Dance as Ritual – an anthropological perspective

The rituals of a society are imbued with meaning and symbolism, and as such they are of great interest to anthropologists. Definitions of what constitutes a ritual vary, however there are some fundamental principles on which there is widespread consensus, namely that ritual behaviour is clearly distinct from day-to-day behaviour, and that it involves elements of the supernatural (Wu 2018).

The Power of Ritual

The Forest of Symbols by Victor Turner
Dance as Ritual.
The Forest of Symbols by Victor Turner

In the book The Forest of Symbols (1967) Turner defines ritual as follows – “by ‘ritual’ I mean prescribed formal behaviour for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in mystical beings or powers.” Rituals bring people together and are at their core a mechanism that helps build the spirit of a community (Jones 2013), described as “the glue that holds social groups together” (Whitehouse, as cited in Jones 2013).

Arnold Van Gennep (as cited in Beeman 2018) described ritual as having three stages – (1) the preliminary stage where preparations for the ritual are made, (2) the liminality stage where social order is suspended and only the rules of the ritual apply, and (3) post-liminality where the group emerges from the ritual in a transformed state.

Victor Turner adopted these ritual stages and developed them further, describing the liminality stage as being a time of intense emotion and social bonding occurring within a context of sacredness, a phenomenon that he termed “communitas.”

The building of communities through Ritual and Dance

Research has shown that rituals are even more powerful at building community when they involve the social group in coordinated synchronized movement, creating a form of ‘‘muscle bonding’’ (McNeill as cited in Wiltermuth, Heath 2009).

This creates a highly charged and emotional atmosphere, described by Durkheim (1915) as “effervescence” and by Radcliffe-Browne (1922) as becoming ‘‘absorbed in the unified community’’ through dance.

Clearly this aligns with the abovementioned spirit of “communitas” that takes over during the liminality stage (Beeman 2018), forging a strong psychological bond between the participants that facilitates cooperation and decreases the probability of undesirable behaviour (Wiltermuth, Heath 2009).

The Zār healing dance ritual

In this essay I will be looking at the Iranian version of the Zār healing dance ritual performed in some regions of Northern and Eastern Africa and the Persian Gulf, as well as the Medicine Dance of the ǃKung Bushmen from the Nyae Nyae region in South West Africa, showing how they

(1) consist of behaviours that are specific to the ritual and not day-to-day behaviour,

(2) involve the supernatural,

(3) follow the three stages of ritual as originally defined by Van Gennep and

(4) create a strong feeling of “communitas” during the liminality stage as defined by Turner.

The Zār ritual is performed slightly differently in different countries, however wherever it is practised it retains its core function as a therapeutic exercise for people struggling with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety, as well as women suffering from emotional disturbances resulting from infidelity or infertility (Mianji, Semnani 2015).

The ritual dance

The version of Zār practiced in Iran is based on the belief that patients who have not been healed by traditional doctors are possessed by an evil spirit called a “bād” (which means “wind”). People afflicted with such disturbances seek out a bābā or a māmā, experienced Zār practitioners who will assess their symptoms and decide whether the healing ritual can help them.

If yes, payment is negotiated and the preliminary stage of the ritual begins, where the patient is isolated from the community for several days, while the bābā or māmā prepares them by anointing them with herbs and unguents, tying their big toes together with goat hairs and threatening the evil spirit with a bamboo stick. When this phase is complete, the patient is ready and the ritual proceeds to the liminality stage (Beeman 2018).

Drummers and dancers (Ahl-e Havā: people also possessed by a bād who were treated by the māmā or bābā who organized the ceremony) are summoned, and the patient is laid on the floor in the middle of the room with a cloth covering his or her head.

Dance Ritual - the Zar healing dance
Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Zār practitioner starts chanting and changing the rhythm of the music until the patient starts to twitch, which is taken as a sign that the evil spirit has been identified. At this point the Ahl-e Havā start to dance, moving rhythmically and breathing to the beat of the drums. This leads to them falling into a state of trance through autohypnosis (Erickson, as cited in Haley, Richeport-Haley 2015), aided by the fact that the room becomes very hot and airless, with windows and doors closed and incense and perfume wafting through the air.

The atmosphere becomes highly charged, fostering “an intense sense of social bonding, togetherness and social unity” (Turner 1967), with dancers and Zār practitioners falling to the ground or dancing in an uncontrolled frenzy, taken over by the evil spirits that are attached to them. The spirit that has possessed the patient then makes its demands, which are satisfied, and the affliction is alleviated (Beeman 2018).

After the ceremony, in the post-liminality stage, the patient is re-integrated into society and any previous antisocial behaviour is excused as having resulted from the possession of the evil spirit (Mianji, Semnani 2015).

The afflicted patient is “reborn” as a member of Ahl-e Havā, thus becoming part of a supportive community. From that day onwards the new Ahl-e Havā will have his or her own annual Zār healing ceremony, but perhaps more importantly they will also have to attend other Zār ceremonies to dance with their new community. Seeing as Zār groups usually number between thirty and a hundred members, the recruit finds himself or herself with a packed social calendar consisting of what is essential ritualized group therapy sessions (Kennedy 1967).

It is evident from the above that the Zār dance meets all the criteria of a ritual as defined at the beginning of this essay, namely it

(1) has its own rules and procedures that are totally separate from day-to-day behaviour,

(2) relates to “the demonic powers of evil” (Kennedy 1967) and hence the supernatural,

(3) follows the three stages of ritual, with the bābā or māmā going through several preparatory procedures, then an intense liminality stage with a very strong feeling of communitas and finally a post-liminality stage where the afflicted patient emerges transformed as a member of the Ahl-e Havā community.The !Kung bushmen – healing through dance ritual

The second case study I will be referring to relates to the medicine dance of the !Kung bushmen, which brings together an entire tribe in a communal, synchronised dance held to protect them from disease and death, and to cure those who are already sick or are about to become sick without even knowing it yet (Marshall 1969).

The !Kung worship the god Gau N!a, who wields power over a host of lesser gods called //Gauwa, and //Gauwa-si, which are the spirits of the dead.  The //Gauwa, and //Gauwa-si are unleashed on the world of men, bringing with them both good and evil, in the form of sickness and death. The medicine men in the tribe have a supernatural power called n/um, which enables them to communicate with the spirits and cure the tribe (Marshall 1962).

The !Kung medicine dance – ritual healing

The first stage of the medicine dance consists of the women building a fire and sitting around it in a tight circle, singing the medicine songs and clapping to the rhythm. This preliminary stage takes several hours and is critical for the ritual to be effective, because the medicine songs activate the n/um in the hearts of the medicine men and heats it up, making it much more potent.

While the women are preparing, the men get ready by strapping rattles onto their legs. The young men then make a grand entrance, dancing in pairs towards the women with exaggerated gestures and lots of loud stomping and rattling.

They are then joined by the older men, and they form a line and dance around the singing women. The women sing different songs, with names such as the “Rain dance” or “Giraffe dance” but the dance steps performed by the men never vary.

They all repeat the same basic steps, with small movements, their torsos hardly moving and their main focus on stamping their feet and shaking the rattles, in order to echo the clapping of the women and match their tempo.

As they go round and round their feet and dig a groove in the soil, which gets deeper and deeper as they dance round and round in the same circle. The men also heat their n/um by picking up coal and running into the fire (Marshall 1962).

After a couple of hours the n/um “boils up their spinal columns into their heads” (Marshall 1969) and one after the other the medicine men fall into a trance, heralding the liminality stage, where the normal rules of dealing with the gods and spirits no longer apply.

The singing and clapping increases in volume and intensity, and the dancing men start “drawing the sickness” out of the sick person for whom the ritual is being held, and out of the community (Marshall 1962).

The medicine men stand over the sick, fluttering their hands to draw the sickness out of the afflicted person and pull it into the medicine man himself. The sickness passes through the medicine man, burning his body as it travels to his head, where he finally ejects it by shaking his head vigorously and emitting loud shrieks to throw the ailment as far away as possible.

Caution is thrown to the wind and the men call out to the //Gauwa, and //Gauwa-si, at first interceding on behalf of the tribe and pleading with them to show mercy. If the spirits refuse, the medicine men become aggressive, cursing the evil spirits while screaming and throwing sticks and stones at the shadows, to drive the //Gauwa, and //Gauwa-si away and protect the tribe (Marshall 1969). 

After battling the evil spirits and drawing out sickness, the medicine men collapse into a state of unconsciousness the !Kung call “half-death” (Marshall 1962). During this post-liminal stage, it is believed that the medicine man’s spirit leaves his body and communes with the //Gauwa, and //Gauwa-si.

The other participants in the ritual work together to call back the spirit to the man’s body, with the women singing as loud as possible and the other medicine men performing curings over his body, until his spirit finally returns from its encounter with //Gauwa, and //Gauwa-si and the man regains consciousness (Marshall 1969). 

As was the case for the Zār dance, the medicine dance of the !Kung bushmen also meets the various criteria pertaining to ritual.

(1) The ritual requires special behaviours and procedures that are specific to the dance and not part of day-to-day behaviour.

(2) The !Kung have a complex system of beliefs and the ritual is aimed at interacting with lesser gods and spirits, protecting the tribe from the sickness and death resulting from the supernatural.

(3) The medicine dance follows the three stages of ritual as originally defined by Van Gennep and

(4) it fosters as strong sense of communitas, with Marshall (1969) telling us that “In their singing, clapping and dancing the people are united and are in active vigorous participation with the medicine men for their mutual good. This benefits the !Kung by reducing social tensions.”

Conclusion – the power of ritual and dance

In conclusion, it is clear that rituals are critical to bring together societies and hold them together over time. Furthermore, incorporating synchronised movement and dance in the ritual makes it even more powerful in generating strong community ties, so much so that it has even been proposed as a differentiator in societal evolution, with groups who practice such rituals surviving for longer than groups that do not.  (Wiltermuth, Heath 2009). 

This explains why anthropologists have focused on dance as a ritual, because it is a means of understanding how human groups come together, and stay together, forming the bedrock of civilisation (Jones 2013).


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