Faced with high rates of sexual violence, Colombia turns to salsa as therapy | sexual assault

Cali, Colombia – As the only sister of nine siblings, Carmen Díaz enjoyed a bustling childhood in the port city of Buenaventura, Colombia. Together with her brothers, she would wreak havoc in the house or go outside to kick a tattered ball for hours.

“I loved playing soccer,” said Díaz, who asked to be called by a pseudonym.

But her happy, boisterous childhood came to an end when her uncle began sexually abusing her, she said. The assault continued on multiple occasions.

When she told her parents what happened, they refused to believe her and instead accused her of lying. Feeling distraught, Díaz decided to run away from his home at the age of 13.

Díaz ended up sleeping on the streets of the nearby city of Cali and became addicted to drugs. Ultimately, he found shelter through the city’s social services, which connected her to resources for minors.

This is how he discovered his salvation: dancing salsa. She was part of an experimental therapy project run by the local nonprofit Mi Cuerpo Es Mi Historia, a name that translates to “My body is my story.”

The project combines salsa dancing and psychotherapy to help survivors of sexual violence express their emotions and process their trauma over several months.

“Dance can help heal trauma,” said project founder Martha Isabel Córdoba Arévalo, a psychologist and avid dancer who was born and raised in Cali, known as the salsa capital of the world.

“When survivors don’t want to talk about what happened to them, or if they can’t, the movement gives them a different way of expression.”

Children attend a dance class led by Mi Cuerpo Es Mi Historia in Buenaventura, Colombia. [Fanny Aparicio/Al Jazeera]

Over the past decade, My Body Is My Story has worked with approximately 700 girls, mostly through referrals from city services. Treatment begins with acting classes, focusing on acting, singing or dancing.

Then, the next step is to allow participants to explore their chosen topics through interpretation techniques. At the end of the program, organizers hope that art can be an outlet for participants to understand and cope with their experiences.

However, recovering from trauma is never easy or simple. Arévalo remembers meeting Díaz, now 28, when she was just a teenager and newly referred to the program. He observed that Díaz seemed aggressive, hurt by everything she had endured, and she did not want to interact with the program’s psychologists.

“I was afraid of men,” Díaz said. “The male psychologists I spoke to scared me.”

But Arévalo soon discovered that Díaz had a natural talent for salsa. Week after week, the teenager seemed more relaxed.

The fast pace of salsa’s tumbao beat kept Díaz’s mind (and his heels) busy as he roamed the dance floor, swaying his body to the sound of trumpets and timpani.

“When I danced, I felt free and happy,” Díaz said. “It was the best treatment for me. I no longer feel like a victim. I’m a survivor.”

A growing body of research supports the claim that dance and movement can have benefits for both the mind and the body.

A review of 41 studies published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2019 found that dance movement therapy reduced anxiety and depression, “consistently” improving related conditions.

Dita Federman, a dance movement therapist who has researched sexual abuse, maintains that this unconventional treatment method can reach some patients in ways that other interventions cannot.

“It may be crucial to helping some patients,” Federman said. “Dance therapy can lead to an increase in heart rate, using coordinated movements and balance, and what happens while dancing is that people are more likely to remember and express memories from the past.”

The streets of Cali, Colombia, are a blur of bodies as salsa dancers spin and spin in a parade.
The city of Cali, Colombia, is famous for its fast-paced style of salsa dancing, and dancers often fill the streets for events like the annual Cali Fair. [File: Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters]

But Arévalo warned that addressing sexual violence is extremely complex and there is no simple solution.

“It takes time and resources, and it takes trained professionals to be able to make profound modifications or restore lives,” he said. “Not everyone has that luxury.”

Federman also warned that in any type of therapy, there is a risk of re-traumatization. Dance is no exception.

“It should be done very slowly, without directly questioning [the survivors] for emotional material,” he said. “If it arises from them, then it arises. But it shouldn’t be forced.”

And while research has been done on its effectiveness, Federman said knowledge about dance movement therapy remains limited due to the difficulty in obtaining permission to study survivors of sexual violence.

“There are so many things we still don’t know,” he said.

But advocates believe dance therapy could help take small steps to respond to the severe levels of gender violence in Colombia.

A third of women in the Latin American nation have suffered physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partner, according to the United Nations Global Violence Database.

Colombia’s six-decade internal conflict has also contributed to high rates of sexual violence. In September, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace – a court created to investigate crimes committed during the conflict – announced that at least 35,178 people had suffered gender violence between 1957 and 2016.

Right-wing paramilitary groups were responsible for the largest number of incidents, approximately 33 percent. Women made up the vast majority of victims, representing 89 percent in total.

“Women’s bodies have been used as targets of war,” Arévalo said.

To reduce the risk of re-traumatization, Arévalo avoids using “direct” dance partners in her sessions with young survivors. Instead, dancers learn their steps in a larger, more coordinated group. And when they form pairs, they often use a technique called “mirroring,” whereby dancers replicate their partner’s movements from a distance.

Arévalo said there is also a lot of room for individual improvisation in salsa, which can be danced both alone and with other people.

Two dance instructors stand at the front of a classroom in front of a wall-sized mirror.  As they dance, the students behind them imitate their steps.
Sofía Murillo and Alexander Patiño teach a salsa class for tourists in Cali, Colombia [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

Her nonprofit includes a pathway for sexual assault survivors to become salsa instructors themselves, so they can pass on their techniques to others, or even start their own business.

Sofía Murillo is among the graduates of that program. On a recent December afternoon, she and her fellow teacher Alexander Patiño explained the basic steps of salsa to about 25 tourists in a packed dance studio lined with pale yellow and green tiles.

Cali salsa is famous for its fast rhythm: in the 1970s, it became popular among DJs to play records at 45 revolutions per minute, much faster than the usual speed of 33 rpm.

Faced with the rapid rhythms of Cali (the galloping pulse of seemingly relentless bongos and cowbells), Murillo’s students struggled to keep up. The punches and twists of his feet risked turning into collisions and crushed feet.

But by the end of their class, each of the tourists was able to improvise a respectable routine.

“I had negative thoughts in the past,” said Murillo, 40, who became a salsa teacher in 2023. “They mistreated me. But when I’m dancing, it’s different. I forget everything. I smile.”

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