Dance Rituals

Community dance rituals have historically held an essential place in the good health and functioning of traditional cultures around the World. These environments have allowed members of a village to experience communion with each other, spirit, their ancestors, the earth and the cosmos.

Ancient cultures have used dance rituals for vision questing, honoring deities, affecting weather patterns, celebrating birth, grieving the dead, and seeking answers to complex community dilemmas.

It is difficult to explain what truly happens during a dance ritual, but it is not difficult to observe the positive effects that participants experience. Profound insights, visions, healings or feelings of release are what people regularly experience during their journey through this type of event. The combination of carefully crafted musical programs, a setting of intentions and an invocation of spirits by participants, creates an energy field that often affects dancers in beneficial ways. As the dancers’ hearts open, and their judgments and self-consciousness decrease, the ritual space becomes more activated and can easily transport participants into ecstatic states.

Bradford Keeney, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, CA, author of Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit through Ecstatic Dance, states that “a healing context is one where you create a swirling of the life force, an amplification, a movement, a transmission, an energy field so that when another person steps into it, an awakening of their own inner healing sources is encouraged”.

In addition, as if the community was performing Earth acupuncture, the sense of joy, hope and well-being that is generated through the ritual can be used constructively to alleviate the suffering experienced on our Planet.

Dance rituals have been used as community medicine by all indigenous cultures. We now have a precious opportunity to rekindle such environments in ways that nourish and inspire our current culture. Non-dogmatic rituals are an easily accessible remedy for our times.

Community dance rituals are essential for the reclamation of our freedom and happiness, and to assist in the positive unfolding of our human evolution.

Below is a sampling of the many indigenous cultures that use dance as ritual and as a primary form of medicine.

North America - American plains Indians dance in celebration of the seasons, in petition for rain or for good hunting; in therapeutic activity, and in honoring the spirit of the tribe. Indian tribes celebrate the holiness of all life and all of nature in a wide variety of dances.
The Hopi dance out the myth of origin and social organization of their society. By dancing, the young people learn of the relationship of society and self in the realm of the sacred.
The Navajo have many dances which heal the broken spirit, drive away angry spirits, restore personal harmony, affirm tribal solidarity, celebrate the vast splendor of western desert and canyon, enable one to walk in beauty, reassure the totem of other species, signal the time to plant and to harvest, and help young women through menarche to maidenhood.
The Iroquois of New York and Canada are a matriarchal matrilineal society. They have a dance called the Dark Dance in which women perform healing dances at night in complete darkness.

Middle East - The Zar ritual dance is a cathartic and healing experience, which functions for women in these cultures as effectively as does psychotherapy in Western culture. It also provides a means for sharing knowledge and charitable society among the women of these very patriarchal cultures.

South Africa - The !Kung enter into a trance dance that is a prelude to healing or means of making contact with the gods. Women chant and clap hands in a complex beat while men gradually dance with great exertion until they enter a trance.

Central Africa - Dance is often used to conduct young people from one social status to another. The women in charge of the rite of passage of young women use the dance to effect changes in the body and spirit of the young woman so she is ready to take her place as an adult woman.

West Africa - In some tribes people dance in order to express the desire for a safe journey; a woman may dance in petition of pregnancy. The Tiv in Nigeria mimic the more threatening forms of disease in their dance, treat it, and heal the dancers of the disease in pantomime.

Haiti - Ritual dances are done to make contact with spirits, to gain their favor by offering them sacrifices and gifts, to obtain help in the form of more abundant food or higher standard of living, and improved health. Rituals are held to celebrate lucky events, to attempt to escape a run of bad fortune, and for healing at birth, marriage and death.

Australia - The KaKadu use the dance to renew the Spirit of the Land. They tell the animals of their oneness with them, and they make peace with the dreamworld animal spirits for the killing of animals in the real world. The Kakadu have lived in peace and harmony with the land and its spirits for over 40,000 years.

Many psychotherapists and physicians are now immersing themselves in ritualized healing, including shamanic journeying, to deepen their energetic and physiological knowledge. They are also eagerly learning energy techniques to more efficiently reduce the suffering of their clients and patients. Much research and work is being done through Dance/Movement Therapy (DMT), as well as through dance rituals in the fields of cancer and AIDS treatment, sexual abuse, torture recovery and injury rehabilitation, to name a few. Below is a list of some of the pioneers in this field.

Anna Halprin, Ph.D., created the Tamalpa Institute, which assists health professionals and individuals in coping with such devastating illnesses as AIDS, cancer and other terminal diseases. She reports that when participants express emotions through dance rituals, positive changes in their attitudes and will to live are observed.

Malidoma Some, Ph.D., author of Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community stated at a conference held by the California Pacific Medical Center's Institute for Health and Healing, that without rituals, we lose track of our true self, and noted that many of the physical and mental illnesses of Western or "modern" culture stem from disconnection from ritual and community.

Dr. Michael Picucci, Ph.D., recipient of the Outstanding Leadership in Research award from the National Institutes on Health (NIH) for the year 2000, convincingly demonstrates that ritual is a healing modality which effectively addresses the problems of our super-technological world, and its emotional side-effects.

Carl A. Hammerschlag, MD, is a Yale-trained psychiatrist who has spent more than twenty years working with Native Americans. Author of The Dancing Healer, he was told by a Pueblo priest and clan chief “You have to be able to dance if you want to heal”.

F. Holmes Atwater, a human behavioral engineer from the Monroe Institute, specializes in the design and application of techniques for cultivating favorable states of consciousness. He states that ancient cultures used sound and music to influence states of consciousness in rituals and to promote psychological and physical health.

Jeanne Achterberg, Ph.D., has received international recognition for her pioneering research in medicine and psychology. She is a professor of psychology at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and has served as associate professor and director of research in rehabilitation science at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. Her most recent book, Rituals of Healing, is a primer on the use of creative therapies for health and medicine.

Emile Conrad, founder and director of Continuum, is a visionary whose revolutionary work continues to inspire an international audience of therapists and movement educators. Her love for primitive dance and desire to deepen her understanding of ritual dance led her to Haiti, where she spent five years as a choreographer and lead dancer with a folklore company. In 1974, as a result of her groundbreaking work with Dr. Valerie Hunt, head of Kinesiology and Movement Research at UCLA, Conrad developed a radical new technique for neuro-muscular innovation and spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

Bradford Keeney, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, CA, author of Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit through Ecstatic Dance, states that a healing context is one where you create a swirling of the life force, an amplification, a movement, a transmission, an energy field so that when another person steps into it, an awakening of their own inner healing sources is encouraged.