Traditional trance dance
Dancing with spirit
Awakening The Shamanic Force Within
There is no doubt that our tribal ancestors around the world loved to dance and that people of all cultures, especially their shamans, healers and medicine people, used — and still use — ecstatic dancing as a spiritual practice. Gabrielle Roth, the urban shaman and creator of the ’Five Rhythms of the Soul’ dance sequence, expressed this beautifully when she wrote:
’… in the beginning we all danced… Our ancestors danced until they disappeared in the dance, till they felt the full force of spirit unleashing their souls. This was [their] religion, and it was ecstatic and personal and tribal and it moved through time like a snake. Until it found itself in the wrong garden.’1
The trance dances of tribes or shamans are fascinating to watch and to experience, although they can be long ceremonial affairs, usually for the benefit of the whole community.2 I have watched and participated in traditional trance dance ceremonies in various parts of the world, and for me, trance dance has become one of the most wonderful ways of entering an altered state, journeying to the spirit world and releasing control, so that the dancer disappears and becomes the dance. This kind of dancing enables the unhindered flow of energy through my physical and energy bodies, balancing and healing them in the process. I often receive teachings when I dance and I generally experience a blissful state of being that is beyond mind and connect with what I would call my ’essence’.
Traditional trance dance
Traditionally, ecstatic dance is used to enter non-ordinary states of consciousness, to connect and communicate with the spirit worlds and to work within them. It is used for balance between humans and spirit, the body/mind and soul/spirit, for vision, initiation, healing, transformation and celebrations of various kinds. From the sun dances of the peoples of the North American Plains and Canada to the whirling dances of the Sufis, from the Umbanda trance dances of Brazil and the wild, ritualistic dances of the shamans of Siberia and Mongolia to the masked dancing of the Balinese and the depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as a dancer, trance dance has a spiritual component. The Inuit drum and dance ceremonially — the bear dance is one of their better-known dances — and so do all remaining tribes of Africa. The voodoo trance dances and spirit possessions of Haiti are thought to date back 6,000 years. The ghost dances of the Sioux, the Salish spirit dance on Vancouver Island, the ecstatic peyote dances of the Huichol of Mexico and the Mongolian and Nepalese shamanic journeys to the spirit worlds all involve intense trance dancing, with drumming as well as song and chanting.3
In some cultures, especially in those where participants dance in circles, the steps of the dancers are ritualized (for example, in the Huichol deer dance or peyote dance), but whether the dances are ritualized or not, the drums will be beating over long periods of time, with the beats becoming faster when ecstatic levels are reached, and other instruments can be brought in, too. If shamans are dancing for purposes such as divination, prophecy or healing, they also often use their voices, singing and chanting spirit songs to connect or to convey messages from spirits. Fights with malicious spirits may also be expressed during the trance dance of the shaman, for instance for the healing of a person or the community, or if the shaman has to extract a spirit who has possessed the body of a community member.
Trance dance is used in many cultures to facilitate spirit possession, meaning that the shaman will be ’possessed’ by the spirits during the dance. African shamans often aim for spirit possession, and some shamans from other parts of the world, such as South America, Mongolia and Siberia, work in this way. There is a distinct change in the dance when this happens, as the shaman opens themselves up to become a vessel for a spirit, which will enter their body and mind and express itself directly through movement and voice. Strong spirit possessions achieved and expressed through trance dance are dramatic affairs. They are not for the faint-hearted, but, if genuine, they show the extreme abilities of traditional shamans.