Trance Dance of the San

Ritual Dance of the San of the Kalahari

San (Bushman) child jumping of fallen tree. Grashoek, Bushmanland , Namibia
Kerstin Geier / Getty Images

The trance dance, which is still practiced by San communities in the Kalahari region, is an indigenous ritual by which a state of altered consciousness is achieved through rhythmic dancing and hyperventilation. It is used for healing sickness in individuals and healing negative aspects of the community as a whole. The trance dance experiences of San shaman are believed to be recorded by southern African rock art.


San Healing Trance Dances

The San people of Botswana and Namibia were formerly known as Bushmen. They are descended from some of the oldest surviving lineages of modern humans. Their traditions and way of life may be preserved from ancient times. Today, many have been displaced from their native lands in the name of conservation, and they may be unable to practice their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The trance dance is a healing dance for individuals and the community as a whole. It is their most prominent religious practice, according to some sources. It can take several forms. Many adults, both men, and women, become healers in San communities.

In one form, the women of the community sit around the fire and clap and sing rhythmically while the healers dance. They sing medicine songs that they learn from their youth. The ritual continues all night long. The healers dance in counterpoint to the rhythm in single file.

They may wear rattles attached to their legs. They dance themselves into an altered state, which often includes feeling a great deal of pain. They may scream in pain during the dance.

Upon entering the altered consciousness through the dance, the shamans feel healing energy awaken in them, and they are careful to channel it to those who need healing.

They do this by touching those who have sickness, sometimes generally on their torso, but also on body parts that are affected by the illness. This can take the form of the healer drawing the illness out of the person and then yelling to eject it into the air.

The trance dance can also be used to draw away community ills such as anger and disputes. In other variations, drums may be used and offerings may be hung from nearby trees.

San Rock Art and the Trance Dance

The trance dance and healing rituals are believed to be depicted in paintings and carvings in caves and rock shelters in South Africa and Botswana.

Some rock art shows women clapping and people dancing as in the trance dance ritual. They are also believed to depict rain dances, which also involved trance dancing, capturing a rain dance animal, kill it in the trance state and thus attract rain.

San rock art often depicts Eland bulls, which is a symbol of curing and the trance dance according to Thomas Dowson in  “Reading Art, Writing History: Rock Art and Social Change in Southern Africa.” The art also shows hybrids of humans and animals, which may be representations of healers in the trance dance.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Trance Dance of the San." ThoughtCo, Sep. 15, 2017, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2017, September 15). Trance Dance of the San. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Trance Dance of the San." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2018).