Traditional African dance is connected to ritualistic and spiritual healing practices, and addresses a range of ailments. The underlying belief is that in the community, mind and body must be incorporated into ritual systems in order to facilitate healing, as well as transform and empower the individual and the group. Ultimately, given their holistic structure, rituals benefit the society in many layers. They play an integral role in socialization, expression and communication; help to build and maintain a healthy sense of self system; and also offer an alternative cathartic experience for not only individuals but for the community as a whole.
In particular, rituals involving dance play an essential role in relieving and treating symptoms of psychological distress, as well as neutralize and lessen the impact of psychological trauma. In many societies, these noted benefits of dance, as well as the impact of related cultural processes, operate without an awareness of their mechanics; but have been observed and researched as valuable therapeutic byproducts in themselves. This paper focuses on the role of African dance as a healing modality throughout the Diaspora. It will describe healing customs and traditions practiced in the eastern and western regions of Africa, as well as explore dance styles utilized by individuals of African descent in the inner cities of the United States. In addition, it will examine the artistic and historical roots and therapeutic aspects of African dance as related to relieving and treating psychological trauma.
Traditional Conceptualizations of Health and Illness in Africa
The African worldview is based on spiritual and communal paradigms that are useful in understanding indigenous and Diasporic healing approaches. At the same time, powerful cultural, historical, and economic forces; colonial experiences; independence revolutionary struggles; and conflict have also shaped indigenous and modern practices on the continent. Conflict and change have been a part of African societies for centuries and highlight the dynamic foundation of African culture (Sow, 1980). This dynamism, spirituality and communalism inform the following discussion of healing, illness, and the role of dance and ritual in the African worldview.
Dichotomous, either/or thinking is not part of African beliefs; instead complementary ideas predominate. The self is not separated into individualized parts with unique illnesses, such as mental and physical. In the African worldview, humans' spiritual root is thought to govern and be responsible for various manifestations of health and illness. General health is related to balance and equilibrium within one's spirit. This does not mean that the African worldview merges all attributes of self together without recognizing distinct qualities or traits. Rather, it is a harmonizing perspective that appreciates holism, but not at the expense of individualism.
Some of the themes linking the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors related to illness throughout Africa include: communalistic social structures; lifestyles that encourage harmony with environment/nature; the prominence of spirituality in the worldview; belief in both natural and supernatural causation of illness with the acknowledgement that most theories are culture specific; and the frequent use of religious/spiritual healers to treat illness.
For example, in traditional African societies, illness that manifests in psychological or mental symptoms is understood as a disruption in the natural order of humans' interactions with the spirit world, or, depending on the specific religion, lack of appropriate connection with God or the Supreme Being. This disturbance can occur for multiple reasons such as failure to properly honor the spiritual realm or one's ancestors, neglecting to carry out prescribed rituals, prayers or religious ceremonies, or losing personal faith in God. However, the state of imbalance which can lead to illness and distress is often temporary, can be rectified with corrective rituals and is not considered a part of the individual's personality. Specifically, in the case of mental and emotional symptoms, the causes and associated negative characteristics are not internalized by the suffering individual. The illness comes from outside the person and does not define who he or she is.
In addition, African societies emphasize the social causes and impact of illness in terms of the individual's relationship to the community and spiritual world. Some factors that influence illness are the transgression of society's social bounds regarding relationships and social roles, the harmful intentions of another person, angering God or spirits, and spirit possession (Sow, 1980). These variables are multi-faceted with complex implications regarding how people understand their world and their place in it.
Culturally prescribed interpersonal rules regulate behavior among members of the family, social groups, and broader community. Individuals are socialized very early regarding manners of greetings, relating within and outside of peer groups, understanding various social group distinctions, and specific duties, responsibilities and social obligations. Roles that prescribe daily functions and dictate expectations of family, friends, acquaintances and strangers are very important in traditional life. Often, a minimal level of hospitality and respect is mandated for certain groups such as elders, respected community leaders, people of a certain level of achievement, etc. In many ways, people are obliged by static social roles and expectations. Finally, those who are unable to navigate or appropriately engage the social and spiritual domains are vulnerable to illness as a result of being out of sync with community norms and the balance and protection they offer.
Traditional African healing methods and cures focus on realignment of the individual with the material, social and spiritual worlds. The sick individual has to be "reinstated" into these levels of his/her community (Sow, 1980). The body is prominently enlisted in diagnosing and treating disease such that many signs and symptoms are described physically, including how and what part of the body is impacted. Traditional healers in Africa are commonly classified as "herbalists" who specialize in the use of plants, roots and herbs or "diviners" who use incantations and divinations and act as spirit mediums (Odejide et al., 1989). Herbalists train by apprenticeship for at least one year. Diviners may have to go through a state of spirit possession in a ceremony with the primary features being music, dance, community participation and interpretation of dreams (Sijuwola, 1995). Healing becomes their life purpose as designated by God and the ancestors. Both types of healers usually have a considerable amount of insight into the patient's experience. Some specific practices include ritual sacrifices, the use of herbal medicines, and extended residential stays at the healer's compound (Sijuwola, 1995).
The beliefs described here center on holism and socio-cultural and psycho-spiritual themes. Causes and remedies are heavily community-focused. Movement may embody a natural way to address problems that develop from these dynamics. Movement--especially couched in ritual--can have an integrative function consistent with the driving forces of African conceptualizations of illness.
The Use of Ritual and Movement to Work through Trauma
In her book, To Dance is Human, a Theory of Nonverbal Communication, Judith Hanna (1987) explores the anthropological study of dance, including its curative and functional properties. In the initial introduction to the exploration of dance, Hanna (1987) acknowledges that "to dance is human and humanity universally expresses itself in dance [through its ability to] interweave with other aspects of human …