The Caribbean island of Jamaica, sitting just south of Cuba in the Greater Antilles, forged a colorful identity from a rich mix of African, European, and Creole, or hybrid, influences. Traditional dances reflect all the cultures that contributed to ritual, sexual, and spiritual moves that range from formal to fluid to fitful to funereal. Each dance carries a meaning and tells a story - from the synchronized rhythmic stepping of the men in the British Morris dance to the hip-swiveling kotching in a Brukkins procession.
The Quadrille is a formal court dance, imported by European gentry who ran the slave plantations. It consists of four figures or movements plus an added Jamaican touch, a fifth figure known as the Mento. An original version is a graceful set piece called Ballroom. The local derivation is Camp Style, a sexier, livelier Creole reinterpretation. Classic European-style advancing and retreating and promenades get a lot more footwork and hip swinging. Both dances are accompanied by Mento bands, which play both the European tunes and indigenous Jamaican music on regular and recycled scrap instruments.
This comes straight from 15th-century pagan festivals, Queen Victoria's Birthday parties, and the seasonal celebrations of slaves. In a spring maypole dance, participants weave in and out to braid, unbraid, and make a web of long ribbons around the symbolic tree or pole. The creation of patterns with the ribbons is the focus of the movement. These days, a maypole dance is likely to be featured at a children's festival or in rural areas and village fairs.
The Kumina is danced at wakes and burials, and occasionally at less sombre events. The performance itself is anything but sombre. An African drumbeat and exuberant, life-affirming choreography are intended to restore the bereaved to engagement with life by calling on the ancestral spirits to heal and comfort them. The moves are loose - upper body and legs in constant motion and pelvic isolations, some fairly explicit, linked to the drumbeat. The tradition of Nine Nights recalls the nine days that neighbors supported the grieving family as the burial was prepared, culminating in the drumming, singing, and dancing of the Kumina.
Dinki Mini (from Congolese "ndingi," and called Gerreh in some parts of Jamaica) is performed over the course of a ritual wake, along with the Kumina. The dance has the same purpose - to cheer the mourners and remind them of life. Dancers sway with suggestive hip rotations, heel-toe stepping and bent knees in a performance which has become a cultural artifact. The Congo-derived moves can still be found where Congolese slaves first lived in Jamaica - in the parishes of St. Ann. St. Mary and Portland on Jamaica's northeast coast.
A Christmas-time tradition, Jonkonnu is a bawdy street dance, one of the oldest traditional performances and a clear mix of African mime and the folk theaters of Europe's market towns. The dancers are masked and costumed characters who dance according to their role; most of the moves look like tribal ceremonial dancing set to a story. To the accompaniment of African drums and Scottish fifes, the Devil menaces children with his pitchfork, the Cow Head paws the ground and keeps his horned head low, and the Belly Woman flaunts her pregnant belly. There might be a King and Queen, a Policeman, a Horse Head, or a twitchy effervescent performer called Pitchy Patchy. Tribal moves gradually became mixed with elements of polka, jigs, and marching. Today, the movement through the streets is as much improvised as choreographed.
A red-and-blue costumed Bruckins Party was a house-to-house parade of Kings, Queens, Soldiers, and Courtiers dipping and wheeling while waving their arms gracefully in a sort of Italian Pavanne. A Bruckins procession celebrates Jamaican Emancipation from slavery. The dance is performed upright, and exaggerated marching steps, dips, and glides are further emphasized with a forward pelvic thrust. "Bruckin" comes from a lead-off move the Queen rocks as she pushes her hips and lower body out so it almost appears that she "breaks" at the waist. The procession is kept alive as folk heritage but no longer dominates August Emancipation festivities.
Ettu dance is a religious practice of the Nigerian migrants who first came to Jamaica as indentured servants. It is danced in individual worship and praise, not for the audience. The dancer faces the drummer, who controls the movement. Each family has its own dance with distinct moves. Women dance more subtly than men - erect, angular, barefoot, tilted slightly forward. Men, also barefoot for better contact with the earth and ancestors, are very energetic. Both dance solo, except when they are being "shawled." Shawling is the placing of a scarf around the neck or waist of an especially fine dancer. Then the dancer may be assisted to bend backwards as far as his or her muscles will allow. Ettu is prayer reserved for special events, such as a wedding, a death, a severe illness, or to placate the ancestors.
The Tambu dance is named for the tambu drum, played by two drummers simultaneously in a style traditional in the Congo. Once Tambu was danced as a call to ancestral spirits. Today, it is a featured folk dance, reserved for entertainment. It's a visible seduction; dancers move their body parts in isolation with plenty of extreme hip gyrations. The effect is frankly sexual, although there is little to no touching. Tambu is not strictly a Jamaican dance as the African slaves who preserved it were also transported to other Caribbean islands where Tambu is still danced.
Save the Dance
The waves of European settlers who found their fortunes in Jamaica brought the familiar comfort of their own traditional dances to the tropical island. But they also brought people with a vivid, ineradicable African culture that expressed its history and feelings in music and dance. The mix fused spirited rhythmic and sensuous movements with repetitive forms to create the distinctly Jamaican style of the island's folk dancing. Traces of those traditional dances are still evident in popular Jamaican exports, today's reggae and dancehall styles.