>For thousands of years, the Dagara people of West Africa have called upon ritualistic dance as a spiritual channel for restoring balance to emotional and physical turbulence in the human condition. Dagara music, native to Ghana, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast, is one of the oldest xylophone music in the world. The sacred sound of the gyil – the traditional pentatonic percussion instrument of the Dagara Tribe – is itself believed to come from a vibration of water that physically balances the water in the bodies of humans and animals. Dagara dances range from joyful and refined to purging and eruptive, depending upon the ambiance and ailment of the participator.
I spoke with Bernard Woma, head xylophonist and master drummer of the award-winning ensemble The Dagara Dance Troupe and also principal member of the National Dance Company of Ghana, about the therapeutic benefits of Dagara Dance as a spiritual antidote for restoring harmony and poise to physical and emotional dis-ease in the mind and body.
"It’s very true that there are ritualistic dances for releasing certain emotional conditions such as anger, grief, depression and anxiety from the body," he says, speaking from his transient home in Fredonia, N.Y., where he is guest lecturer at New York State University. Woma, who lives outside Accra, Ghana’s capital, regularly gives workshops and performances in Europe, the United States and Africa. "The gyil music we play is well known for its spiritual cleansing and healing. One of the ceremonies we utilize for spiritual healing occurs at the traditional Bagr Festival, which is a religious ceremony that takes place (in northeast Ghana) every year."
A specific dance, the Healing Dance, is one in which people who are suffering from tumultuous and destructive emotions are usually set in trance and dance in the fire, but "the possessed dancer does not get burned." Communing with the fire denotes connecting to and extinguishing the inferno of harmful emotions within to restore equilibrium to the mind and spirit.
Another healing dance that operates as a remedy for anxiety is the Happy Dance: "If one is anxious about something," Woma believes that one should offset this feeling by "celebrating in joy." This dance is practiced during the moonlight and is also a tradition performed at the beginning of each year "so that one can annually change their life into something different." This dance purges out any negative or limiting emotions in preparation for a new season of life.
This realignment of energy also applies to those in the tribe who are grieving the death of a loved one.
"We consider the Funeral Dance as a release of inner sadness," Woma says. "We have to just get out and release the grief through movement. The expressive movement in the dance helps one to share the pain of losing their loved one. This is especially true if another dancer and colleague dies. We have to perform a certain grief-releasing dance for the departed soul." Woma calls it a "reincarnation dance for the departed soul, because the Dagara people believe that the spirits are dancing with (them)…we perform such rituals and dance with the spirits around us – the spirits beyond the earth."
"The spirits become integrated into life," he says, "and one can experience it when in trance. One can even experience it just being part of the music, just being, and wailing, and simply being present. It’s very spiritual and powerful."
Dagara music has also been known to relieve physical disproportion in the body and has long been utilized in eliminating toxins and ailments to restore balance. Woma notes: "Gyil music is used to perform healing processes. If someone has internal disturbances…our music and rituals are perceived to help the deficiency – the person who is suffering (a particular) ailment gets healing."
However, he emphatically stresses that "one has to believe in it."
"It’s like religion," he says. "If one believes in the spirituality of the music and the power of it, whatever condition they are in, the music is healing and one’s participation in it will make them heal." The healing comes from channeling spiritual energy through worship, and the participator has to be "holistically involved in the ritual and music spiritually, mentally, and physically."
"One has to invoke the healing energy," he says, "by fully participating in it and have the feel for it. Only then will one see the end result. Only then will he be healed."
The music of the gyil and the dances that accompany it not only serve as a means of balance and expression of the self but also synthesize masculine and feminine energies for communion with nature. Woma says this fusion comes from the mystical history of the melody.
"The myth of the gyil traditions introduces the dance – in fact, the dance was introduced by the women first. It was the women who started dancing to the gyil music and they created a feminine movement to it. The men were so overwhelmed by the graceful movements of the dance that they began to lift up and jump. In Dagara dance, one can see that the men jump high when they’re dancing. The women’s movements are slower and much more subtle. Their emotional movement was to stay in touch with the ground – in contact with the earth. Men danced in happiness from observing the beautiful movements of the women."
The Bagr Festival that takes place every year in Ghana is one way of preserving traditional African music such as the gyil and Dagara dance to appeal and convey to younger generations the power and healing behind the music. Woma also owns and supervises The Dagara Music Center in Medie – a suburb of Accra – a traditional African music and arts school that strives to uphold the customs and beliefs of the Dagara people.
"This is one of the reasons I have The Dagara Music Center," he says, "to make sure I’m really processing out to the community. One has to invoke the participatory spirit." Woma considers it his own personal calling to spread and enliven "the participatory spirit" of Dagara dance and music in the West and the rest of the world.