Trance and Transformation in the San Great Dance

Understanding the San trance dance

Origins Centre

Threads of Knowing: The Trance Dance (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

“/Kaggen gave us the song of this dance, and told us to dance to it, and people would die from it, and he would give us charms to raise them again. It is a circular dance of men and women, following each other, and it is danced all night."  (Qing 1873)

Threads of Knowing: Origins of People (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand


"Some fall down; some become as if mad and sick; blood runs from the noses of others whose charms are weak”. Qing (1873)







Trance dance, San rock painting (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

What is The Trance Dance?

For the San, the indigenous people of southern Africa, the activation of energy and contact with the spirit word is achieved through the communal trance dance. After many hours of dancing, singing and clapping, the most experienced dancers (shaman or healers) enter a trance.

Trance dance, redrawing (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

Why is it performed?

The trance dance ritual and the spirit world are frequently depicted in San rock art. The trance dance is performed for various reasons including for social cohesion, to heal, or to bring rain. This re-drawing of the painted trance dance scene was made by members of the Rock Art Research Institute team at Wits University.

Axis Mundi (2006) by Russell ScottOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

San tiered cosmos and Shaman
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Inspired by the San

This conceptual piece, by South African artist Russell Scott, speaks to the tiered cosmos in San religious thought. It deals with the entering into and returning from the spirit world. It portrays the shamanic figures seen in San painted rock art panels and the beings they encounter in the other realm.

Engraved boulders and Axis Mundi (2006) by Russell ScottOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Into the Spirit World
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How the San entered into the spirit world

Landscapes were complex and meaningful spaces to the San. Small and inconspicuous features of a landscape, such as shallow water pans, low rocky outcrops and termite mounds were important - these places allowed access to the spirit world.

Axis Mundi (2006) by Russell ScottOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Trance Dance and Access to the Spirit World
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The spirit world is described as being both below ground and in the sky above. Only certain San ritual specialists can enter this alternative world. It is particularly during the trance dance that movement between the two worlds is facilitated.

Axis Mundi (2006) by Russell ScottOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Russell Scott on Axis Mundi
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Many of the experiences reported by San in trance may seem strange and peculiar. For example, some report that they change into animal form during the dance. This experience of transformation is often depicted in the rock art. Images of therianthropes – part human, part animal – are abundant in rock art sites throughout southern Africa. These wooden creatures are sculpted in a flattened relief, remaining faithful to the original two-dimensional artworks.

Eland-headed snake (2006) by Russell ScottOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Russell Scott on the Snake installation
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The veil between the real and the spirit worlds

The continuation of the installation depicts an eland-headed snake weaving in and out of the wall. In San rock art, the rock surface was believed to be a veil between the real and spirit worlds - images are painted appearing from or entering into cracks or crevices in the rock surface.

Wartrail panel. Dying eland (2006)Original Source: Origins Centre and the Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand

The Wartrail Panel

The human-like figure with feathered wings in this panel from the Eastern Cape of South Africa, likely refers to the sensation of flying that people experience during trance or altered states of consciousness. The upside-down animal on the right is bleeding from the nose, likely symbolizing ritual or spiritual death of a healer in the spiritual realm.

'A spirit of the dead' depicted in painted rock art (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

Spirits of the dead
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Spirits-of-the-dead

The sounds of the dance are said to attract restless spirits-of-the-dead. According to San religious beliefs, upon death all people become spirits-of-the-dead. They sometimes return to the living world where they bring disease or steal souls. Healers then undertake the difficult journey to the spirit world in order to retrieve the stolen soul, or to find the power to heal the sick.

Half-human, half-antelope painted figure experiencing polymelia (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

Phases of trance and altered states of consciousness
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Trance and transformation

Once an altered state is induced, the brain begins to generate its own imagery. During the final stages of an altered state, people experience complex physical sensations, such as the sensation of extra digits (polymelia), dissolving of limbs, or a feeling of transformation into animal form (therianthropy).

Rain animal (2019) by San Hunter-GathererOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. www.sarada.co.za

Rain animal
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Rain animals

Other strange creatures also inhabit the spirit world. One of the most fearsome is the rain-animal. In times of drought, a shaman or healer must visit the spirit world to lure the ferocious rain-animal out. Once caught, the animal is guided into the real world, where it is taken to the place where rain is needed.

Copy of Sebaaieni Cave, Ndedema Gorge (2006) by Harold PagerOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute

Spiritual Beings

Although this may look like a regular hunting scene at first glance, it portrays mythical beings, possibly showing a healer's journey to the spirit world.
This image is a reprint of Harold Pager's copy of San painted rock art in Sebaaieni Cave, Ndedema Gorge, Drakensberg, South Africa.

Copy of Sebaaieni Cave, Ndedema Gorge (2006) by Harold PagerOriginal Source: Rock Art Research Institute

A series of anthropomorphic figures. These figures wearing karosses and carrying bows and arrows, appear to be human yet they all have no feet and have the head of buck. The figures are interpreted as mythological beings or healers entering the spirit world, through trance.

Threads of Knowing: Origins of People (2006) by Tamar MasonOriginal Source: Origins Centre, University of the Witwatersrand

Invisible threads and Spirits-of-the-Dead
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Entering the spirit world

This large embroidered panel by South African artist Tamar Mason, depicts the trance dance in action. Figures clap, sing and dance around the fire to help aid the healers to make the ascent into the spiritual realm.

Credits: Story

The San and Khoe people of southern Africa
Rock Art Research Institute, Wits University
South African Rock Art Digital Archive (www.sarada.co.za)
Russell Scott
Harold Pager
Tamar Mason
Narrator: Gcina Mhlophe
Online exhibition curator: Tammy Hodgskiss

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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