African Dance as Healing Modality throughout the Diaspora: The Use of Ritual and Movement to Work through Trauma

By Monteiro, Nicole M.; Wall, Diana J. | Journal of Pan African Studies, September 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

African Dance as Healing Modality throughout the Diaspora: The Use of Ritual and Movement to Work through Trauma


Monteiro, Nicole M., Wall, Diana J., Journal of Pan African Studies


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.

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