On a warm Wednesday afternoon, under the shade of an old oak tree, the sound of percussion can be heard across the hilltop in Washington Park. Lillie Williams, an African dance instructor with 20 years of experience, sits patiently with drummer William Whitten on a nearby bench as members of her Chihamba class arrive.

Chihamba, which means “a time for healing,” is a West African dance company with classes that have been a popular offering of the Charlottesville Women’s Initiative for five years. After months of virtual classes, Lillie is eager to return to in-person instruction, hopeful that the classes can continue in Washington Park through the summer.

The Women’s Initiative, an organization that offers counseling, social support and education programs to all women in the Charlottesville community, also offers programs specific to marginalized groups. The organization offers initiatives such as LGBTQ-affirming programs and programs for women of color. The Sister Circle is a mind and body offering for Black women and women of color, and it is the program in which Chihamba is provided.

The organization takes a holistic approach to healing with focus on both mental and physical health. In addition to individual counseling, they provide social activities, including a knitting circle and physical fitness classes such as Yoga and Chihamba.

As a licensed therapist with the Women’s Initiative and co-coordinator of The Sister Circle, Shelly Wood understands the importance of physical and mental health. She is also a member of Chihamba and participates in the Sister Circle programs.

“It’s helped me a lot,” Shelly shares. “It’s been one of the things I look forward to on Wednesday evenings. Even times when I’m tired, I know that when I go, I feel better when I leave.”

Many equate movement and exercise to weight loss and physical fitness however, movement has mental health benefits as well. The increase of endorphins caused by physical activity decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, activities that increase the heart rate stimulate neurohormones such as norepinephrine that improve the body’s ability to respond to stress. Cardiovascular exercise creates new brain cells, improving brain performance and helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm resulting in quality sleep, studies show.

“I think people think of mental health as separate from physical health and it’s actually all connected,” Shelly shares. “When we move our bodies, we release all of those feel good hormones and it improves our mood. It’s been proven to decrease symptoms of depression and help people manage stress better. All of these things are connected.”

Impact of COVID on mental health

As more Americans receive COVID-19 vaccines, they are seeking safe ways to return to in-person activities. Citizens of all ages have experienced the effects of the pandemic on their mental health.

Covid-19 put a drastic halt on social activities. In the months that followed, Americans collectively experienced a rise in death tolls; isolation; job loss; recession; and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Social distancing and quarantine forced Americans into seclusion, leading to an increase in stress, anxiety and depression.

“When we experience trauma, when we experience stress, those things get stuck in our body. When we move, it allows us to move that energy,” Shelly explains. “This is a difficult time for everybody, especially in trying to re-emerge. I would say do what feels comfortable for you, do what feels safe for you.”

Importance of creating safe spaces for Black women

Although the Women’s Initiative offers programs catered to specific groups in an effort to create safe spaces, there are those who argue against the need for such spaces. However, these spaces afford a sense of security to those who may otherwise not feel comfortable participating.

“Some people ask why we need a space for women of color or Black women,” Shelly shares. “We need these spaces because we can’t heal if the person in front of us looks like the people who are day to day oppressing us or perpetuating racism or discrimination against us. It’s hard for me to come in with my full self and be able to heal.”

Lillie shares Shelly’s sentiments. When Lillie began, she was not completely confident in her own dance abilities.

“The only reason I’m convinced about anything is because people keep asking me to perform,” Lillie says.

Now she teaches all ages and encourages others by sharing her own experiences.

“I’m at the age where I’m blessed to do what I’m doing,” Lillie expressed. “ I get so excited inside I can’t keep it in. It’s like going to church and being overcome with the Holy Spirit. I just praise God that I can.”

Lillie’s students also share her enthusiasm as they at times are overcome with emotion that they cannot put into words.

“I have had students come up to me and tell me that they felt it in their spirit. I’ve had people become tearful,’ she shares.

Lillie hopes that the joy her students find in her class is spread to others and they are encouraged to keep moving forward.

“You should never stop moving. The more I move the better I feel. The pandemic slowed me down, and at one point when I hadn’t danced for about a month, I felt stiff, I felt depressed, I felt sad and I felt something was missing,” she shares. “It heals from the inside out, it doesn’t matter how much can move as long as you’re moving.”

The Women’s Initiative provides a number of services and accepts women who do not have health insurance and would otherwise not have access. Their offerings can be found on their website: https://thewomensinitiative.org

Chihamba is offered every third Thursday of the month.

Patty Medina joined Dexter Auction as engagement reporter in 2021. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Full Sail University and is also a 15-year Air Force veteran with three years of military foreign affairs experience.