Using the healing power of dance

Théogène Niwenshuti survived the horrors of the Rwandan genocide to find great consolation in dance

It is April 1994, and Rwanda’s only psychiatric hospital, in Ndera, near Kigali, is under siege. Outside, Hutu soldiers and militiamen wielding guns, grenades and machetes are bombarding the building. Inside, up to 800 trapped patients, staff and their families – many once friends and neighbours of their attackers – cower under upended beds, desks and other heavy furniture, praying to be spared in this killing spree that has engulfed their small landlocked east-central African country.

“For some of the patients, it was very difficult to stay still. They couldn’t hide like we could,” recalls Théogène “Totto” Niwenshuti, whose father, a director at the hospital, had died of his injuries after being shot days earlier. Totto’s godfather, one of only two psychiatrists in the country, had also been killed.

Then aged 17, Totto spent 10 days hiding in the facility along with his mother, who was a nurse there, and four younger siblings. He remembers spending hours trying to pick out shards of shattered window-glass from the hospital’s dwindling supplies of rice and maize. The surviving staff and others old enough to help, including Totto, tried to calm the patients.

“But most of them died trying to run out. Some jumped the walls to try to go home, and were killed or beaten or raped,” he says.


Those left behind were eventually forced out of the hospital, and most were shot dead as they surrendered. When the killing ended some 100 days later, up to a million Tutsis had been slaughtered and two million were displaced. Of the 800 or so holed up in the hospital, fewer than 30 survived. Totto, his mother and siblings were among them.

Important contribution

Twenty-two years later, Totto acts as a window onto the madness that was the Rwandan genocide. He has shared his story across Rwanda and with communities similarly devastated by conflict in Uganda, Congo and South Africa. His work has been recognised in each country as an important contribution to peace-building endeavours and, significantly, societal healing.

His approach, however, has a distinguishing feature not usually associated with truth and reconciliation efforts: he doesn’t just talk – in fact, sometimes he doesn’t talk at all; he dances. And participants at his workshops – many of whom have once belonged to opposing sides in a conflict – end up dancing with him and each other.

“Most of the time, movement is enough. In Africa we already have a strong culture of dancing and movement together; it’s almost instinctual. I’ll start clapping a rhythm and gesture to invite them to join. Even when they’re enemies, they respond to the call because they respect the community, even if they haven’t respected each other, and they respect that shared space.

“Dance is a very good way of bringing people together. It doesn’t necessarily mean they become friends. It’s more about sharing the space as a community. It is a start . . . And movement is a safe way of opening their journey.”

The importance of dance in helping societies heal the psychological wounds wrought by violence is being increasingly recognised in the realm of conflict intervention. The recent 2016 Kildare Dance and Movement Summer School, a biennial event organised by Kildare County Council Arts Service and held at Maynooth University, invited Totto, now based in South Africa, to explain and demonstrate his work.

"Conflict breaks people. It breaks bodies, minds, spirits and communities, and we are finding more evidence to show how movement-based approaches can help in the rebuilding of societies," says Patty Abozaglo, who specialises in trauma and communities in conflict at the Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention at Maynooth.

“In communities emerging from conflict there are huge issues to be dealt with: the level of destruction; damage to infrastructure; governance issues, policy-making . . . the task is gigantic, and very often the focus is on the economic side of things.

“But if there is not a more people-centred approach in addition to this, the communities themselves remain traumatised. Peace is sometimes not about the people because there is an economic interest.”

Abozaglo, a Peruvian human rights lawyer who has worked with post-conflict communities in Colombia and Peru and previously worked at Trócaire, has witnessed the healing effects of Capacitar and Laban Dance, two approaches aimed at bringing about awareness of and addressing trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

As a Laban Guild community dance leader, she has used the methods in both countries, and occasionally runs dance courses in Ireland.

Traumatised people

Laban Dance, founded in the early 20th century by Hungarian

Rudolph Laban

, is considered a revolutionary system of movement analysis that formed the basis of modern dance.

Capacitar, a worldwide network teaching self-development and team-building, involves a group of participants silently following a tutor in movement, and is based on the idea that healing can take place through non-cognitive methods.

“In my experience the most traumatised people cannot speak and also cannot move. There are no words and there’s no movement, only paralysis. You see that in women affected by gender-based violence. But once they start to move, something opens, something changes – and then the words come out,” says Abozaglo.

Totto, who led a session at the summer school for a diverse group including people with Parkinson’s and asylum seekers, found his way to healing through dance long after the genocide – by chance, and only after suffering in silence for years.

“I didn’t open up emotionally for five or 10 years,” he says. “I had become father of the family, and it made me not think much about myself.

“I didn’t want them to see me crying; if my mother saw that, she would go into a crisis. So I locked myself in my room and started dancing, writing and singing.”

He returned to school after missing several years and, one day when he had left his desk, his classmates found his diary and were reading it when he returned. “Some were crying, and others were very happy. They said, ‘Why do you do this? Can you share?’”

He started a group in which stories of the genocide were shared. “That’s when I began hearing that I wasn’t the only one; I heard even worse stories than mine, about how some children were forced to go into the army and kill. I realised that my dancing and writing and singing was helping me because I could see how it was helping them.”

Family background

His upbringing in a compassionate family immersed in music and books, he says, allowed him to bring those gifts to others.

“My parents worked all their lives in the mental hospital. My godfather – I saw him treating patients. He was a huge, very kind, generous person. I’d understand that this patient is schizophrenic because of an illness, that they need medication, and that you should listen to them, help them, treat them as human beings.

“He played music at university, and played for me around my bed the moment I was born – accordion, guitar – until I grew up. That was very powerful for me later, when I was feeling anxious and depressed. It later allowed me to share the music and dance with others.”

In Rwanda, the Gacaca system of justice, introduced following the genocide, involved open-air community trials which everyone, even children, could attend. While the process promoted reconciliation – some parents jailed under its jurisdiction were temporarily released in order to explain to their communities why they did what they did – it had a devastating effect on the children, says Totto.

“Some were maybe nine, 10, 12. They started hearing stories of what their parents did, and how their parents died. It became very traumatising.

“They stopped playing with each other. At school they were divided. Some kids felt threatened because of what their parents had done in the genocide. Others felt shame and guilt, and began isolating themselves. They stayed in corners and stopped mixing.”

Dance group

Totto, then a university student, set up a dance group that worked along similar lines as his own school group years previously. They used dance as a means of wordless communication, and songs were written and sung about the country’s bloody past.

“After six months, you wouldn’t believe it: the playing in corners had stopped. They were all mixing during playtime. They held huge public performances – some of them even performed at the Gacaca trials, dancing and singing songs about history, reciting poems about forgiveness and reconciliation. It was a huge transformation, and also transformational for me.”

Such major shifts in thinking form the foundation for successful development, says Abozaglo. Where people’s mental health has not kept pace with economic recovery, development and peacebuilding programmes are less likely to succeed.

“Some researchers are coming to the conclusion that development projects can’t take off in communities badly affected by conflict because the population is so traumatised. They’re finding that something needs to be done about this first before development efforts can actually have some effect.

“In places where there has been conflict for a long time, even if a peace process or dialogue has taken place [such as Colombia], you’re still dealing with populations that have been affected for decades, if not generations.

“We’re seeing now how not addressing trauma can in fact jeopardise peace efforts . . . This is why we [at the institute] are reaching out to research conflict in a creative way.”

Neuroscience acknowledges the positive effects on the brain of the creative, collective approach to mental health practised within the Capacitar and Laban Dance techniques, says Abozaglo.

“Authors talk of ‘healing in a circle’ . . . the neuroscience behind it is that when you’re mirroring the movement of others, something happens in the brain and it levels up, it balances, and you feel this burst of emotion and togetherness.

“The same happens in a choir, where you’re producing sound and you’re also listening. This has been our experience.”