How dance can save us; a look at Bali and Thovil dance rituals

Image: Kurt boeck, 1903, masked dancers heal a sick person

These recollections on body-mind consciousness, were derived from our most recent explorations into the idea of ‘movement’ and where it connects to our being.

Digging deeper into the wisdom in movement, we started exploring the healing capacity of dance. Dance being one of Rithihi’s most beloved arts, we were intrigued to learn how it comes alive in many cultures around the world as a healing ritual. The Junba dance-song tradition of Australia’s Ngarinyin, Wunambal and Worrorra peoples, the trance rituals of the Sans in Botswana and Namibia, and the Vimbuza dance form of Malawi are some well-explored examples of healing dances. Here at home in Sri Lanka, Bali and Thovil struck us as two incredibly powerful forms of healing dance rituals that have somehow survived
the times to remain in the undercurrents of society, even today. We found Bali and Thovil to be fascinating reflections of how humans inherently resort to dance in search of solutions to their distress.

Bali and Thovil connect back to the pre-Buddhist animistic belief systems. In M. S. Fernando’s book—Rituals, Folk Beliefs and Magical Arts of Sri Lanka—Dr. N. D. Wijesekera says that healing dance rituals or forms of ‘social magic’ are based on the belief that the world is full of visible and invisible forces, whose influence when mastered and controlled, can be directed in chosen ways to bring about wellbeing. Both Bali and Thovil are intensely theatrical rituals, heavy with dance, song and costume. The key interaction is between the shamanic healer, known as edura , and the afflicted patient— āturaya —who is usually a
single person; however, cases of using Bali and Thovil to heal couples, families or even entire villages, are not unheard of.

The stage, the temporary altar and the costumes are mainly made of natural materials, such as fibre, flowers and leaves. Eduras would wear elaborately carved wooden masks to personify spirits, demons and deities which were essentially supernatural embodiments of diseases, planets and other forces of nature that people constantly struggle against.

The theatrical features include various dances with accompanied singing and chanting, and sometimes, short comic slapstick scenes to engage the audience composed of the patient’s family, relatives and neighbours. In the most powerful ceremonies, the patient and even other spectators may experience trances, joining the edura’s dance.

“Possessed by the very spirit, the dancer rises and runs amok pulling down the several gadgets set up for the rituals. When the ceremonials end finally, the departure of the evil spirit is often indicated by the sign of a crashing branch of a nearby tree. The āturaya—the patient—now leaves weary, yet confident, that the ritual has done him good.” M. S. Fernando (Rituals, Folk Beliefs and Magical Arts of Sri Lanka. S. Godage and Brothers, Colombo, Sri Lanka. 2001)

The theatrical aspect of the Bali and Thovil dances are essential to the healing. The underlying emotions, secret desires, fears and repressed urges that cause the patient distress, are externalised and brought out to the surface and expressed through movements witnessed by their entire community. Things that cannot be spoken of, are danced out instead. This alone becomes liberating enough to relieve many common
psycho-somatic ailments, bringing about the healing power of Bali and Thovil.

Observing Bali and Thovil , it becomes clear to us how the body is inseparable from, and in constant reciprocal interaction with, the mind. By observing the body we can deduce mental states, and by deliberately moving the body in dance, we can process mental states. Bali and Thovil showed us how dance could go beyond simple entertainment, to be used as a form of primal expression and healing; how they call emotions to the surface, so that they can be analysed, understood and mastered, instead of being suppressed and feared. This is how dance saves us where words fail.

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