The island nation of Jamaica was chosen for this research because it seemed that the country has made a rather large impact on the world with its music despite its relatively small size. People around the world are familiar with the great Bob Marley, and since then Jamaica have not failed to produce top artists (like Jimmy Cliff and Sean Paul) that are renowned across the world. Since dance is so intimately related to music, it was the intention of this research to answer the question: what types of dances that have accompanied Jamaica’s music and how has the history and culture been influenced and been impacted by these dances?
Efforts at getting information about traveling to this country only yielded proof of the existence of what was hypothesized: that a rich culture of dance and an intertwined sociopolitical heritage accompany the music. Travel arrangements were made by calling the toll free number 1-800-JAMAICA. Other information about travel was obtained through the numerous websites on the internet, especially through the Sandals hotel website. Accommodations were acquired at Sandals Royal Caribbean, located in the Montego Bay area.
While in Montego Bay, many of the folk dances that were later found to derive from the colonial and African past were performed for the guests. Attendance at various night clubs, such as Margaritaville and The Brewery served as another method of collecting data about the contemporary dances (Chukka). Within the two weeks that were spent in Jamaica, further research was done by traveling to the view National Theatre and Dance Company in the nation’s capital, Kingston (a three hour bus ride from Montego Bay). This company served as the society that preserved the folk dances found to exist within the country.
Other sources of information regarding the country’s history were the website of the Jamaican Government, the Jamaica Information Service, and the numerous parish council centers within the three parishes visited during the trip (Myrie). Information was also obtained from an interview done with a Jamaican citizen Tanisha Myrie. Cultural and Historical Information Though Jamaica received its independence from Britain to become a sovereign nation in 1962, the nation’s rich culture and history goes back to several hundred years before.
Like many other countries in the New World, the credit for its “discovery” is given to Christopher Columbus, who became knowledgeable of the country’s existence in 1494—two years after he “discovered” the United States. Columbus found the country located 391 miles to the east of Central America and 90 miles south of Cuba in what is now known as the Greater Antilles. It is also approximately 112 miles southwest of Hispanola—the island which houses Haiti and the Dominican Republic (All Experts).
Despite his credit for the island’s discovery, what Columbus found on the island was an already thriving culture of Taino Indians, also known as the Arawaks. The Arawak Indians called this country Xaymaca, which is interpreted to mean “the land of wood and water” or “island of springs” (All Experts). These persons had lived on the island for several centuries, reaching back to some time in between 1000 and 400 B. C. When Columbus and the Europeans arrived in Jamaica, the Arawaks were very friendly and demonstrated this by teaching the Europeans much about their way of life.
They were introduced to the several types of fruits and animals used for food, such as bammy (a bread made from cassava), and even taught them how to make weapons and canoes. Unfortunately, this people group soon became extinct due to a combination of European exploitation and disease (All Experts; Myrie). Though Jamaica was initially claimed by the Spanish through the efforts of Christopher Columbus, the island became conquered and inhabited by the English when Admiral William Penn (who fathered the Pennsylvanian William Penn) and his comrade General Venables took it by force in 1655 (All Experts).
The Spanish ownership of the first hundred and fifty years of European occupation accounts for many of the Spanish names found on the island even today. These include Santa Cruz, Montego Bay (from Manteca, Spanish for butter), Rio Bueno and Rio Grande (Myrie). However, since the conquest of the island by Britain, the country’s history has become one that is akin to several other West Indian and North American countries that have been governed by Britain. One of the most characteristic of these similarities is the history of slavery that the country carries.
With the colonial rule of the British came the introduction of slaves to the island. Slavery was introduced to facilitate an economy that rested heavily on the production of sugar. Thousands of slaves were imported to work on the numerous enormous sugar plantations that littered the island. Soon, the sugar-centered economy became a highly lucrative one for Britain. In fact, “from the mid 1700’s until the close of the slave trade in Jamaica in the 1830’s, Jamaica accounted for 42 percent of sugar imported into Britain” (Burnard and Morgan 3, cited in Syer).
This large-scale dependence on sugar, a labor-intensive agricultural business, made it necessary that the workers be accustomed to the heat and intense labor connected with plantation life. This made Africans highly suited to the conditions for labor on the plantations, and as a result almost all of the slaves brought to Jamaica were of West African origin. By the time the 1700’s came to an end, over 300,000 African slaves were permanent residents in Jamaica (Syer). Though slavery in itself was a cruel and shameful practice, as it regards music, language and dance the practice also served to richen the culture of Jamaica considerably.
Slaves used dance and music to express themselves and to communicate when other forms of expression were forbidden. The harsh conditions under which slaves worked often led them to seek relief through dance and singing. The use of drums and the Accompong horns also served as a method of communication during times of rebellion (Myrie). The Maroons (runaway slaves who lived in the hills of St. James—a northern parish in Jamaica) communicated through the blowing of horns and drumming, which were often disguised as music.
Also, on the plantations, plans were often made and displayed through the use of dance in the slaves’ efforts for freedom (Government of Jamaica; Myrie). Several slave rebellions took place between the years 1755 and 1838, the most famous of which are Tacky’s Rebellion of 1760—which lasted for six months, and the Great Slave Rebellion of 1831, which led to the execution of 344 slaves (Newsinger). Notable occurrences during this period are the 1807 abolition of the slave trade and the 1838 abolition of slavery in all British colonies.
After this period, Jamaica remained under the colonial rule of Britain. Unrest still existed between the planter and peasant classes, largely separated by both racial origin and material wealth. The Morant Bay rebellion of 1865, led by the Jamaican hero Paul Bogle, was evidence that the former slaves were still suffering under the laws that governed Jamaican society (Newsinger). Though Governor Eyre and his British troops crushed this rebellion unmercifully, the Jamaican’s were still determined to gain full independence from Britain. The independence of Jamaica came slowly.
By the mid-twentieth century, Jamaica’s local government discovered that the constitution’s weakness lay “in the relative lack of power of the ministers” (Segisys). This led to the restructuring of the representative system of government within the 1950’s. A cabinet was introduced, led by a chief minister who was in charge of recommending the ministers to the governor for appointment. Soon the ministers’ strength grew, and the position of governor (representative of the British Crown in the Jamaican colony) was reduced to one of almost entirely a figurehead.
This demonstrates the extent to which British rule had diminished in the small Caribbean state. The next step for this country became the joining with other Caribbean countries of the British colonial legacy to form a West Indian Federation. The two major political parties extant in Jamaica were formed at approximately this time: the Jamaica Labour Party (by former Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante) and the People’s National Party (by former Prime Minister Norman Washington Manley). However, despite the work put into the formation of the Federation, soon Jamaica decided against inclusion.
This was the first decisive step toward its sovereignty, and in 1962 the nation gained full independence from Britain as a nation that would stand on its own (Segisys). Dance: A Jamaican Heritage According to the Government of Jamaica (GOJ), Jamaican’s believe that talking about things is not enough. They must also sing and dance about them. Apart from the heritage that is passed down from the ancestors through dance, the culture of dance also expresses the social and political climates that exist at different stages of the country’s historical timeline.
The music and dance form called Mento is directly descended from the period of plantation life. It exists as a fusion of practices gained from both the African slaves and their British slave masters, and might even be considered as the Anglicizing of African dance and music practices. Though Mento refers primarily to a type of music (from which are derived Calypso and contemporary Jamaican folk songs/dance), the specificity of the music dictated how the dances that accompanied it were done.
The syncopated nature of the beat led to the different types of dances that demonstrated their “punches” on those beats, and the Mento songs (such as “Rukumbine” and “Peel Head John Crow”) gave rise a host of companion dances. These include Quadrille and Peel Head John Crow (Government of Jamaica). Peel Head John Crow is done as a duet, with one person placing the pointer finger in the middle of his/her partner’s head, and the partner pivoting to the beat of the music (Myrie). This dance stems directly from the Mento folk song of the same name and is usually only done in conjunction with that very popular song.
The Quadrille, on the other hand, represents a more universal type of dance and is an excellent representative of the types of dances that demonstrate a fusing of the African and European cultures. The dance mixes the French and English dances of the 18th and 19th centuries with the Mento style (GOJ). The Quadrille may be danced in two formations: the square and long-way sets. These names were later changed to the Ballroom and Campstyle Quadrilles. The former was done by the elite of the Jamaican society, while the latter was done by poorer persons or by those living in rural areas.
The integration of the African culture into the Quadrille (and the generally eclectic nature of the dance) is represented in the following excerpt: “There are five African features - the spectacular footwork by the men, the `bent knee' quality, the ‘throw back’ practice by the blacks to mimic the whites, the use of the hips and the incorporation of steps from other European social dances” (GOJ). Another type of dance practiced in the culture of the Jamaica people is known as the Dinki Mini or the Gerreh (GOJ). This name “Dinki” comes from the Congolese term “ndingi” which translates to a form of lamentation or a dirge.
These dances were practiced in Jamaica during times of death when families held “Ninth Night” celebrations (also known as wakes). Despite the fact that these dances are done during times of sorrow, the movements involved are very lively and done to up-beat music as a method of cheering the family and loved ones of the person who has died. Dinki Mini saw its most spontaneous practice during the times of slavery, as currently the dance is consigned to being performed only during annual festival celebrations or other ceremonies. The dance itself focuses movements on the pelvic regions of the body.
The reproductive areas of the body are targeted in defiance of the loss of life that defines funereal occasions. In fact, “The dancers, male and female, make suggestive rotations with the pelvis in an attempt to prove that they are stronger than death, as they have the means to reproduce” (GOJ). These dances form the foundation, and are indeed the ancestors, of many other dances that have evolved in Jamaica throughout the years. Other dances such as Kumina and Pocomania derive from African forms of worship that have mingled with European Christian forms.
Both dances mimic the jumping and spastic motions that people generate when they “feel the Spirit,” though with the Kumina form ancestral spirits were often also meant (Ethnic Stew). Beyond these historical folk dances, every year new dances are added to the rich Jamaican dance repertoire. During the era of the fifties and sixties—perhaps even before, such dances as Ska and Rock Steady accompanied the pre-Reggae music of the time. Ska combines the New-Orleans Rhythm and Blues style with the Mento beat.
The Ska dance is performed by swaying the hips while swinging the arms up and down between the knees. Rock Steady represents a more relaxed and sophisticated form of Ska, maintaining a similar tempo, though with less prominent drums (Jamaica Music Styles). Reggae music and its companion Dancehall style have also given rise to many dances. The meditative Reggae bequeathed such dances as Cool and Deadly, while Dancehall has bequeathed a host of more lively dances, such as Della, Bogle (named after the Jamaican hero Paul Bogle mentioned earlier), Butterfly, and the very recent Dutty Wine.
Della (1980’s) is performed by moving one foot in a heel-to-toe motion. Bogle (early 1990’s) is done mainly with the upper body, by rotating the arms in a free style motion to the rhythm of the music. Butterfly (Mid 1990’s) is done by rotating the knees in an inward-to-outward motion, and Dutty Wine (Mid 2000’s) is done by settling into a half crouch and swinging the head in circular motions, first clockwise and then counter-clockwise (Myrie). Conclusion
The Jamaica Information Service has stated that, according to the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, Percival James Patterson, culture “is the lynchpin that bonds us as a people and is vital to our quality of life” (GOJ). The dance culture of Jamaica has proven to be as varied as it is dynamic. Though Jamaica has many types of dances that have been carried down throughout the ages, it is also blessed with a prolific group of citizens that continue to create new dances. These dances are inextricable from the music and even the language of the culture, and might even be said to be one with the country’s music and language.
Jamaican dance also demonstrates how heavily the culture is dominated by the African practices that were imported along with the slaves. The many years of colonialism and the slavery system that facilitated the riches that Jamaica brought to Britain also manifested a large contribution to the cultural dance practices of the country. In fact the culture of dance, music, and language that emerged from these centuries of colonialism might perhaps be considered the richest parts of the Jamaican heritage.