09.01.2001 © Wilbert Alix – New Life Journal (Asheville, North Carolina)

Contemporary dance with ancient roots.

I am the child of a shamanic culture—a neo-shamanic culture. I was born in New Orleans, a city with roots that stretch back not only to Europe, but also through the Caribbean, and into places like South America and Africa. I was born into a black Creole family. Geographically my birth place was a neighborhood known as Faubourg Treme, now internationally famous (and locally infamous) because of its roots as the birthplace of the musical idiom called Jazz. Storyville was not only the atmosphere that manifested Jazz but more importantly, Storyville itself was born from a way of life rooted in the principles and practices of shamanism.

The hypnotic and pulsating rhythms of Jazz were born from these same shamanic roots. It was the contemporary sounds and rhythms of Jazz that re-introduced Americans to the transcendent power of dance and its effectiveness in healing the wounds within our culture. Shamanism, although hidden behind new names and buried beneath layers of culture, is still a vibrant force in many parts of the western world.

Shamanism is a “generic” term that encompasses the spiritual principles existent within all world cultures prior to 5000 years ago. These were the times before organized religion, when humanity was less dependent on a mental or written word process to explain the creative forces that governed human lives. Instead, these forces were explored directly, and each person’s perception of reality was recognized as unique. Shamanic cultures did not have a book that was the basis for how to live spiritually. Shamanism embraced the infinitely complex aspects of nature as the expression of God. If we humans were created from the image of a God, then the GOD of nature certainly made life a fertile proposition. Participants could certainly make sense of any of life questions when the complexities within nature were the book through which answers were to be discovered.

Shamanic cultures date back 40,000 years and employ complex ritual structures or “experiential journeys.” These rituals serve to open individuals to the underlying wisdoms that governed the forces of nature. A few of the more contemporary examples would be the religions of Candomble (Brazil), Voudou (Haiti) and Santeria (Cuba). But so are Carnival (Brazil) and Mardi Gras (New Orleans) forms of shamanism, although they are more like contemporary shamanism. Anyone who has visited New Orleans during the ever popular Mardi Gras season may also be familiar with the less known but deeper rituals played out in the black neighborhoods which surround the popular Vieux Carré (French Quarter). For hundreds of years, black New Orleanians have honored their shamanic roots by masking in elaborate Native American costumes, singing pagan chants that attest to both the masculine and feminine qualities significant to their heritage, while dancing themselves into an ecstatic trance. It was this “Black Indian” culture that influenced my outlook about spirituality. It was this culture that demonstrated to me that transcendent dance, rhythm, music and festive celebration are a potent mixture for what ails you. This blending of these energetic expressions have deep roots extending back to a time when we honored the pulse of the planet.

Both Africans and Native Americans honored this pulse, this power within the earth and manifesting life force upon the earth in fire, water, air and the wisdom that flawlessly tied it all together. These common perspectives were shared even though their ancestral places of birth were on opposite sides of the planet, attesting to shamanism’s global influence. This connection was a powerful one, and still exists as a binding tie in the lives of all shamanic cultures.

A common ritual practice of both Native and African American cultures—and all shamanic cultures on earth—is their use of transformational dance. Within these sacred dance rituals are all the elements necessary for the transcendent experience: dance (energy building), drumming (clearing the mind), mask making (image transformation) and sounds and chants as a vehicle for healing and as a doorway into the realm of the spirit. In combination, these elements transport participants into an alternate reality where it is possible to quiet the mind and simultaneously elevate our life energy to the degree that we can solve (seemingly) unsolvable problems, heal chronic disease, and achieve heightened perception. Dance rituals are one of the most transformational tools available within both eastern and western spiritual cultures.

A contemporary use of sacred dance is Trance Dance, which does not draw from any one particular culture. It utilizes the powerful aspects of spiritual transformation found in dance rituals from many cultures, along with the available technology of amplified music and the unique use of a blindfold (bandana) over the eyes. Similar to older forms of shamanic dance, Trance Dance focuses on the internal journey, not what is occurring outside the dancer. Trance Dance participants often report their “inner journey” helps them to achieve a deeper level of understanding.

Another popular form of neo-shamanism is the Drum Circle. Communal drumming has been a part of transformational rituals for many millennia and is a major feature of both Native American and African dance rituals. Today these drum circles provide a doorway into a rhythmic world that pulsates with the same types of energy used in shamanic cultures over 35,000 years.

Shamanism has many roots and many branches. The seeds of shamanism still grow all over the world including here in the USA.