Embodied resilience: Afro-Caribbean dance as an intervention for the healing of trauma in dance movement therapy

  Photo credit: Nancy Herard-Marshall


         Colonization, chattel slavery, genocide, religious, and racial persecution of Africans and their descendants in the Americas by the European empires continues to be ever present in the collective psyche of members of the African Diaspora.  Undeniably, these atrocities stripped all peoples of African descent of their history, their culture, and their ways of being resulting in “a shattered consciousness and fractured identity” (Nobles, 2015, p. 129).  In a similar vein, Dr. DeGruy asserts that post- traumatic slave syndrome “is a condition that exists when a population has experienced multigenerational trauma resulting from centuries of slavery and continues to experience oppression and institutionalized racism today” (DeGruy, 2005, p. 121). Furthermore, current systems of oppression including day-to-day accounts of racial violence against communities of color in the US have resulted in demoralization of the self, of the collective, poor self-esteem, and a continuation of a psycho-history of trauma. 


To offset this historical dehumanization, Africans in the Caribbean formed synchronized rituals, beliefs, religions, and healing practices which preserved their ways of being and knowing. Unfortunately, Western psychological models have failed to understand and include African descendants’ histories, culture, values, and beliefs in the formulation of psychological assessments and mental health treatment. For instance, African based spiritual practices and beliefs systems emphasize a relationship between human beings and spirits. Without the knowledge of this context, Caribbean clients are over-diagnosed in the United States as schizophrenic (Sutherland, Moodley, & Chevannes, 2014). In other words, the pressing psychological effects of intergenerational trauma have not been adequately addressed by Western conventional psychotherapy and not enough attention have been given to the ways in which its theoretical frameworks apply to the mental health treatment of ethnic minorities and non-western cultures.


Dance/movement therapists (DMT), students, and healers of color in the US and the Caribbean have emerged to care for their communities with the awareness and understanding that the body holds in it all its history and collective memory. An undercurrent of energy is breaking its way to the surface in the dance/movement therapy field in direct response to the historical and ever-growing need to devise therapeutic approaches that align with African based culture and belief systems.


Afro-Caribbean dance, born out of the Atlantic-Slave Trade, was a way for the enslaved of different nations and tribes to communicate with each other, to communicate in code against the slave-masters, to fight oppression, and to be in community for support and celebration.  In this way, its songs, music, and dances have given voice to communities of color, acting as a unifying source of cultural pride, ancestral knowledge, and embodied resistance.  Maria Rivera, dance/movement psychotherapist, (American Dance therapy Association, 2018) have identified four existing levels of empowerment found in the Afro-Caribbean movement vernacular, which can help inform DMT’s clinical interventions. These are: (1) self-body power, (2) collective power, (3) sociopolitical power, and (4) spiritual power.  


Self-Body Power


The self-body power speaks about dancing intentionally to activate healing energy, intuition, and internal resources, which allow the body to occupy itself, defend itself, and liberate from repressive ideologies physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Some examples of body/ movement qualities found in Afro Caribbean dance aesthetics are: power postures, resistance, liberation gestures, fall and recovery patterns in dances such as bomba, ibo, palo, nago, gwoka; arms and torso imitating the power of the wind, the flow of the ocean, and the beauty of rivers in dances to oya, yemaya, ochun; circular hip movements to celebrate creation, fertility, and life in traditions like gaga/rara, carnival, calypso; and undulating movements of the spine as prayer and supplication in dances such like yanvalou.


As dance/movement therapists, we understand how transformative symbolic imagery can be.  Within Afro-Caribbean dance traditions, symbolic imagery is evoked by the embodiment of forces of nature, themes of struggle, revolution, liberation, pride, and celebration.  These symbolic meanings have the potential to be integrated into a client movement repertoire and can help the self/body deconstruct the imposed narrative and reconstruct a restorative and more accurate one –-a narrative which reflects positive self- knowledge based on racial/ethnic pride, beauty, resilience, and power.  


Collective Power


Communal dance spaces provide a container and a safe holding environment for collective expression. Collective processes like the circle formation, call and response, or even polyrhythmic structures found in Afro-Caribbean song, music and dance, emphasize that all elements relate to each other. In its cultural context, these regulating social structures are passed down inter-generationally as prescribed social values such as cooperation, community, respect for the elders, respect to traditions, and identity. This power is about the development of a collective voice, a sense of belonging and ownership. Using its rhythm, music, song, and dance can help clients in groups to intentionally engage in meaningful relationships.


Socio-Political Power


Historically, dancing traditions in the Caribbean have been the force behind the emotional and spiritual nourishment for the enslaved Africans to fight for their freedom. Today, these dance traditions continue to serve as a collective political strategy by engaging in a cultural revolution aimed at ethnic unity, social resistance, claiming power, and fighting oppression. Metaphors and narratives found in these dance healing traditions “are symbolic of these struggles for agency, control and survival” (Sutherland, 2014, p.24).  By including the stories of oppression into our treatment approaches and understanding how social and political systems influence our clients’ life, DMTs can begin advocating for a therapeutic culture of visibility, inclusion, and equality.


Spiritual Power


In accessing the spiritual power, we are accessing the energy that orchestrates everything. Whether the mover believes in it or not, that energy still exists, and has the potential to transport you to an era, to a feeling or a memory. It is the drive behind creation, inspiration, transformation, resistance against illness, and, in some cultures, spirit can provide insight into illness. In the therapeutic process, we try to cultivate the connection between health and spiritual alignment by claiming spirit as an internal resource, which lives inside all of us. Afro-Caribbean music, song, and dance have the potential to serve as a vehicle to pray and receive dance as a spiritual blessing. Its narrative has helped clients cope with pain, life challenges, and connect with their own resilient self.


Implications for DMT and Mental Health


As DMT’s, we build our theories and interventions with the view that body-mind-spirit are intrinsically intertwined.  An exploration of the mind-body-spirit dynamic using Afro-Caribbean dance principles can foster in the mind the determination to fight and liberate the self, physically activate, claim, and re-occupy the body, and reconnect with spirit though the connection with ancestral embodied knowledge and values for strength and guidance.  These principles can help clients embody personal and collective power, strength, resilience, and work towards the healing of intergenerational trauma. 


Now more than ever, the integration of physical, emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of the person is essential to transform the imposed pathological model to a strength-based/empowerment model aimed at maximizing the principle of working with the healthy aspect of the individual. Recognizing Afro Caribbean dance’s values, beliefs, and principles as healing tools, can provide effective treatment to our diverse communities, especially our communities of color. This is a call for us to rethink our treatment approaches and to incorporate a therapeutic paradigm that is culturally, socially and politically sensitive and allow us to stay open to culturally distinct ways of conceptualizing health and healing.





[American Dance Therapy Association], (2018, April 6). Afro-Caribbean dance healing systems: Connection, meaning, and power. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/M8UdejfycFE


Leary, Joy DeGruy. (2005). Post traumatic slave syndrome : America's legacy of enduring injury and healing. Milwaukie, Oregon: Uptone Press.


Nobles, W. W. (2015). The island of memes: Haiti's unfinished revolution. Baltimore, MD: Imprint Editions.


Sutherland, P., Moodley, R., & Chevannes, B. (Eds.) (2014). Caribbean healing traditions: Implications for health and mental health. New York, NY: Routledge.


Nancy Herard-Marshall, MS, R-DMT, LCAT (Permit) is a Haitian-American dance/movement therapist, authentic movement practitioner, Kukuwa® African dance fitness instructor, wife and mother living in New York City. She received her master’s degree in Dance/Movement Therapy from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. As a dance/movement therapist she has clinical experience working with children, adolescents, and adults in inpatient acute psychiatric care, as well as outpatient and community mental health clinics. Ms. Herard-Marshall has over 30 years experience as a dancer and actress and brings this experience with her into her work as a creative arts therapist. Currently she co-teaches Cultural Competency and Social Justice in the Creative Arts Therapies as a visiting instructor at Pratt institute. She focuses her research and development of treatment interventions that blend western psychotherapy, concepts in African psychology and Afro-Caribbean healing practices to contribute to the mental health and wellness of the communities she serves. 



María “Mara” Rivera, MA, MS, BC-DMT, LCAT was born and raised in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. She is as a dance/movement therapist residing in New York who has acquired extensive experience working with children, adolescents, and adults of all backgrounds. She is a mother, dancer, healer, dance teaching artist, and a songwriter working independently and most recently with Afro-Inspira, a Bronx based neo-folklore Afro Caribbean music and dance performance ensemble. Maria has traveled to Cuba, Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Haiti to research traditional dance, which have highly contributed to her goal of incorporating Caribbean dance and spiritual/healing principles into her psychotherapeutic practice. She has presented and applied her on-going research on Afro-caribbean dance as therapy in many venues all over the United States and the Caribbean, emphasizing its capacity to restore and maintain physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Maria was also an adjunct lecturer at Queens College, CUNY, teaching Intro to Dance/Movement Therapy, has served as an Adjunct Instructor in Pratt Institute for the course The Psychology of Intergroup and Institutions as well as an Instructor at Lesley University for the course Examining Power, Privilege and Oppression in Expressive Arts Therapies . Maria is currently holding her private practice in Manhattan, NY and works in the South Bronx as a Creative Art Therapist serving the African American and Latinx communities. She would like to help conduct research and create bridges between western psychotherapy and African-based values while advocating for the empowerment, visibility, and inclusion of indigenous and ethnic minorities' healing practices in the field of mental health.





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