Movement is the Medicine and Dance is the Healing – Critical Reframing for Black Mental Health


By Daktari Shari Renée Hicks, Psy.D.

It is seldom directly recognized that rhythmic harmonious movement is the natural state of being. Evidence of this fact is demonstrated at birth. While the outcome is filled with joy and fulfillment, “birthing” is a moment of stress, strain, difficulty and imbalance. To address this condition, it has become common practice to place the newly born infant directly onto the mother’s chest. In so doing, a rhythmic harmonious movement connects heart-to-heart and breath-to-breath. In fact, rhythmic balance is an indicator of wellbeing. The mother-child movement is the first divine dance.

In recognizing the significance of movement (dance) and sound (drumming), several members of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) have identified dance and drumming as a critical healing framework for African American wellness. Dance is a conceptual natural language with intrinsic and extrinsic meanings, a system of physical movements, and interrelated rules guiding performance in social, religious, and healing situations. Curative properties of African dance include cathartic release, connectivity, wholeness, communion, empathy, tranquility, problem-resolution, sublimation, bliss, altered states of consciousness, emotional expression, and enhanced sense of self/community. Dance may be utilized as a more effectual mode of communication than talk therapy.

The healing capacity of dance should in fact be un-coded for application in the therapeutic relationship. Dance does arouse and invoke multi-layered and multi-dimensional healing at the spiritual, psychological, emotional, behavioral, and physiological levels. As a member of the Bay Area Chapter of ABPsi, a lifetime dancer, founder and artistic director of the Daktari Dance Medicine Collective, and as a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist, I recognize the link between healing and dance. African dance has served as a form of medicine for Africans and their descendants for thousands of years and has created optimal conditions for healing by integrating the mind, body, and spirit. Through the medium of expressivity, African dance allows for transition, transcendence, transformation, and integration. Dance does and can play an essential role in reviving and treating symptoms of psychological distress.

The geometry of dance can actually translate movement into specific formulas that direct life’s energy to address specific tasks, i.e., love, war, healing, etc. For instance, Afro-Haitian dances and rhythms calling to Papa Legba activates the opening of the gate between the living and the mysteries found in the invisible realm. The BaKongo Nganga, Ya Fu-Kiau taught that as spirit beings, we vibrate and radiate (move) in seven directions as we traverse the four moments of the sun (cf. Fu-Kiau, 2003). The seven directions (upward, downward, rightward, leftward, backward, frontward, and inward) are coordinated and synchronized as a harmonious rhythmic impulse in dance. Each of the seven directions of the BaKongo has meaning and intention inscribed in dance movements.

In discussing the seven directions, Dr. Nobles (2017) has elaborated on Fu-Kiau’s teaching by noting that each of the seven directions or movements activate or has the intentionality to activate particular energies. For instance, “leftward” motions or direction activates the contact with or intention to continue to become and counter the negative (enemies). The “rightward” motions or direction activates the contact with or intention to belong as family, and love. The “upward” motions or direction activates the contact with or intention to go beyond and have access to the cosmic sea, dreams and creativity. The “downward” motions or direction activates the contact with or intention to be and see what energy is found in the earth (futu). The “forward” motions or direction activates the contact with or intention to behold and prepare our future for our children. The “backward” motions or direction activates the contact with or intention to begin by discovering our collectively accumulated wealth by uncovering our past and ancestral veneration as grounding for new beginnings. Finally, the “inward” motions or direction activates the contact with or intention of being and self-healing.

As I have in other venues, I will be sharing the connection of dance to mental health at the ABPsi’s 50th Annual International Convention (Go to June 27th-July 1st, 2018, at The Marriott Oakland City Center, in Oakland, California. This will be a further opportunity to share the healing power of movement (dance) and sound (drumming). Please join the ABPsi gathering of psychologists, university professors, healthcare professionals, educators, researchers, students, and everyday folks.

It is my opinion that movement is the medicine and dance is the healing. Ashe…Ashe…Ashe.


  • Fu-Kiau, K.K.B. 2003. Self-Healing Power and Therapy: Old Teachings from Africa. New York: African

Tree Press. Nobles, W.W. 2017. Personal Communication/Teaching, July 20, 2012. N=718


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