Connecting to Joy and Purpose through African Dance

posted by 
Elizabeth Scott
May 1, 2018

I followed the sound of the pounding conga drums that echoed down the sidewalk and found myself in a large studio in the Santa Cruz Cultural Center where a circle of dancers sweated joyfully as they learned vibrant Senegalese dances. It was 1978, I was 18, and shortly thereafter, I became part of a lively community of people (which expanded over the next few years into the hundreds) studying dances from Senegal, The Congo, and other parts of Africa. Our teacher, Marian Oliker, traveled to Senegal to study and she regularly brought wonderful African teachers to share dances with a humble, willing, and grateful group of mostly white folks who came to love, treasure, and honor African dance as a practice of worship.

African Dance class at the Santa Cruz Cultural Center, 1978

When I dance, I remember who I am. I am alive and grateful, capable of love and creative self-expression. I am still able to connect to that gratitude even though I no longer have an 18 -year-old body, but rather a tender 59-year-old body with pain in the joints and out-of-breath lungs.

Recently, Connie and I led a workshop in Honolulu. Afterwards, one of the attendees came up to me and said, “I came here angry at my body and myself, angry at how my body has changed, how it was injured and how difficult it has become to stay in shape now, as I age. But learning about The Body Positive today, I realize that I can respond to my body with kindness and patience and see what is possible for it now, at this stage of my life.”

Yes. Our bodies do keep changing. But I find that teaching the Be Body Positive Model helps me to remember that if we stop focusing on a rigid expectation of “fitness” based on what we could do in the past, and instead focus on how we feel and what we want to express, we can continue to find creativity in movement and joy in connection with others.

This month, I returned to the Santa Cruz Cultural Center with my 18-year-old daughter Uma to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Santa Cruz African dance community, honoring a movement that has continued to this day. Dancing the same dances now with my daughter, and with the same old teachers and students all these years later, made my life feel whole. I still remembered the steps and the joy of moving as one, in a group.


We humans have connected to ecstatic states for millennia though rhythmic dances, in step with one another. With a radical acceptance of all the changes that come with 59 years of living in my body, I was able to connect to others who have the perspective to remember that taking time to dance and express our joy is our fundamental practice of giving thanks.

What is it that helps you connect to your joy and purpose, your community and perspective?

How do you find your most alive self in the body you have right now?

In what ways can you allow yourself to feel creative and vibrant?

I believe the secret to being present in our current bodies lies in the answer to these questions.  

I'd like to invite you to join me at one of The Body Positive's upcoming Facilitator Trainings so you can learn how to find the answers to these questions for yourself, as well as guide others towards reimagining the possibilities for health and vitality in their own bodies, regardless of their age or size.  

LEARN MORE about upcoming Facilitator Trainings being offered around the country this year and next.

Elizabeth Scott
Elizabeth Scott LCSW, CEDS-S, is Co-Founder and Director of Training for The Body Positive. She has been practicing psychotherapy for more than two decades in Marin County, CA. She studies Vipassana Meditation, a practical, embodied approach to awakening, which she finds to be an inexhaustible resource for finding joy and purpose in life.
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