The Power of Music and Dance to Heal War-torn Societies: Case Studies from Brazil, Uganda, and Israel/Palestine

Yillah Natalie Rosenfeld

May, 2016

In the 2007 documentary, War/Dance, Rose, a 14-year-old resident of the War Zone Displacement Camp in Patongo, Uganda, and a survivor of inconceivable horrors at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), candidly explains the effects that melody and movement have on her tender spirit. “When I dance, my problems vanish. The camp is gone. I can feel the wind. I can feel the fresh air. I am free, and I can feel my home.”[1] This phenomenon is not unique: Across conflict zones, music and dance have repaired the most broken of souls in ways that tactics from negotiations to medications have yet to master.

Why do music and dance have this effect? France Schott-Billmann, a scholar who participated in dance workshops with groups of conflict-weary Israelis and Palestinians, believes that it comes down to primitive expression[2]. She compares the cadence of a beating drum to that of a beating heart, an acoustic event that evokes a sense of security common across the human experience[3]. Her work suggests that once someone is present in that sacred space, possibilities for exchange and catharsis open, inviting opportunities for repair, transition, and forgiveness[4]. This applies not only to friction with others but also turmoil within oneself.

While time is the greatest healer, music and dance have the power to expose that ultimate feeling of peace and wellbeing in moments across the healing journey, injecting life force into hearts that have been tyrannized by pain. This paper will explore these seemingly miraculous yet inherently human tools for overcoming trauma and discord, as well as their limitations and underuse in a world that is moving hastily toward globalization and greed and away from spirituality and human connection.

Case Studies


“Within music and culture, a new movement exists: It’s the movement that fights for peace.” 
– Anderson Sá

The 2005 documentary Favela Rising begins with an unsettling statistic: “Between the years of 1987 and 2001, 467 minors were murdered in Israel and Palestine combined. During that same time, 3,937 minors were murdered in one city in Brazil.”[5] Veritable war zones that receive little airtime in mainstream media, Brazil’s favelas (slums or illegal squatter settlements) are rife with brutality spurred by poverty, drug violence, police corruption, and government apathy. Rio de Janeiro’s Vigário Geral, one such favela profiled in the film, stands out for its extreme turbulence, so violent it is dubbed “the Brazilian Bosnia”[6]. Quality of life in such an environment is poor and opportunities scarce. Children are recruited into drug gangs with ease, having few role models beyond the drug lords and kingpins that possess wealth and power and sometimes even give back to the community; four-fifths of those youths are likely to die before turning 21[7].

Anderson Sá, a favela resident who participated peripherally in Vigário Geral’s drug trafficking activities as a boy but lived to tell about it, decided that something had to be done after he lost his brother, an innocent bystander, in a revenge killing carried out by police against the community. Along with other leaders in the favela who had also survived their teenage years, he formed a collective called Grupo Afro Reggae that aimed to offer an alternative to the drug life. They tapped into Afro-Brazilian culture, using what they called “the Shiva effect”: in homage to the Hindu god Shiva, the Destroyer and Benefactor, using destruction as a vehicle for transformation. “Ask yourself how to stop violence,” Sá says in the film. “Use music as an instrument of change because through music you can reach everyone – that’s how we did it . . . Through music we changed our reality.”[8]

Grupo Afro Reggae established several peace-promoting activities in Vigário Geral. It began with a magazine espousing harmony and Afro-Brazilian culture and identity then followed that up with dance, percussion, and capoeira workshops for neighborhood kids. Sá began writing songs about favela life, eventually forming the band AfroReggae, which attracted an enormous following and gave free concerts to the community with messages of elevation and overcoming violence.

Sá’s projects, propelled by the popularity of his music, became so prominent in the favela that children began seeing Grupo Afro Reggae as an alternative to the violent norm. He became highly respected by the neighborhood drug lords, who lauded him for sparing their younger siblings the despair of a drug soldier’s fate. Local government took notice of his efforts and asked him to expand his programs into 20 more favelas and bring concerts to other neighborhoods. The AfroReggae band signed an international record deal with Universal Music, vowing to put earnings from record sales and shows back into its bottom-up community programs. Within nine years of Grupo Afro Reggae’s inception, the number of drug soldiers in Vigário Geral had fallen by 83 percent[9]. Outside perceptions of favelas are slowly shifting from places of terror to centers of music and art. Though the cartels persist, children now have the option to choose a life of culture over a life of violence.


“In my heart, I am more than a child of war. I am talented. I am a musician.
I am Acholi. I am the future of our tribe.”
– Dominic, Patongo Primary School
War/Dance, Sean Fine and Andrea Nix’s award-winning documentary about Patongo Primary School’s journey to Uganda’s National Music Competition, illustrates the potent effects that music and dance can have on fragile minds that have witnessed the savagery of war. The film centers on young members of the Acholi ethnic group who reside in Northern Uganda’s War Zone Displacement Camp, a heavily stigmatized village under round-the-clock military protection from rebel attack. Many in this vulnerable community suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), having witnessed the vicious deaths of family members at the hands of Joseph Kony’s sadistic LRA. There are many orphans.

The film is a testament to the light melody and motion can bring to the brokenhearted. The children find faith to carry on despite the hardship of life in the camp, their lack of resources, constant threat of danger, malnutrition, and haunting memories of war. Music and dance bring hope and smiles to these kids, who are otherwise either consumed by sadness or numb to the world around them. As one boy, a 14-year-old former child soldier named Dominic, says in the film, “In everything we do, if there’s music, life becomes so good . . . It helps me forget the bad things that happened to me in the past.” Dominic had been abducted by the LRA, separated from his brother – who had been severely beaten by the rebel soldiers – and forced to commit barbaric killings when he was only nine years old. Despite his PTSD, shame, and obvious inner turmoil, his confidence grows and his will to live is strengthened by playing the xylophone and performing the Bwola, a traditional Acholi dance.

Though Patongo Primary does not win the top prize at the National Music Competition, the children are transformed by their journey to compete against other schools in Kampala. Through music, dance, and tradition, they emerge from their downtrodden shells invigorated with purpose. Performance is their escape from poverty and pain; it is also a foundation upon which they find the strength to rebuild their fractured spirits.


“With all subject to the same law, the law of time, they began to play, 
to exchange complicit glances, to smile when encountering each other.”
– France Schott-Billmann
France Schott-Billmann, a scholar and dance therapist, advocates for rhythm dance therapy as a healing tool between individuals of opposing communities[10]. She has written substantially on the topic and applied her healing techniques to survivors both of conflict and of neurological conditions. She put her methods to the test in Israel/Palestine in 2008, convinced that the “trans-cultural structure” of dance, being “neither Israeli nor Palestinian, neither Jewish nor Muslim or Christian”, would create common ground amongst two war-weary groups renowned for their mutual mistrust of one another[11].

Schott-Billmann approached her experiment as a way “to offer Palestinians and Jews, without expecting any miracle, the possibility of sharing a concrete experience: that of leaving behind binary thinking, of detaching for a while from the feeling of belonging to one or the other culture”[12]. She brought together a varied group of Palestinians from the West Bank, Israeli Jews, and a few assorted others to participate in a ritual lullaby dance. Though she used lullabies sung in both Arabic and Yiddish, she found that there was little difference amongst participants in terms of reaction; though the songs evoked emotions ranging from longing to sadness, all shared the common memory of a mother’s love. The participants began to sway together as one group, an event that served to break down ethnic barriers and uncover a quintessential, shared experience: a recollection of “time before conflict”[13].

Schott-Billmann slowly added percussion to the music, allowing participants to express themselves in their own style. She found that, having established a common ground with the lullaby ritual, participants felt safe enough to assert cultural nuances, discovering that “differences can be enriching and complementary at the cultural level where they can be expressed within an atmosphere of attentiveness and respect”[14].

Schott-Billmann makes no pretense that her experiment is a foundation upon which lasting peace will come to the Middle East. She does, however, note the power with which music and dance serve to break down exteriors gravely hardened by perception, fear, and conflict. The participants in her workshop were able to humanize each other through the shared experience of rhythm and memory – something that many of them had never done before. For example, one participant, a Jewish woman, confessed that hearing the Arab lullaby erased her previous associations of the Arabic language with fear. Such baby steps serve to chip away at the shells that prohibit discourse and allow participants to achieve a common humanity. Schott-Billman: “I was left with the impression that this experience offered encouragement to all those who had taken the risk that day to open themselves to a new form of dialogue.”[15]


Sacred Space

As a professional Oriental dancer for most of my thirties, I had the great privilege of performing for a variety of audiences every Friday and Saturday night without fail for the better part of a decade. Regardless of aches or pains, personal issues, fatigue, etc., my job was to liven the room and bring joy to those around me. This was put to the test one year when my father’s health began to swiftly unravel, and I found myself scurrying between a full-time day job, teaching in the evenings, performing on the weekends, and visiting him in the hospital when I could in between all of the above. Recognizing all that I was juggling and the weight of my father’s painful demise, friends and colleagues recommended that I cut out my performances to be able to catch up on rest and to make more time for hospital calls.

I recount this story to define “sacred space”. Though by no means a comparable experience to being torn from a loved one in a barrage of bullets, my father’s death was traumatic and taking a heavy toll on my resilience. At this time, the well-meaning suggestion that I cease dancing would have been the opposite of beneficial, it would have been crushing. This is because when I danced, I was in a safe zone in which I had total control. Despite the exhaustion and the devastation that comes with witnessing the death of a loved one, my performances allowed me moments of serenity in which, prompted by rhythm and melody, I could be free of my problems. This phenomenon is described in all of the above case studies by various participants: Rose’s respite from pain in War/Dance; the Jewish woman’s freedom from fear in Schott-Billmann’s workshop; Sá’s immunity from torment in Favela Rising.


With sacred space comes the capacity for forgiveness. This is evident in the Brazilian case study: Sá reconciled, and in effect even became partners with, the local drug lords. Rather than admonishing Sá and his Afro Reggae project for removing potential foot soldiers from the streets, the drug lords praised him and his work, finding common ground in being able to give back to the community and provide children with loftier options. This mutual respect established a foundation for forgiveness in which children already involved in drug trafficking could opt out of that lifestyle sans fear of retribution.

In the case of Schott-Billmann’s workshop, Palestinians and Jews found forgiveness in the shared experience of remembrance. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, adversaries were able to humanize each other in the safe zone of sacred space, allowing for glimpses of reconciliation.

In the Ugandan case study, the Patongo children experience an inner peace through sacred space that allows them to forgive themselves. It is evident that, while they ache with grief and disgrace, participating in the National Music Competition transforms them into proud members of the Acholi tribe who will not be defined by their vicious histories. This is perhaps the most potent act of absolution and one that aid workers must consider more vigorously. Children of war who lack psycho-social support post-conflict often return to lives of crime; music and dance can thwart these urges by empowering children to make peace with their pasts[16]


The case studies also demonstrate the force with which music and dance are able to breathe new life into victims of trauma and violence. Just as the reconstruction of a village is able to flourish only once conflict has subsided, so, too, is the case with the individual. For the children of Patongo, sacred space provided a healing zone through which they were finally able, despite their trauma, to see possibility in life anew. Through the serenity of joy and safety that music and dance brought to them, they spoke promisingly of their futures where before they had welcomed death.

The same holds true for the children of Vigário Geral. The Afro Reggae workshops allowed them to see opportunities beyond a short and brutal life in a drug gang, and thus they became “reborn” as determined individuals full of hope.


It is evident from the three case studies above, and many more like them, that music and dance do possess the ability to tap into a core within each human being and bring serenity to inward and outward struggles. Music and dance strip individuals of their labels, returning them to a sacred space in which one’s humanity is all that matters. One could make the case that both art forms hold the solution to all conflicts, and while that may be true on a theoretical level, there are limitations to consider.


The will that would compel a favela child to choose a path in dance or percussion over a life of crime, for instance, is not universal. Anderson Sá notes in the film Favela Rising that for every child that joins Grupo Afro Reggae, three more get recruited into the drug army[17]. Sá himself was a bit of an anomaly in that he sought a path to peace instead of revenge for the killing of his brother. France Schott-Billmann’s workshop was attended by a mere handful of participants. How many others would accept such an invitation? When it is easier to fall into the established pattern – hating the “other”, retaliation, easy money, self-loathing – finding the will to go against the grain is in itself a heroic and extraordinary act, and such acts are typically unusual.

Long-term Effect

Another limitation to consider is the long-term effect music and dance might have on an individual or relationship. In the case of the Acholi children, the sacred space created by performance seemed to propel them forward into a quest for long-lasting serenity. The impression is different with the Palestinians and Israelis, whose transformations, though revelatory, seemed to be purely of the moment, with far-reaching effects up for debate. While for the Acholi and Brazilian children, music and dance provided opportunity, a way out of pain and poverty, in the Israeli/Palestinian example, the workshop was more of a raw exercise, an experiment with a lesson that may or may not have determined future behaviors and perceptions. It is one thing to seek sacred space to advance oneself; it is something separate entirely to seek it for temporary escape from friction.

Lack of Faith (and Thus) Funding for Art-based Healing

One glaring limitation to the use of music and dance in healing capacities is a severe lack of funding. The arts are societies’ most revered treasures, yet in practical situations, art’s potencies are generally disregarded in favor of more left-brained healing tactics. It is an oversight to the detriment of many that art is not the go-to vehicle for mending wounds when it is creative work “that reconnects individuals with ‘meaning’, identity, and agency through enlivening and empowering one’s internal resources”[18]. An organization such as Musicians without Borders (MwB), for example, that uses local musicians to run music-based projects aimed toward healing and reconciliation, had a budget of $570,000 in 2014[19]. This pales radically when compared to larger non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and the Save the Children Federation, whose typical annual budgets range in the hundreds of millions of dollars and up[20]. Yet MwB’s trainings in things like leadership and community outreach via songwriting and other musical activities are so effective that one participant observed: “If our leaders in Burundi had an opportunity to be in these trainings, Burundi would be one of the most peaceful countries in the world.”[21] This is a mighty case for increased backing for NGOs and other entities that use music and dance as vehicles for reconciliatory efforts.


Music and dance are potent tools for healing survivors of trauma. They create sacred space for human beings to forgive themselves and others, move away from pain, and create renewed visions for the world around them. Rhythm and movement are formidable medicines in a modern culture that places greater faith in pharmaceuticals and the exchange of words than in human beings’ innate capacity for self-healing through artistic expression. Finding more support and funding for these age-old curative mechanisms is essential to sustaining their use in the field, where they must be tested more over the long-term in order to have enduring effects.

List of Sources

 Beausoleil, Emily, and Michelle LeBaron. 2013. What moves us: Dance and neuroscience implications for conflict approaches. Conflict Resolution Quarterly 31, no. 2 (Winter) : 133-158.
Chatterjee, Siddharth. 2012. For child soldiers, every day is a living nightmare. (accessed April 30, 2016).
Dunphy, Kim, Meredith Elton, and Alex Jordan. 2014. Exploring dance/movement therapy in post-conflict Timor-Leste. American Journal of Dance Therapy 36, no. 2 (December) : 189-208.
Fine, Sean, and Andrea Nix. 2007. War/Dance. United States: THINKFilm.
Griffin, Jo. 2015. Guns, drugs, and bandidos: Inside the favela too violent for Rio’s armed police. (accessed March 10, 2016).
Kanyako, Vandy. 2015. Arts and war healing: Peacelinks performing arts in Sierra Leone. African Conflict & Peacebuilding Review 5, no. 1 (Spring) : 106-122.
Karajkov, Risto. 2007. The power of N.G.O.’s: They’re big, but how big? (accessed April 23, 2016).
McQuade, Greg. 2015. Music helps these Vietnam veterans heal old war wounds. (accessed March 21, 2016).
Musicians without Borders (MwB), 2016. About us. mwb/about-us/ (accessed February 15, 2016).
_____. 2014. Annual report 2014. (accessed February 16, 2016).
Nigh, Katherine Jean. 2013. Forgetting to remember: Performance and conflict in a post TRC Peru. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 27, no. 2 (Spring) : 145-157.
Ninos, Maria. 2014. Dance, movement, and performance with Israeli and Palestinian children living in war conflict. 1049&context=theses_dmt (accessed February 15, 2016).
Sanders, Carol. 2011. Healing war wounds in Congo: Music restores hope to ex-child soldiers. (accessed February 15, 2016).
Schott-Billmann, France. 2015. Primitive expression and dance therapy: When dancing heals. London: Routledge.
Shyaka, Ally. 2016. View from Rwanda: Ally, Project Assistant. (accessed April 30, 2016).
Woodward, Alpha M. 2012. Arts-based practices in regions affected by war. (accessed February 15, 2016).
Zimbalist, Jeff, and Matt Mochary. 2005. Favela rising. United States: HBO/Cinemax Documentary.

[1] Fine and Nix, 1:30:00-1:30:22

[2] 2015, 162

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Zimbalist and Mochary, 2:47-2:58

[6] Ibid., 4:30-4:45

[7] Griffin 2015, par. 5

[8] Zimbalist and Mochary 2005, 22:13-22:55

[9] Ibid., 1:03:17-1:03:35

[10] 2015, 162

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 165

[14] Ibid., 168

[15] Ibid., 169

[16] Chatterjee 2012, par. 14

[17] Zimbalist and Mochary 2005, 28:55-29:07

[18] Woodward 2012, par. 9

[19] MwB, 16

[20] Karajkov 2007, par. 6-8

[21] Shyaka 2016, par. 2 and 7