When Africans were forced into the West, they encountered rules that insisted the world be demarcated between the revered from the common. They encountered new religious thought that presented a vastly different view of nature and of being human. Yet, the new religious worldview also contained elements – such as saints and a Son of God – that made the religion of their oppressors somewhat familiar. But our African Ancestors also confronted the concept of sin and were forced to accept a world in which the divine is severed from both the present and the external. More importantly, they were compelled to accept that they and their bodies could not be divine nor – more blasphemously – host the divine. The new cosmology made them corruptible, and their masters treated them as such.Disconnected from their homeland while their community was under brutal attack; separated from their priests, their liturgical knowledge and condemned from their practices; having lost their tools for divination and with their nation and spirits facing unparalleled hostility, our African Ancestors appeared to their oppressors as having no resources to keep their dignity, let alone their faith and culture. But herein, we teach, the Orisha were at work. They had other plans. The Orisha had taught, and our Ancestors understood, that there was no separation between the sacred and secular. They had already sown a future spiritual harvest. Despite being stripped of everything – even clothes – our Ancestors could still do something where they would not just speak with Orisha, they would become Orisha. They could dance.
Dancing offered a connection to the divine that could not be suppressed. Clapping could offer rhythm while the dances were their own liturgy. Unlike today, dances were observed and not formally taught – they were part of existence. Dances celebrated all passages of life. They conveyed social expectations, morals and values, sexual ethics, expressed emotions and knitted the society together. They weren’t just a part of the culture, they were community.
More importantly, dancing could summon the divine. The dance movements had spiritual meaning. They were and are built around the characteristics of a particular Orisha. Each step and movement served as a reminder of the power, province and behavior of the devotional Orisha. Oya’s movements, for example, are often spinning with sudden bursts of tremendous energy in random directions. They are warlike and sorcerous. Oshún’s movements are sensual, graceful and gentle flowing seamlessly to represent her province over rivers. And Chango’s movements are virile, proud, rhythmic and authoritative filled with commanding energy. But the underscore here is that, while dance may be intimately physical, dance creates spiritual connection.
This is a crucial lesson. In modernity, and certainly in the West, our culture focuses on the physical aspects of dance. We know that dance has powerful benefits to our bodies. Dances is well-understood to improve balance and flexibility. Dancing can help with weight loss and improve cardiovascular function as well as strength and speed. And there’s more. A quick search on the internet, will familiarize us with the benefits of dance for improving the body for children and adults helping both young and mature reinforce our bodies. From Irish Céilí Dance to traditional Hula, we learn that dance is excellent at improving fitness and posture while strengthening connections to traditions and culture. And that truly is wonderful.
But, we must also remember and celebrate the spiritual strength of dance. Focusing only on muscle and skill, separates the physical and the spiritual. It is an artificial view of the benefits of dance. It fails to acknowledge the immanent is the spiritual. It reduces an art that feeds the soul to an act of exercise. It disconnects the holism that Orisha- and the messengers and teachers of many other cultures- desperately wanted us to remember: The body and spirit must be nourished together. And in that sense, our treatment of dance is a metaphor for how we segregate the sacred and the mundane.
Modern science is slowly affirming the psycho-spiritual side of dance. Recent findings have emphasized the benefits of dance that are beyond mere strength training and balance acquisition. The scope of effect from dance is stunningly broad. There is evidence that dance can protect against the onset of dementia, help stabilize cognitive functioning and language abilities in Alzheimer patients, improve body image and body image distress in persons managing obesity, improve self-awareness in clients with eating disorders, promote healing after brain trauma, enhance problem-solving skills, strengthen social bonds and improve friendships. Dance also appears to alleviate depression, reduce insomnia and improve our enjoyment of everyday life. These are psychological and spiritual fortifications. And all of that is a short list! (For a comprehensive review see Bräuninger, 2014)
Dance is also imbued with a tremendous set of social cues that inform the community about us. For example. researchers at the University of Göttingen in Germany conducted a study to determine what inferences women make about men’s skills at dancing. The researchers hypothesized mate quality could be inferred by women observing how well men dance. It’s a hypothesis derived from evolutionary psychology that body movement is an important communicator in courtship, and humans continue to be sensitive to physical signals about the quality of a prospective partner. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that women have cognitive adaptations that can assess physical characteristics that point to selecting better mates. What the researchers found was that the women in the study were able to determine men’s physical strength only by observing their dancing. Specifically women’s perception of the attractiveness and assertiveness of men’s dancing were correlated with the men’s grip strength that was measured independently and that women would have no practical way of knowing (Hugill, Fink, Neave and Seydel, 2009).
In a separate also at the University of Göttingen, the same researchers found that women could also infer from the men’s dancing skill some psychological traits. The researchers videotaped 50 young, non-professional heterosexual male dancers. Each male participant danced individually and were given white overalls to control for clothing style. Prior to the videotaping, the participants completed a scale to measure their risk-taking behavior on several factors ranging from travel to psychedelic drug us. The scale also measured susceptibility to boredom and patterns of drinking, partying and seeking a variety of sexual partners. The sample of 60 women – also young, heterosexual – then viewed the videotapes and rated the men on the perceived attractiveness of their dancing. Consistent with theory, the women’s perception of attractiveness correlated with the men’s strength. But in addition to those findings, the women’s subjective report of perceived attractiveness were correlated with the men’s reports of their own propensity for risk-taking.
Now, besides the obvious inferences about mate selection, what’s interesting about these findings is that they underscore the power of dance to tell stories about ourselves to the community. More importantly, the findings suggest that the community is listening. We watch and celebrate one another during dance. We also learn about one another. What is perhaps our most ancient art-form continues to serve us today by helping us listen as a community.
What the Orisha whispered and our Ancestors – across all cultures – knew is that dance is a restorative force for the spirit and the community. Dance helps us with the challenges of daily life and makes us resilient against the damages that accumulate from the less noble side of ourselves. It promotes our self-acceptance and fortifies our all the aspects of our being. It frees us from the traps we cautiously and often unwittingly lay to sabotage ourselves from accepting our own beauty to recognizing our own divinity.In writing that last paragraph, I am reminded of a Pataki, a Yoruba story about Orisha that I had mostly forgotten. The legend that tells us how the divine twins, the Ibeji, were able to defeat Eleguá, the trickster Orisha that must always be propitiated during every ceremony as he is the opener of communication. Eleguá also loves to lay traps, and deadly ones at that. Over time, Eleguá had laid so many traps in one village that the inhabitants were unable to leave. All the paths out were fraught with perilous tricks. The villagers could not hunt, trade or even call for help without confronting one these traps and succumbing to it. Orishas tried to help but none could save the villagers.
One day, the Ibeji found a magical drum that made people dance as long as they were being played. The twins, Taewo and Kainde started down the most dangerous of paths out of the village. When Eleguá appeared Taewo started to play the drums and Kainde danced with Eleguá. But because they were twins and shared their spirit (as a community might), they could switch between dancer and drummer: one would rest while the other danced. Eleguá, however, was unable to stop dancing. When he became desperately tired, he begged the Ibeji to stop. They did. But first they made Eleguá promise to remove all the traps. He did. And through dance, the Ibeji saved the village. Dance is the tool that disables all the traps we lay for ourselves.
It is an important message. I think that it also interesting how much our Western culture has marginalized dance. For centuries, many of our Euro-centric institutions have sought to suppress dance. We have been taught that expression through dance is savage and unbecoming. We have tried to suppress it by calling it weak, instilling in many young men that dance is somehow castrating, while telling our young women that dance violates their dignity. We are taught that dancing creates shame. That it is laden with sin and serves only to seduce and corrupt. Dance – especially as simple free form self-expression – has been vilified by the hetero-normative and hetero-patriarchal institutions that try to subordinate us. Dancing unlocks those snares as well.
In that sense, the institutions that seek social control deeply fear the power of dance to liberate the individual. They fear every gesture that connects us to ourselves and each other. Dance is dangerous because it empowers. Whether we are able-bodied or need assistance, every movement that lifts our spirits is a rebellion against oppression. Like the Ibeji taught, dance breaks all the trappings from self-doubt to isolation. It helps us become us. And us, is very powerful.
Braüninger, I. (2014). “Specific dance movement therapy interventions- Which are successful? An intervention and correlation study.” The Arts in Psychotherapy, 41, 225-457.
Hugull, N., Fink, B., Veave, N. & Seydel, H. (2009). “Men’s physical strength is associated with women’s perceptions of their dancing ability.” Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 527-530.