Dance and Movement as Stress and Trauma Relief and Substance Abuse Prevention Tools for African Americans

Tag Words: Dance, Blacks/African Americans, Substance abuse protective factors, Substance use disorders

In the last two blog posts, we discussed humor and music as substance abuse protective factors for African Americans. In this post, we highlight dance and movement as protective factors. In the book, The Body Keeps The Score, renowned trauma specialist Bessel Van der Kolk states that trauma is lodged in the body and that the body has a longer memory than the brain. A person may forget the specifics of the traumatic events they experienced; the body has a way of remembering. This is one reason why the body of some people tighten when they are touched or hugged. The body keeps the score. According to Van der Kolk, when September 11th trauma survivors in New York City were asked what helped them most in coping with the terror of September 11, their response was acupuncture, yoga, and movement. All physical stuff! The body keeps the score.

At a recent seminar, a adolescent Native American girls dance troupe performed a sacred hoop dance. The leader of the dance troop told me, "I am a recovering alcoholic. I returned to cultural dances when I was 36 years old. I got sober at 37. Dance got me sober. I am now using dance to help these girls heal trauma and as substance abuse prevention." Like Native Americans, African American have experienced hundreds of years of historical trauma. The link between historical trauma and addictions is well chronicled. African Americans have used dance for centuries to cope with stress and trauma, two precursors for the development of substance use disorders.

Dances created by African Americans are emulated throughout the world and go by many names: The Lindy Hop; The Worm; The Bus Stop; The stroll; The Twist; The Robot; The Electric Slide; Moon Walking; Break Dance; the Cabbage Patch; Hammer Time; Running Man; the Harlem Shake; the Dougie and the Dab. While other communities enjoy these dances for African Americans, they have provided stress relief or a form of medicine for trauma for decades.

During The Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th Century, African Americans would frequent dance clubs such as the Cotton Club and the Savoy and dance until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. It is written that a common food dish today, chicken and waffles was created because blacks leaving those clubs were hungry and because of the hour (3 am), they could not decide if they wanted breakfast or dinner. When the clubs were closed during the recession of the 1980's, they would turn an outdoor sidewalk into a club and break dance. The church is perhaps the place where three protective factors converge for African Americans. Spirituality, music, and dance. On any given Sunday it is common to see and hear singing, shouting, prayer and dance.