In 2013, four Cubans of African descent traveled to the Upper Banta chiefdom in Sierra Leone to visit the place from where some of the songs and dances originated that are part of their heritage and which are still sung and performed. Stories passed down from the tribe’s ancestors tell of how some of their people had been stolen into slavery. The visit of the Cubans to their ancestral home marked a return of those people who had been victims of the transatlantic slave trade more than two hundred years ago.
In an article in the Havana Times about the visit reported that “Joe Allie, an elderly man..who stared in wonder when he first heard a recording of the Cubans singing a song which had once been his grandfather’s favorite, danced for the first time in twenty years. And he kept dancing.” When I read this my heart leapt in recognition of what had occurred: an auditory stimulus—the song with its rhythms, notes, and words—awoke an emotional memory within him that had for many years lain dormant, which then prompted him to dance. Such is the power of memory. It made me wonder why he had not danced for so long. What had happened to take from him the impetus to move his body to the singing and drumming that are such an important part of his people’s cultural and spiritual life?
Perhaps he had become infirm and was physically unable to dance or perhaps, as he entered old age, had turned inward and away from the external life of this world. Maybe he had suffered a trauma that diminished his ability to engage fully in the life of the community. We don’t know. But what we do know is that the Banta dialect has died out and is no longer spoken. The only way it is kept alive is in old songs. Those songs have power and are conduits of the Banta’s (and the Cuban’s) cultural heritage, transmitted uninterrupted for hundreds of years. They are what connect the people to their ancestors and with one another, even those separated by geography. Hearing the song stirred something so deep within Mr. Allie’s soul that he had to dance. Nothing else seems to have sufficed; not toe tapping, clapping, nor singing, but dancing. Whatever took hold of him reawakened his spirit and reinvigorated his body, giving him the ability to move to the music, to express through dance what it was he was feeling and remembering. And he kept dancing! He didn’t stop. Once awakened, he did not go back to sleep.
What do we have buried in our memory that lies dormant, waiting for something to reawaken it? What are things we no longer do that once invigorated our spirits and bodies? And what would it take for us to remember them and to then once again do them? Think about it. When was the last time you danced? When did you last skip down the street, go skating, sing in the shower, say good morning to a stranger, paint a picture, or jump rope?
Try to remember something that was once very important to you—that brought you joy. Then figure out why you stopped doing it. Did someone shame you about it? Did you decide it wasn’t cool? Did you get so worn out from your adult responsibilities that you didn’t have any energy left? Or did you just quit listening to your heart?
What I have found to be true for me is that when I allow the Holy Spirit to be present in my life I get reconnected to that playful and joyous being who resides within me. I become less inhibited and more able to respond to the yearnings and urgings of my soul. I am filled with love and see God in all people and all things, thus freeing me from enslavement to the world of illusion, which then allows me to inhabit the world of Spirit.
So, maybe the next time I’m in the produce section of the supermarket and an old disco hit comes on over the sound system, I’ll follow the promptings of my heart and start to dance. And, maybe, like Joe Allie in Africa, I’ll keep dancing.