"Way of the Bushmen": Dance, Love, and God in Africa

The Bushmen share the spiritual wisdom of their healing dance

Posted Mar 31, 2016

It is rare that a book blasts me with wisdom as forcefully as the one I read last week: Way of the Bushman as Told by the Tribal Elders: Spiritual Teachings and Practices of the Kalahari Ju|hoansi. I am still reeling and can only begin to suggest why.

The elders of the title hail from a people in Western Namibia whose DNA demonstrates a range of genetic diversity so great that anthropologists identify them as direct descendants of the hominid group whose members spread throughout the world. The Bushman culture is the oldest living human culture on the planet.

And as the editors of this book, Bradford and Hillary Keeney tell us, Bushman culture is a dancing culture: “the movements and sensations of the body in relationship and interaction with others constitute their way of knowing and being. They are a dancing culture. They know through dance, and they dance their ideas, emotions, and laughter as well as their bodies. Their world moves, like the changing seasons, and they move with it, valuing the constant movement and change more than any one static moment” (2016: xxviii). By this point, I was clearly hooked.

Yet as the Keeneys also acknowledge, the Bushman "healing dance epistemology has evaded scholars’ attempts to pin it down” (2012: 13). What has made it so difficult, as the Keeneys discovered, is that the Bushman have spoken to interested researchers as they would to people with no experience of the dance—using words in elliptical, teasing, contradictory ways. The Bushman know that someone who has not had the experience of their dancing will not be able to understand what words about it mean. As the elders claim: “Practically all of the anthropologists and outsiders we have met do not have an adequate understanding of how we heal and relate to God… their education didn’t prepare them to understand anything about our experience of spirituality” (2015: 5). The outsiders’ “education”—that is, their training in anthropological theories and methods, as well generally living through practices of reading and writing—looms as an obstacle to understanding.

Nevertheless, with Way of the Bushman, the elders decided to speak about their dance in a rather straightforward manner, thanks to the Keeneys. Brad was the first outsider who came to visit them who had already seen their most important spiritual vision: God’s ostrich egg. The Bushmen gave him the name “Bo,” and welcomed him into their dance. They recognized him as one of their own, and the highest level healer in his own right, Heart of the Spears. As |Xoan |Kun tells: “We were very surprised when Bo received God’s ostrich egg. This is when we knew that it was time for the world to know about our secrets” (182). The elders are well aware that outsiders are likely to twist and misinterpret their words about the dance. However, they are willing to take the risk that there are also hearts out there, like those of Brad and Hillary, who are open enough to receive what they have to teach: a pinnacle human experience they believe other cultures have lost—a direct connection with God’s love.

The challenge of reading this book, then, and what makes it so incredibly wise, is that every statement the elders make about spirituality expresses the lived experience of dancing. Every statement represents a way of knowing that the Bushman practice makes possible. Words they use that might seem familiar to western readers—like God, love, feelings, even dance—mean differently. They mean in the context of the sensory education that their dancing affords.

What is that sensory education?

The Bushman dance is traditionally an all-night communal event. All members of the community are welcome, women, men, and children. The dance begins with a group of women who sit in a circle, and sing and clap. Others gather, and dance around the singers, taking small steps, with feet barely raised off the ground, punctuating their progress with percussive stamps made in time with the songs.

As the singing and dancing grow more energetic; as the singers and dancers grow more focused and intense, the Bushman say that n|om, a “spiritual energy” or “enhanced life force” heats up. Soon someone in the group so fills with n|om that she “wakes up” (!aia) and begins to shake (thara). The one who shakes moves through several “stations” of n|om: first she feels power; then she feels a big love for all present that manifests both as an ability to see the suffering of others and as a desire to respond, touch, and “pull out sickness.” A rare few progress to a third station in which they feel a love so all encompassing that they are able to shoot n|om into others, awakening their hearts to more love. Such a person is a Heart of the Spears.

In the context of this dance, words that outsiders may think they understand receive a new spin. Take the example of “change.” As the !Kunta Boo tells: “There is something acting on everything to change. We call this force of change n!o’an-ka|’ae. This is the most important Bushman word. It is the force that is making everything move… the secret of creation and transformation” (53). While scholars of religion might be tempted to read this word as representing a “thing” that causes change—a kind of god or spirit or sacred entity—the term makes sense for the Bushmen in relation to the experience of their own bodily selves as movement that they have while dancing.

As participants sing and stand and move, they warm up, they breathe deeply, they relax. They respond to the sounds of singing and clapping by matching time and moving with. The effort to dance and sing draws their attention into the present. They feel what they are feeling, and more intensely. They “wake up” to themselves—to their own capacity to sense. As they do, their hearts fill with love; and they find themselves impelled to shake with joy. In this way, then, the act of participating in this dance gives the Bushman an experience of their own bodily selves as changing by virtue of their own bodily movement. They experience themselves as being moved by love.

Then again, what the Bushmen mean by “love” must be folded back into the dancing as well.  Love is the feeling that the dance awakens in those who give themselves to its movements. Love cannot be understood outside of the dance. For the Bushmen, God’s love, source of n|om, “is called in and expressed by enthusiastic singing, drumming, and dancing” (4). Anything else is not it.

What then is this love? It helps to understand how the Bushmen characterize feeling in general. The Bushman perceive and conceive of feelings as sharp objects—arrows, needles, nails, or thorns—that can be shot into people by just about anything, including other people, animals, or the Sky God (who also changes forms, is sometimes male and female, and sometimes a family). For the Bushmen, these arrows and needles are compressed n|om, potent bundles of life force.

Again, it is tempting to interpret “needle” or “nail” as a metaphor for a thing that acts in a similar fashion. But for the Bushman, a feeling is not a thing. It is a change in sensory experience. To be pricked by a needle causes a sensation. It pokes. It arouses and attracts attention. It wakes one up to the possibility of more sensation. The pattern of felt energy is newly sensitive to the source of the n|om arrow. The sensation spreads. Thus, a person shot with n|om is one who feels pulled and pushed to think and act differently than before in relation to the source of the arrow. He cares. He feels with; he feels for. It is this sense that the Bushman say a needle or nail is also a rope—it is a change that is also a relationship to whatever stirs the feeling.

Yet, regardless of source, these nails of n|om can get “dirty”—that is, they can become compromised or conflicted, and throb with anger, fear, jealousy, or other emotions that erode a person’s sense of health and well being. When needles are dirty, people may feel sad or depressed; they are resentful or frustrated, basically stuck in pain. In such situations—and they happen all the time—the Bushman claim that the way to heal is to participate in a dance. The dance heats up n|om and “cooks” the nails. 

How? The dancing cleans the nails by revealing the truth at their core: connection to those things which give life. Love. As their capacity to feel wakes up, dancers feel their stuck feelings more intensely. With the touch of healers’ vibrating hands, and the ongoing support of strong singing and clapping, a person feels that emotion as a sense of pulling, of responsiveness, of vulnerability that is felt in the heart--as a relationship with the source of pure n|om, a constellation of life energy.  

The dance is effective here in ways that differ from conventional interpretations of ecstatic dance. The dance is not a symbolic enactment of Bushman beliefs or worldviews. It is not a ritual that opens a liminal space from which participants return to social order. It is not a physical event that catalyzes metabolic changes or altered states of consciousness. The efficacy of the dancing is not a matter of learning steps or mastering technique.

Rather, the dancing heals because the action of participating in it taps and releases human beings' inherent kinetic creativity--their ability to participate in an ongoing process of creation that includes their own self. It guides them to participate in, what I would call, the rhythms of bodily becoming (LaMothe 2015).

As the elders say: “People need to dance every week, even twice a week… When our nails are clean and strong, we feel a vibrant buzzing and hear an uplifting tonal hum inside of us. There is always music in our heart and head” (12).

The Bushman elders know: “These are urgent and dangerous times and our wisdom is needed to heal the world” (1). That wisdom is not just knowledge about something or about how to do something. It is not just knowledge that direct connection with God is possible. It is rather an understanding that ecstatic dancing and singing are vital to the health and well being of the vast web of life, humans included.

As they affirm: “The world needs to have teachers and healers who sing, dance, and tremble as God’s love flows through their hearts” (32). Indeed!


Keeney, Bradford and Hillary Keeney, eds. Way of the Bushman as Told by the Tribal Elders: Spiritual Teachings and Practices of the Kalahari Ju|hoansi. Bear & Company, 2015.

Keeney, Bradford and Hillary Keeney. “Dancing Nom.” Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices. Vol 1, No. 1, 11-22, 2012.

LaMothe, Kimerer. Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming. Columbia University Press, 2015.