Friday, November 11, 2005

On possession

Had an interesting conversation with Uncle P last night about African dance and its relations to spirituality. In contrast to Western Dance, which is simply a set of physical forms, African dance tends to be one aspect of a more holistic cosmological schema. In other words, African dance is never just about dance and physical movement. The example of the Yoruba drum ensemble (the beginning of the dance) beginning with the 'mother drum' is a case in point - the mother here referring to the ground of all rhythm being a maternal principle (the mother drum is often mistranslated into being the master drum, losing cosmic relevance). Just as the mother brings the child into the world, the mother drum brings the dance into being.

The two examples Mr P introduced were dances of possession with the Bori (hausa) culture of northern Nigeria and Sango devotees in Yorubaland. In both cases, devotees can fall into a trance-like possession state, where the body is said to be being 'ridden' by the spirit. The ways in which the body moves in these states of possession is not at all random writhing; rather, formal patterns and motifs can be witnessed (eg, the Bori leap into the air and can fall in a sitting pose from a great height). Although we associated spiritual possession with a kind of epileptic movement, in fact possession can be seen as a form of dance, with bodily patterns and techniques involved, stemming from a kind of native or collective genius of movement.

I asked whether there could be any possible rational explanation for these phenomena: perhaps there is a kind of bodily archetype (an incorporated version of Jungian philosophy) that the body can draw upon in deep-consciousness states. Just as there are broadly different forms of movement in different cultures (an emphasis on hip movement in various Latin cultures etc), these different forms could be motivated at a deeper level by primal patterns of rhythm which in certain contexts can also be associated with spiritual manifestations. Peter had little time for my rationalising: "it is a mystery that cannot be explained in western terms."

What remains is this: that African dance reveals how spirit and body were never cleaved apart from each other, as they have been since Descartes in the West. We westerners love to dance, but we have forgotten how our dancing has its roots in the spirit, and how are longing for trance-like possessive states are at the same time a longing to be ridden by the spirit.


Katharine 2:18 pm  

Its present in Christianty too. Many people may remember the hymn 'Lord of the Dance'. I found this commentary on the tune by the composer:

"I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.

Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know. We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible. The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did.

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