Trance dance is a ritual where shamans dance as women clap the rhythm and sing special medicine songs. The San believe that these medicine songs are full of a supernatural potency. This potency comes from god himself, but it is also in the stomachs of shamans (medicine people).
The dance can take several forms. Women can sit around a fire and clap while shamans dance, or shamans can dance in the centre while the women stand around them. As the trance dance increases in intensity, the women's clapping and singing combine with the men's persistent dancing to cause the potency to ‘boil' and to rise up the shamans spines. When it ‘explodes' in their heads, they enter trance.
For the San, trance is the spirit world; it is here that they heal the sick, remonstrate with malevolent spirits, and go on out-of-body journeys. The now-extinct southern San also believed that shamans could make rain and guide antelope herds into the hunters' ambush. Moreover, the San saw parallels between the behaviour of a dying antelope, especially an eland, and a shaman ‘dying' (dying is used in a metaphorical sense, meaning to enter the spirit world) in trance.
In parallels drawn from trance behaviour, shamans and dying antelope tremble, sweat profusely, stagger, bleed from the nose (RSA WAR1 1R , RSA LOM1 26) lower their heads (RARI RSA GAM1 5R; RARI RSA GAM1 102) and eventually fall unconscious. The San also believed that hair grew in a man in trance, and this feature is also seen on antelopes and on shamans with hair standing on end (RARI RSA GAM1 5R, RARI RSA RSS1 2R, RSA HEL1 2), bleeding from the nose (RARI RSA FET3 5R, RSA WAR3 1R, RARI RSA CAP1 1R, RARI LEE RSA GEE1 16), staggering and lowering their heads. At times in the art, shamans are placed next to a dying eland (RARI RSA WID2 171) because an antelope is believed to release its potency when it dies.
The trance dance is the San's most important religious ritual, and an understanding of its various features and purposes is an essential key to appreciate the art.