‘It Liberates Me:’ How Black Latinas Are Healing Through Ancestral Dance

Afro-Latin American folkloric dances have always served as artful protest. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, enslaved Africans often communicated with one another through the arts, singing and dancing about freedom and rebellion. Now, their Afro-Latinx descendants nurture and preserve the legacy of their artistry, revitalizing ancestral styles like punta, festejo, bomba, and rumba, and, in some cases, mixing in their own personal touches. Rooted in resistance, each style is still characterized by percussion, movement, and liberation. After all, Black Latinxs are still navigating anti-Blackness, systemic racism, police violence, and erasure within their own communities
Today, Afro-centric folkloric dances offer an escape, a release, and an avenue for connection and healing. Like their ancestors, contemporary dancers use movement as a bold, unapologetic way to fight back; with every step or sway, they refuse to be stamped out and forgotten. While these bodily languages may be spoken differently by Afro-Latinx dancers based on their region in Latin America, they’re soulfully tied. Afro-centric dance is an instrument, a lifestyle, a space for rebellion, and it’s a portal to self-empowerment. Here’s how Black Latinas are preserving their culture, seeking liberation, and finding healing through folkloric dance.
Sheila Osorio, Bomba Dancer & Instructor, Afro-Puerto Rican
A full moon glistens over the crashing waves at Playa Puente Herrera in Loíza, Puerto Rico. Bare feet glide through the sand, as green, red, and white skirts lift, twirl, and flow around a bonfire; the women are dancing bomba, one of the archipelago’s oldest traditional dances. The dancers set the rhythm and the drummers follow—a seamless, captivating magic. Sheila Osorio, an Afro-Puerto Rican bomba dancer, leads a Noche Ancestral event, an ancestral night of dance and celebration of freedom, ancestry, and resilience. 
There are rules to the dance, Osorio says, but feeling is what leads bomba. It’s a rhythmic conversation between the dancer and the drummer. She teaches her students the steps, but she then encourages them to create their own styles and choreography so that the dance speaks to and for them authentically.
“To me, dance is an expression, an art, a way of empowerment,” Osorio tells Refinery29 Somos. “It’s a way of being able to communicate with my body, what I’m feeling in my mind and in my heart.”
Women have come to Osorio’s batey, her dance square on the beach, looking for healing and a space to find themselves. Osorio teaches them how to release negative energy, frustrations, and burdens into their dancing. 
“They fall in love with it,” Osorio says. “At first, they come struggling with depression, fatigue, and are looking for a way to escape. In dance—in bomba—they find a way to liberate themselves, to reconnect with their bodies, and to heal. In their healing journeys, they find empowerment. It teaches them to be secure in themselves.” 
Like other Afro-Caribbean cultural forms, bomba provided a source of political and spiritual expression for enslaved people; at times, it even catalyzed rebellions. Osorio is dedicated to keeping bomba's legacy alive and the memory of her ancestors flourishing. “The dance is free, it’s of freed slaves,” Osorio says. “When I dance, it liberates me, too.”
Nadia Calmet, Festejo Dancer & Instructor, Afro-Peruvian 
“When I dance, I can bring things back to life,” Nadia Calmet, an Afro-Peruvian festejo dancer in Los Angeles, tells Refinery29 Somos. “My soul leaves my body. I turn into dust. I see the stars and the cosmos. I'm in another dimension when I dance, and it recharges me. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”
Calmet can’t remember ever being introduced to traditional Afro-Peruvian dances. It wasn't something she ever had to learn; it was her lifestyle. She’d get up on Sunday mornings and hear música criolla on the radio. Her family would gather around the table: her aunts sang, her grandfather played the cajón, and they’d dance. Her connection to festejo felt natural because it was woven into her life. 
She talks about dance like one would a soulmate. “I’ve died many times, physically and metaphorically,” she says. “Dance has helped me heal from the violence in which I grew up, from the society that hypersexualized me. I’d been embarrassed of my body, ashamed, but when it was time to dance, I was liberated. I saw nothing but the dance. I danced from a place of freedom.” 
And in the moments when she couldn’t dance, the thought of festejo encouraged her to restore her physical health so that she could move again. Six years ago, right after Calmet gave birth to her second child, doctors found a tumor in her stomach. It was cancer. In her arduous, painful battle, she underwent an intensive surgery to remove 60% of her stomach, and almost didn’t make it out alive. When she came out of surgery, she lost her full range of motion. As a new mother and lifelong dancer, she was disheartened. Her desire to hold her son, as well as dance again, motivated her to relearn how to walk. 
“Dance saved me,” Calmet says, tearing up. “I wouldn’t have found my life again without dance. Our ancestors have given me so much. I stand here as a free woman. They could not. So, for me to dance only so that people could clap for me? Only to perform? Please. Get me out of there. I feel I need to give back, somehow, to my ancestors, to those souls who did not have the freedom to dance.” 
Luz Soliz-Ramos + Catherine Oshún Soliz-Rey, Punta Dancers & Instructors, Garifuna
In New York, Luz Soliz-Ramos and her daughter, Catherine Oshún Soliz-Rey, are among a growing group of Garifuna women in the city who are preserving the arts and culture of Afro-Indigenous communities on the Central American coast.
Soliz-Ramos and Soliz-Rey both dance punta, a ritualistic dance originated by the Garifuna that’s marked by single-headed drums known as primera and segunda, calabash rattles known as chaka, and conch shell trumpets. 
Soliz-Ramos, who's been a performing artist and dancer her whole life, specializes in the history of the Garifuna people and the practice of the Garifuna language, music, and dance. She founded the Garifuna Heritage Center for The Arts and Culture Inc., and works as an artistic director and choreographer at the Wabafu Garifuna Dance Theater. 
Similarly, she raised her daughter, Soliz-Rey, to embrace and preserve the same cultural elements. “I think it’s very important for us to know who we are and where we come from,” Soliz-Rey tells Refinery29 Somos. “Practicing these dances, and knowing the meaning behind them, is healing. You become more connected to who you are, proud of where you come from, and confident in your roots and in your ancestry. When you dance to the songs, you’re connecting with your ancestors, and that is healing to me.”
Liethis Hechavarria, Rumba Dancer & Instructor, Afro-Cuban
When it comes to rumba, Liethis Hechavarria, an Afro-Cuban dancer, says she likes to stylize it, like “putting her own arroz con pollo into it.” 
When she’s teaching, she wants her students to know there’s a story and an intention behind every move, so she has them give their motions titles and think of what their bodies are telling them when they perform these movements. This also helps them create awareness and healing within their bodies and souls; in turn, Hechavarria says she finds healing, too. 
“Dance is my identity, my culture, my truest representation,” Liethis says. “It’s my form of healing myself and healing other people in the process. I cannot imagine a world without dance. I need it. I need it for me to be. Dance has taught me to get up and fight, to not be defeated, to be versatile, and to connect with what’s around me on a spiritual level.”
Some reporting for this story was made possible through a Discover Puerto Rico press trip.

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