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The Unbreakable Connection Between Black Women, Dance, and Mental Health

For Black women, a moving body is a political act. Here's how they've long used the power and magic of dance to break free from a difficult reality.

For centuries, dance has served as a source of healing. Movement has played a crucial role in preserving people's history and acting as an emotional salve that spans continents, ethnicities, races, cultures, and tribes. This couldn't be more true for Black Americans, many of whom first arrived in this country against their will. Once here, slaveholders often separated families, restricted reading and writing, and banned traditional practices and rituals. There was very little African people could do to protest for fear of more violence and even death. But one thing they held onto was their flow. Their rhythm. Their organic connection to movement. 

As early as the 1600s, dance was implemented into the lives of African slaves, not only as a form of exercise but as a common language among their community on plantations. While slavery ended in 1865, the suffering of Black individuals did not. Uncontrolled disease, the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow laws, the civil rights movement, mass incarceration, and state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies took hold. But Black people's love of dance also never faltered. They rose above the madness through creative expression and continue to do so today, using dance and their bodies to convey what words cannot.

Dance As a Healing Tool

Yes, movement has physical benefits, but the long history of dance says a lot about its mental health advantages, too. "Dance can be a really great way to actually feel our feelings and move through them," says Jennifer Sterling, a registered dance and movement psychotherapist and creator of Bodyful Healing. Sterling noticed the significant number of Black women in her community who were living with depression, but who didn't feel safe enough to explore therapy, so she decided to create a space for them, she explains. Her aim was to give them a chance to explore their lived experiences and emotions and connect with their bodies in a way that society often doesn't allow. "Dance movement therapy is just like talk therapy," she says. "Except instead of using your voice as we know it, we engage the body and allow it to have a voice in the process."

In a typical dance movement psychotherapy session, Sterling provides psychoeducation around the nervous system, which is helpful for emotion regulation and identifying what's happening in your body when you're starting to feel anxious or depressed, as well as when you're feeling safe, social, and connected, she says. (Related: How Trauma-Informed Yoga Can Help Survivors Heal)

But movement therapy isn't the only way dance can heal. Dancing can have massive mental health benefits such as increasing vitality and fitness and improving psychological functions and social skills, according to research published in Frontiers In Psychology. For Black women, in particular, that means dance is much more than just a hobby. It's a form of treatment that can relieve the symptoms of what feels like endless systemic oppression.

The 'Strong Black Woman' Image

Katherine Dunham, the late ballet dancer, anthropologist, and founder of the Dunham technique, was one of the most controversial dance pioneers of her time, fighting against racial inequality through her research and choreography. She was the first to take a deeper look at Caribbean dance traditions that slaves brought to America from Africa and spent most of her career engaging in educational and humanitarian projects, battling for social justice, and pursuing her passion for dance. As a Black woman in the 1940s, it took a special type of strength to commit to convincing both white folks and members of the Black community that there is power and rich culture embedded in African and Caribbean dance.

But, unfortunately, not every Black woman of that era (nor today) could be as strong as Dunham, who was relentless in her pursuits during tough times. There's no doubt that encountering racism — and everything that comes with it — has long-term negative effects on mental health. And for Black women in particular, authentically expressing their emotions has never been an easy feat. That's because, for so long, society has forced them to suppress their emotions and suffer in silence as a means to serve others.

How often have you used or heard the phrase "strong Black woman"? Yes, Black women are indeed strong and resilient, and at face value, it can seem like a compliment. But under the surface, the "strong Black woman" concept denies Black women the ability to discern their personal mental health needs. (See: What Society Gets Wrong About the 'Angry Black Woman')

This notion of the "strong Black woman" dates back to slavery, where the idea that "Black women were physically and psychologically stronger compared to European American women and equal to African American men enabled European Americans to justify their enslavement and inhuman treatment," according to The Society for the Psychology of Women. Because of this, enslaved African American women began instilling the concept of strength into young Black girls' minds early on, in order to prepare them for the unspeakable cruelty they'd eventually face during life on plantations.

But when Black women take on that role today, whether consciously or unconsciously, "self-care goes out the window," says Sterling. "That kind of suppression puts a lot of stress and strain on the nervous system, and eventually it tires out." Today, this notion that Black women need to be unwaveringly strong is a direct contributing factor for undiagnosed depression within the Black community. It's therefore necessary to take a step back and analyze the mental detriment that can come with glorifying such a trope.

Being strong all the time isn't easy. Black women are human beings after all. And like every body of energy, they need to rest, release, and recover. And because therapy and other outlets haven't historically been accessible or viewed as a safe space for people of color, over time, many Black women have been tasked with finding other ways to release their built-up trauma. So, to achieve that, you'll likely find Black women dancing.

Twirling and Twerking Through History

For many professional dancers, having "thick skin" and the mental strength to deal with constant pressure and rejection is normalized within the industry. Of course, not all dancers are professional. 

But does that mean life is any less stressful for Black women who dance simply for leisure? Nope. Tauri Janeé, a full-time creative also known on Instagram as @Editaurial is exploring the world through creative expression, and twerking happens to be a huge healing component of that journey. Though twerking's rich history is brewing worldwide acceptance right now, it's still met with much resistance, especially when Black women are doing it.

Twerking is one of the most popular dances today, and that's true across races and cultures. You can see it on viral TikToks and Instagram reels, as well as in clubs and dance halls. But while it may be new to most, it actually originated in different parts of Africa with names including Chakacha, a traditional dance originating in the coastal region of Kenya and Tanzania that focused on the swaying of the hips, and Mapouka, a dance from Côte d'Ivoire that has been around for centuries and emphasizes the buttocks. (Mapouka literally translates to "butt dance.") Many of these cultural dances were outlawed by government officials in their areas of origin, as well as by neighboring countries, due to their suggestive nature. 

"I do receive a lot of negative attention for the way in which I dance," says Janeé. "Sometimes from men who don't understand or can't really grasp that dance is a healing practice for me and not a performance for them. And other times, from people who are culturally removed, and choose to sexualize or demonize my body, and label me as inappropriate." (See: What It's Like Being a Black, Body-Positive Female Trainer In an Industry That's Predominantly Thin and White)

Meanwhile, some of America's most well-known Black pop stars from Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion to Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé have been twerking their booties off for much of their careers. And while many people are supportive of the bodacious booty rolls, Black women are often shamed for dancing this way. Meanwhile, when a white woman does (insert anything Black here), it's suddenly cool or "the hot new style." How long did it take Jalaiah Harmon, the original creator of the infamous "Renegade" TikTok dance, to receive credit after white TikToker Charli D'Amelio gained viral fame from it? How long did it take jazz singer Alberta Hunter to receive credit for the Black Bottom dance after George White's "Scandals" revue gained national fame for it in the '20s, or Big Mama Thorton's "Hound Dog" song with Elvis in the '50s? And how do these recurring situations affect the mental health of Black folks? 

Throughout history — both inside and outside of dance — Black creators have routinely seen their work appropriated by whites who then gain fame, fortune, and countless opportunities from stealing those creations, watering them down, and not crediting their origins. Just take a second to imagine how tired Black women and creators feel knowing this has been happening for more than a century.

This reality proves that society's perspective of Black women is inferior. And no matter how insignificant it might seem to some, it takes a toll on their perception of self-worth. There are white women profiting from the culture, getting opportunities to travel and teach twerk classes around the world, and more often than not, they're completely unaware of the vast history of the style. As Janeé sums it up: "Same movement; different bodies." 

Growing up, Janeé recalls questioning her own worthiness when witnessing her white peers laughing while imitating the twerking movement she did with her family and friends back in her community. Though she says she didn't fully grasp the concept of racism or privilege at the time, watching these girls dance and seeing it be fully celebrated while knowing that if she did the same thing, it would not be well received, brought up the question many young Black girls sadly end up asking themselves: "What's wrong with me?" But after a journey of self-discovery and surrendering herself to the healing power of dance, Janeé's come to realize "there's nothing wrong with being confident; there's nothing wrong with me celebrating my body," she says. (Related: How to Create an Inclusive Environment In the Wellness Space)

Luckily, today, there are spaces that encourage Black women to dance without judgment and feel empowered and liberated in their bodies. Take Texas native Ladi Earth's "Twerk & Heal'' workshops for example. Despite the negative connotation that Black women twerking can have in society, she created this space as an opportunity to enhance the spiritual aspect to twerking that women may not have thought of before, incorporating tantric techniques, yoni meditations (a meditation focused on femininity and the womb space), and intentional breathing practices into a twerk-filled session. "The classes are very much centered on healing wombs and focusing on the steps it takes to do that," says Earth. "I don't try to change people's minds about their perception of twerking. I just allow them to experience it, and they can take what they want from it," she adds. 

Spaces like these are helping to increase the confidence of Black women and help them to learn to love their bodies. Ladi Earth simply wants to help Black women feel free. "Even if it's not with twerking," she says. "I hope that Black women can feel a sense of freedom within themselves and embrace self-expression."

Paying Forward the Power of Dance

The therapeutic nature of dance is evident in its ability to remain as a common denominator within Black culture. This nurtured form of expression is for those moments when Black folks cannot put their pain into words and need to release pent-up emotions and trauma that has built up not only in their lifetimes but that is embedded within their DNA.

"I don't only dance when I'm happy," says Janeé. "I dance when I'm angry; when I just need to shake something out of myself. It's an emotional experience and it doesn't matter if that emotion is joy or pain or anger."

The mental health effects of the pandemic on the world are unfathomable as it is, but to know that Black folks are disproportionately affected by it means that self-care is more crucial now than ever before.

When activist Sonya Renee Taylor — author of the book The Body Is Not An Apology (TBINAA) and founder of the eponymous movement — was diagnosed with COVID-19, doctors urged her to keep her body moving. Back in 2011, the TBINAA movement was originally created to elevate love and care for self, and help people develop a healthier relationship with their bodies. Despite Taylor's unfortunate diagnosis in the height of a pandemic, dealing with COVID-19 firsthand inspired her to expand the movement to include self-love and body empowerment through her new online Radical Movement dance classes, which have served as a way to build community, improve mental health, and celebrate Black joy, she says.

For Taylor, movement is how she returns to her body, she explains "It soothes me, lowers my anxiety, and dispels negative energy," she says. "When my body can get clear, I find that my anxiety and intrusive thoughts also begin to clear." And Taylor's Radical Movement classes seem to have helped participants reclaim their joy of movement. Students have shared how dancing together has helped them feel powerful inside their bodies and shake off stigma and judgment, she says. (Also read: Why Wellness Pros Need to Be Part of the Conversation About Racism)

With the TBINAA movement being in its 10th year, she says she's witnessed the platform help Black women understand the ways in which they've been indoctrinated and transform the way they feel about themselves and their bodies. "I've watched Black women heal their traumas and even shift the ways in which they relate to their children."

For Black women, dance in all of its forms has been a gift that keeps unwrapping itself, and an instrument that has driven them to become unapologetically willing to stand in their power. "There is something beyond all of the hardships that we have faced that makes us a transcendent group of people," says Taylor. "We feel that when we dance, and it's what helps us keep pushing."

It's true. Whether you're scrolling through your TikTok feed or flipping through the pages of a history book, you'll see that music and dance are the heart and soul of Black culture. Black women have been dancing as a way to express themselves, socialize, build community, and spiritually connect with their ancestors for as long as history can show. So, despite all that the world steals from and throws at Black women and the Black community as a whole, dance will forever remain a healing blueprint for Black culture.

Credit: Getty Images - Illustration: Noa Denmon