Duke Faculty Bring Two Disciplines Together To Heal Through Dance

When James Brown gave his famous advice, “Get up offa that thing and dance ’til you feel better,” he probably never envisioned someone conducting a clinical trial to see if it could work.

Two members of the Duke faculty, Ava LaVonne Vinesett, Associate Professor of the Practice in the Dance Program, and Professor of Medicine Kenneth H. Wilson, are conducting a clinical trial to see if dancing to rhythmic drumming might benefit individuals who experience pain, depression and other ailments. The study is entitled “Traditional African Healing Ceremony in a U.S. Population.”

Vinesett was initiated as a priest in the Yoruba Lucumí tradition in Matanzas, Cuba, in 2001. She created a secular healing ceremony based on this tradition of dance movements and presented it at the Across the Threshold conference at Duke in 2009 and at the Criatividade Ser, E Cura conference in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil in 2011. Wilson found that Vinesett’s work resonated with him and his interest in Congolese rhythm traditions, and his own work with mindfulness based stress reduction (MSBR).

The health benefits of MBSR have been demonstrated in medical literature, but Wilson said that not everyone finds it so easy to adapt to mindfulness techniques like meditation. “There are a lot of people who feel meditation is just not an activity that speaks to them,” Wilson said. “Their minds are racing too much or they just don’t connect with it.”

In some of these cases, the person might be too stressed or in too much discomfort to sit quietly and relax. For these people, Wilson and Vinesett believe that Yoruba and Congolese traditions offers several healing potentialities. Getting them to move in time with the rhythms drawn from these related traditions, the two professors hope, will help put them in touch with their bodies and their emotions.

“Getting in touch with our emotional lives through our bodies is how most people connect,” Wilson said. “As our emotions manifest in our bodies, we come to know ourselves, and as we come to know ourselves, we change.”

The conversations between Vinesett and Wilson, an unexpected outcome of Vinesett’s 2009 talk, led to the idea of a clinical trial and then to a grant funding such a trial from the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation. Meeting Duke’s protocol and oversight requirements has been a year-long effort.

To prepare for the work, Vinesett consulted Mabiba Baegne, a dancer and healer from Congo-Brazzaville, and Congolese drummer Pline Mounzeo. However, the ceremony she designed for the clinical trial will respect any and all cultural religious beliefs of the individuals participating. It will encourage the participants to put the activity in a personal context that is meaningful to them, according to the protocol.

The ceremony is schedule for April 19. During the months of February and March, 25 people in the age range of 25 to 65 will be recruited for the ceremony and focus group follow-up. The goal is to enroll five people in each of five categories: Subjects with anxiety disorder; subjects with depression; subjects who do not have a diagnosis of a chronic disease but have seen a health-care provider at least 8 times in the past year; subjects with cancer in remission; and subjects with chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia or chronic Lyme disease.

The participants will dance for about 50 minutes to a slow 6/8 rhythm commonly used for healing ceremonies in northern Congo. They will be asked to concentrate on the music and the dance and let other thoughts and preoccupations drop away.

Chairs will be provided in case anyone finds the dance too exerting, but the ceremony has been designed not to be too strenuous. “The risk is about the same as going to a party and dancing,” Wilson said.

Vinesett hopes the feedback from the trial will not only indicate an increase in physical well-being, but also that it was a transformative experience for the participants. “I’m very much connected to how these dances fundamentally transform the individual, and assist them in viewing their lives in a different way,” she said.