audience and many of the judges have welcomed us. There’s an important issue here. A lot of gay men wait to be invited or demand to be invited before they’ll join in. We didn’t: we invited ourselves and the result wasn’t what other same-sex ballroom dancers predicted: ‘You’ll spoil it for us.’

Do these different areas of your life inform each other?
Ballroom dancing is a wonderful metaphor for being authentic in relationships: two equal people moving from their core; thinking about yourself while staying close to another person.

I also make the links consciously. We’re beginning to build certain universal, psychological themes – rejection, trust and intimacy for instance – into our dancing. This has deeply affected audiences who seem to ‘get’ what we’re trying to do. We are putting all of this together in our first full-length show at the Edinburgh Festival. 

Would you give up psychology if the dancing took off?
The dancing seems to have taken off! I like my portfolio career – so, no, I don’t think so.  I still work as a counselling psychologist for the North East London Mental Health Trust.  I get somewhat tired of the NHS politics, but I work in a great team.

I think the world is very thirsty for psychological thinking at the moment, for all sorts of reasons, and I would like to help to meet that need. My private practice and the dancing are two ways of doing this. I’d also like to write a self-help book about intimacy, and I enjoyed the experience of talking on Radio 4 – which is strange, because when I was young any sort of public speaking terrified me. In fact that fear had a huge influence on my attempt at a performing career in New York. I was helped by a friend who put me in front of a camera. So I don’t only believe, I’m living proof that people can change and overcome psychological inhibitions.

Psychology has got to get back to basics if it’s to be effective in helping people and getting important messages across. Psychology is a science and an art which provides treatment for people. It has to engage them. Organisations providing mental health services grind their practitioners down by not leaving enough time to talk, to improve the quality of the experience. Practitioners need to get out of the study, the lab and the consulting room a little bit more and look at different media and channels for achieving the same result. Any interest, hobby or practice can be useful. We need to be more creative, and ballroom dancing provides an opportunity for me to connect with that critical creative side of my work.

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