Wednesday, July 11, 2012


NOTE TO READER: This is one of my drafts of an admissions essay I wrote for a Graduate program in Medical Anthropology. I am and have been doing this research independently. I will continue to research it as long as my body will allow. As long as my ancestors stand strong next to me, above me, under me and around me. I did not get into the program but this essay is going to turn into a book. While writing this essay I realized that I can certainly write a book on this topic because there was a lot I left out.

For those of you who would like to know about my work, study and approach to Sensual Strength Training and Afro Diasporic dance...this will give you a deeper understanding. Remember, this is a work in progress.

Written by: Makeda V. Benjamin 1/15/09

Admissions Essay:
PhD/MPH in Medical Anthropology

My interests in the field of Medical Anthropology developed gradually out of my studies of dance, athletic conditioning and nutrition science. Through my investigation of the literature in these fields, as well as my readings in African American studies and ancient history; I discovered that there were several ideologies and practices that Africans and Native Americans shared in common, but also some interesting differences. There is much evidence for the Native presence amongst the Africans and vice versa when one takes a serious look at the foods eaten by African Americans, certain rituals, religious practices, dances and some of the musical instruments that are used throughout the Americas.
Much of this history has been lost because it was documented primarily by the European men that brutally colonized the Americas in attempt to destroy a people with the intent to enslave them. The European male colonizers of the Americas did not understand the Matriarchal ways of African and Native American civilizations. They believed we are all children of Mother Earth and thus we must pay her respect. Ownership of land, people, water, etc. was not a part of their ideology. To make matters worse the European male colonizers categorized the world’s populations into races and then set up a rigid hierarchy that they claimed was ordained by God. They forced their religion and “God” on these indigenous people while claiming they were unintelligent, “primitive” and savage.

Advances in the science of genetics, and the seminal human genome study, has now confirmed that race is a social construct, a sociological rather than a biological phenomenon. Hence there is nothing scientific about racial categorization. However there is certainly something to be said about ethnicity, nationality and culture. Modern science has also confirmed that trauma is stored in the DNA and if one wants to trace their biological lineage they must do so through the matriarchal mitochondrial DNA. Diabetes, obesity, depression and many other health epidemics found amongst Native American and African American populations are the same. It is my belief that this has much to do with the biological and cultural intermixing of the two groups in combination with the shared legacy of terror and malnourishment on the land of the Americas. The development of chronic disease is a result of an interaction between one’s genetics and the environment in which that person is exposed. I have chosen to investigate this question with the tools offered by the disciplines of anthropology because this is the area of study that includes a mixture of social sciences and biological sciences to evaluate certain occurrences. Likewise, the domain of public health is the area of the health sciences that deals with influencing public policy as it pertains to health epidemics. Thus, the evidence gained in anthropological studies can fuel the fire behind decisions of public policy as it pertains to the health of massive amounts of individuals. I have selected the field of medical anthropology because I think it will best prepare me to interrogate the issues that I find to be of importance.

I am primarily interested in examining how trauma and the loss of one’s center affect one’s physical, mental and spiritual health. Modern physics and indigenous medicine both recognize that the farther away an object gets from its center, or axis of rotation, the more unstable it will become. I am particularly interested in the role colonization and enslavement played in displacing Native Americans and Africans on this western soil. Africans and Native Americans went through hundreds of years of harsh torment in which the colonizers implemented many brutal methods in attempts to weaken them by disrupting their center and deliberately denying them access to their native language, spiritual beliefs, traditional ceremonies, dances and rhythms. One cannot be centered if they do not know where they come from and are not familiar with their ancient ways.

Thus, these “primitive” peoples who were regarded as unintelligent and non human had to develop clever methods to disguise certain spiritual beliefs along with the accompanying dances, songs and rhythms. The African slaves arrived in the Americas without their drums or sacred instruments. They came without the elders to teach them their ancient heritage and traditions. Thus, they were forced to remember, retain and recreate these sacred rhythms and dances. Native Americans open up the sacred circle of dancing and drumming for various reasons. Ritual and social dance was used for communication, healing, revolts, death and birth.

I am particularly interested in social and ritual dances as it pertains to national identity and cultural identity. I hypothesize that the importance of one being able to connect with one’s identity is critical, because it is vital to one’s mental health. The health of the mind undoubtedly affects the health of the body. These dances were all tremendously demanding and they were gracefully executed by enslaved people who already had an unimaginable physical load to carry. As a trained dancer, former, collegiate athlete and an exercise specialist, I am intensely interested in the physical body and the hidden messages and healing properties behind movement.
I have used my mind and body as tools to collect data, observe and learn. During my first two years of graduate school at Columbia University I was focused on nutrition education and applied physiology. During that time I worked with clients who had several serious health imbalances both physical and physiological. I also suffered a few rare and mysterious health imbalances. The medical doctors were often quite puzzled and I always diagnosed myself. These situations were pop quizzes and they forced me to do an immense amount of research in order to help myself and my clients. After two years I decided to take a break so I could recover and continue to do my own studying, searching and critical thinking. During this time I began to realize that illness was a physical manifestation of mental and physiological imbalance. I also discovered that Mother Nature has provided us with everything we need to remain balanced and heal ourselves. This is why many of the world’s biotechnologists are harassing indigenous people trying to learn what they have been using to heal themselves for thousands of years. Once they find out, they isolate the “active ingredient” and patent it. Once there is a patent these indigenous people no longer have access to the plant they have been using for thousands of years, unless they pay these biotech companies for the use of the plant. I was very familiar with this practice after having been a biotechnology major for my first two years of undergrad. Discovering this truth is largely responsible for propelling me into the field of Exercise and Sports Science and Nutrition.
I strongly believe that there are complex relationships between many phenomena that are not readily apparent from casual observation; thus I hypothesize that there are multiple facets to the health epidemics we are now witnessing in the world. It seems as if every chronic illness has increased in record breaking proportions over the past fifty years. My passion for wanting to help people heal and really connect to their center propelled me into a zone of deep contemplation and research about the root cause of many of today’s modern day plagues, which include infectious disease, birth complications, weak and diseased sexual organs, depression, obesity, diabetes, cancer and several other chronic diseases.

I strongly suspect that this lies partially in the fact that we have abandoned the holistic healing wisdom of the ancients in favor of the modern scientific belief that physical well being is unrelated to cultural rituals that address spiritual well being. However many of the ritual and social dances of those of African descent in the Americas involve intense polyrhythmic manipulation of the sacral pelvic region. And modern science has confirmed that each living entity omits an electromagnetic field, which indigenous peoples acknowledged as chakras for thousands of years and modern science is now beginning to confirm that every object has a life force energy otherwise known as chi, prana, mana, ka, etc.

It has long been recognized in all indigenous medicine that trauma is stored in the womb space. In Japanese Shiatsu it is referred to as the Hara. The womb space is also where the sacral and root chakras are located. The womb space is where our umbilical cord was located that connected us to our mothers. Thus our navel is a constant reminder of our divine connection with Mother Earth. It has also been recognized that we certainly inherit the trauma and imbalances of our parents and ancestors and that is also stored in the womb space.

Thus, rigorous and focused powerful contractions of the muscles that act on that region are essential for releasing all of the horrible trauma inflicted on those of African and Native American descent in the West. The rape of Native American and African women, the women from whose loins I descended, by white men who were their colonial masters or owners was a routine affair for centuries. These women often had several children while maintaining a very physical life style before, during and immediately after delivery of their children. Unlike many modern women who depend on hospital technology to give birth, indigenous women did not need hospitals to do so.

The value of the African slave woman was determined by how fertile she was. Yet these women were still expected to perform the same levels of rigorous physical work being performed by the men. To make matters worse, as the Afro-American female scholar Dr. Harriet Washington shows in her path breaking study, “Medical Apartheid”, a carefully researched and shocking investigation into the history of racist practices in American medicine, the so called “Father of Gynecology,” James Marion Sims conducted most of his research on the black female body by brutally mutilating these women against their will and without anesthesia. Often times the woman who was being mutilated was held down by other slave women, who were forced to participate in these grisly crimes against their sisters. This experience was obviously quite traumatic for all of the women who were forced upon threat of violence to assist in the procedure. Many efforts were made to make Native American women sterile in order decimate their population and it was quite successful in more than enough cases

However much of what modern science has learned about the human female body through these invasive and often inhuman practices, justified under the rubric of “scientific research” was already known to the ancients, who had developed cultural rituals to address their maladies. Take pelvic organ prolapse for instance. This is a condition in which the internal organs, including the reproductive organs in the pelvic region, begin to sag and put pressure on the pelvic diaphragm. This is a development that results from years of not strengthening the internal and external muscles in the pelvic region. It can also occur after childbirth. However there is abundant evidence that such ancient traditional dances as the Hawaiian Hula and Egyptian belly dance were seriously taught and practiced as both a serious physical task and a spiritual practice. These dances take large amounts of rhythmic neuromuscular control of the hips and spine. There is certainly a mind body connection here; because the more one mentally engages in visualizing while executing a physical movement the central nervous system will grow more nerves to innervate that muscle. The more nerves that innervate a muscle the more control one has over that muscle. Thus women were able to develop strength and control in the pelvic region which enabled them to give birth to several children without all of the machines used today.

Quantum physics has confirmed that everything has a vibration and vibrational healing has long been practiced amongst all indigenous cultures since the beginning of time. Thus, the vibrations of the percussion instruments and accompanying hip movements are quite healthy, healing and powerful. Often times, women were surrounded by female drummers, dancers and singers to help ease the birthing process. In Kundalini yoga the mind is used to raise that energy from the base of the spine to the pineal gland in the brain. Traditional Chinese medicine also demonstrates the path of stagnate energy from the base of the spine to the brain being aroused by movement, visualization and concentration.

All indigenous people had sacred ancestral connections with the land that they inhabited. They believed that their ancestors were still with them in the trees, mountains and various sacred sites. It was important for them to include their ancestors in their life rituals. Paying respect – often through the offering of libations which are similar to the practices of incense burning, or crossing with holy water to acknowledge the Saints in Catholicism, was essential. One major way to accomplish this was through dance, drumming and song performed in a circle.

Thus in spite of the tools for analyzing past human experiences provided by modern social science, we can barely imagine how incredibly painful it was for Native Americans to be faced with death if they peacefully attempted to visit the sacred sites of their ancestors – and the consequences for their survival as a people. Native Americans were also denied access to fertile land where they once acquired their food and herbs for ritual and healing. These restrictions made it increasingly difficult for them to continue with their traditional ways of living and thus contributed to their demise as surely as the guns and horses of the United States Calvary, the advance guard for the armed white settlers that heralded the advance of “Western Civilization.” Enslaved Africans had also been stripped of their native land and ancestral dwellings by being forcefully shipped thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean. And one little known fact is that there were a few thousand Native Americans who were shipped across the Atlantic to such places as Liberia, South Africa and Spain.

There are primary documents written by the Spaniards when they arrived in Florida, which describe Native Americans who were in outstanding health and condition. They reported seeing women swimming across rivers with three babies on their back and old men who were almost in the same physical condition as the younger men. They reported that there were no signs of arthritis, missing teeth, disease or deformity. They were healthy, intelligent people. Many of the Africans learned about the animals and plants of the Americas from the native peoples. Some of the plants and animals in the Americas were also present in Africa, as the Harvard biologists, explorer and lay anthropologist Dr. S. Alan Counter has shown from his studies of the cultures and healing practices of the Jukkas, a group of West African slaves who revolted against their Dutch slave masters in 18th century Surinam and fled into the jungle where they have lived among the Indians of the Amazon rain forest ever since.
The truth is that many of the groups who are referred to as “Black” or “Native” share the same ancestors and genetics due to hundreds of years of living amongst each other. This fact is largely overlooked in the various health fields but it is quite significant when one wants to seriously consider the root cause for many of the serious health epidemics amongst people who descend from the Africans and Native Americans. It is often said – and has become conventional wisdom in some circles - that the majority of Native Americans died from coming in contact with European diseases. However, I hypothesize that the ignorance of the Europeans who colonized the Americas about the spiritual beliefs and healing practices of the indigenous Americans or the Africans whom they enslaved, contributed mightily to the incidence of fatal illness among these populations.

Although their European conquerors failed to comprehend it, both groups had a common understanding that the soul is eternal and the living is just as important as the dead. There were many Native Americans and Africans who refused to be enslaved and thus they committed suicide. There are documented tales of Ibo warriors being unloaded from a slave ship on the coast of Georgia and they all walked right into the Atlantic Ocean and drowned themselves. These Ibo slaves were all chained at the wrists and ankles. There are intense Ibo dances from Haiti that are very warrior like; they are performed with machetes. When the French were overthrown in Haiti, Haiti became the first free nation in the Americas that was free of slavery. Once the French fled to Cuba with their slaves, the Cuban slave masters were terrified. They did not want their African slaves to be influenced by those warriors in Haiti so they began to be more lenient with the African slaves as it pertains to dance and music. The Cuban slave masters reasoned that if you let the slaves drum and dance they will be happier and less likely to revolt.

While the calculations of the slave masters proved to be less than accurate, it did result in the development of a dynamic musical and dance traditions that has influenced the music and dance of the world. I would like to investigate the role that the ritual dances which accompany their spiritual rites, and the folk medicine that utilized these practices, played in healing and strengthening the people in their struggle to survive and progress.

What theoretical issues do I plan to study in graduate school?

Dance has been recognized as a universal language. There are various similarities and differences regarding the rules of engagement between dancers, musicians, dancers and singers, in traditional cultures. There are minute differences between the energy, expression and essence in which certain dances are executed in the same dance but in different regions of the same country. All of these dances had important connections to one’s cultural and national identity and many dances were used for healing purposes; whether it was to fend off negative energy, call forth certain spiritual forces and/or just to get the body ready for reproduction. Anthropologist and dancer Yvonne Daniels, does an excellent job of examining the healing properties in Haitian Vodoun, Cuban Yoruba rituals and Bahian Condomble. The late Great Katherine Dunham, founding mother of the modern Afro-American concert dance tradition was also trained anthropologist, dancer, writer and activist who spent considerable time in the Caribbean and South America studying folkloric dances practiced by peoples of African descent.
In the early 1930’s when Katherine Dunham was seriously choreographing, performing and studying she was criticized for including so-called erotic dance in her choreography. At the time the standard of dance was judged completely from a rigid, western European perspective. The folkloric dances Katherine Dunham presented to American audiences were virtually unheard of at the time and therefore misunderstood. Even as I write, African dances in the Americas are too often overlooked when it comes to physical intensity and its connection to one’s overall health.

I am interested in the ground breaking work of Professor Joseph S. Adler in regard to closely examining the symbolic meaning of the body in Indian wrestling and the relationship between health, culture and politics. The body has symbolic meanings in all that it does but unfortunately most humans are not connected and observant enough to notice. I have noticed that professor Mary A. Gauza is very interested in the role of religion and spirituality on the outcome of one’s health. I am sure that the work of these thoughtful and perceptive scholars will enrich my understanding of how the religious and spiritual beliefs of the African and Native peoples of the Americas largely influenced how these two groups managed to navigate through the strict slave codes with hopes of overcoming and surviving.
Many of the dances from those of African descent in the Americas involve rigorous manipulation of the hips and buttocks. There are several primary documents in which European slave masters complained that the Africans were always dancing with their buttocks out with highly erotic movements. As the distinguished German Africanist scholar Janheinz Jahn pointed out in “Muntu,” one such dance, the Calinda, was actually outlawed in Brazil and other Latin American countries because the hip movements were considered lewd. They also recognized that the drum can put people in trances, so strict slave codes were made in regards to playing drums and performing certain ritual dances. Hence the African Slaves and the Native Americans that lived among them mixed cultural practices and were forced to devise all sorts of clever ways to deceive the harsh laws of slavery and colonization.

The enslaved and brutalized Africans and Native Americans underwent hundreds of years of laws aggressively and violently forbidding them to speak their native language, play their native drums or dance their native dances. Drums were used as communication tools amongst Native Americas and Africans; there are specific rhythms played to induce trance like states, but also to pay their respects to nature. There were specific rhythms played during child birth, funerals, hunts and wars. There were also specific rhythms played in order to activate healing herbs and to dispel illness from certain parts of one’s body. Each rhythm had specific song and dances that accompanied them. They were clandestinely practiced in opposition to the laws of a slave society that had different rules about which instruments they could play and when they could play them, which dances they could dance and when, which songs they could sing and when. Thus, there is a hidden wisdom in the dances of those Neo-African populations in the Americas as it pertains to health and healing.

Most of the Afro American social dances as well as ritualistic dances associated with death, the harvest, fertility, revolt and war involve intense, hard, outright, vigorous movement of the hips along with the rest of the body. It is interesting to speculate as to whether or not this esthetic approach to the dance had anything to do with trying to dispel all of the toxic energy that had been dumped on them from being denied access to their ancestors, their native instruments and rhythms, and witnessing their family members being auctioned off to masters who transported them to some unknown place. Could these vibrant intense movements be related to the dark earth in which we are connected through our navels; possibly in attempt to create a safe haven (womb space) for the babies they carried? Are these dances and powerful hip movements responsible for helping these women give birth with ease? There are several healing properties of the rhythmic activation of the core/center/hip region.

Every country in North America, Central America, South America and The Caribbean Islands has a unique history as it pertains to slave society and colonization. There are some similarities between colonies that were occupied by the same European country; but there are distinct differences in each country. Some of the countries have a richer history than others as it pertains to folkloric (ritual and social) dance and they should all be carefully and systematically studied in order to understand the full context in which all of the dances and rhythms developed. The harshness of slavery and colonization also varied from colony to colony. Given all of this I am especially interested in conducting a serious comparative analysis of the various traditions in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Gullah and Geeche Sea Islands off the Carolina coast in the coastal waters of the Atlantic; Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Peru, Puerto Rico and Brazil.

Many of the dances in the Caribbean and South America were also taking place at Congo Square in New Orleans. In the 1800’s it was said that at any given time there were five to six hundred Africans dancing and drumming. These Africans were openly trading and interacting with the Native Americans. Hence, this is how the development of the Mardi Gras Indians and the Black Indians came about. I have studied with many elder masters from all over the Americas that have testified to the importance of New Orleans and Congo Square.

In the fall of 2006 I attended a conference at Hostos College in New York City about the environmental challenges that seriously threaten the traditional spiritual practices of peoples of African and Native descent in the Americas. There were many initiated priests, priestesses and practioners of various traditional African spiritual disciplines and they spoke of not being able to get access to certain ritual plants and materials due to laws and heavy fines. For certain rituals they may need access to the ocean or they may need to play their drums for hours while they chant and dance. However, there are an increasing number of restrictive laws being placed on these groups throughout the Americas. The environmental policies are also affecting the lack of access these people have to their ancient objects.
The distinguished Professor of Art History and Dean of the African Civilization program at Yale University, Robert Farris Thompson, was one of the presenters that day. Dr. Thompson has done extensive research on various African derived dances in the Americas, especially those derived from the Kongo. Dances from the Kongo seriously concentrate in the sacral pelvic region. That day he gave a lecture about the connection to Jamaican Dancehall dancing and Kongo derived dances. Reflecting on Dr. Thompson’s learned and perceptive lecture, I am reminded that art and science are required in any serious attempt to interpret and teach history as well as the health sciences.

The history of the Americas is clearly interlinked through blood and culture. I want to focus on how certain Native and African dances changed after the two groups came in contact with each other in the Americas and how they came together and fused their spiritual practices, using dance and polyrhythmic music as a means of survival: survival of their physical bodies, their sanity, and ancient ancestral knowledge of who they are and where they come from. A loss of identity, culture and traditional practices has been shown in many studies to wreak havoc on one’s mental, physical and spiritual health. Hence I would like to conduct research that will contribute to our scientific understanding of precisely how these cultural rituals and spiritual phenomena contribute to physical and mental health and healing, and help to formulate public health policies that take these traditional healing arts into account.


  1. more beautiful pictures please? you are truly gorgeous and africas gift to the world.

  2. could you do a juju woman pose with leaves and a calabash or something 2. also do a girl fetching water tying just a loin cloth( african print fabric) 3. i 'll also love to see you tying raffia behind some bamboo trees snakeskin...? animalskin...?

  3. could you play hunter too? also slave girl in chains

  4. Thank you so much for this blog post. I cant wait to read what you uncover. I am cuban and i find this extremly interesting. You are beautiful from the inside out. Again thank you so much!

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