Because they developed in a colonial environment, to learn Jamaican dances one must be prepared to explore a rich mélange of influences and characteristics. In some ways, learning Jamaican dances is learning the dances of the entire world, as the island has been a crossroads for the cultures of Europe, Africa, and the Americas for centuries.
Exploring the History of Jamaican Dances
The National Library of Jamaica identifies over two dozen traditional dances for Jamaica, divided not so much by culture as by purpose. Dance has been such an integral part of everyday life that it makes more sense to divide, for example, dances for worship from dances for work and dances for play. Three principle divisions begin the classification of Jamaican dances: African derived, European derived, and Creole. Each classification contains its own subset of dances as well:
- African derived
Religious - Used to induce a trance state and prepare the dancer to be "possessed" by their gods and spirits
- European derived - Not from ballroom dance, these dances were rather from work environments and for "ring games," in which children would dance their favorite dances within a circle of friends, then select a partner to dance with.
- Creole - Integrating both African and European influences
- Pukkumina (a version of revival still popular in Jamaica)
- Dinkie mini
Tradition and Costume: the Jonkonnu
Like many cultures which adopted and adjusted their traditions to match their Christian colonizers, the African and Creole religious observances resulted in the festival of Hosay, during which the traditional Jonkonnu dance is performed. This dance has stock characters that perform specific dance moves as the parade travels through the streets - "Pitchy Patchy" doing cartwheels, or the "Belly Woman" moving her rotund stomach in time to the music.
Although the dance is considered secular, they are performed on December 26th and New Year's day, and more in rural areas than large cities.
Learn Jamaican Dances of Today
While Jamaica's contribution to world music is well known through Reggae and Dancehall, it has also produced excellent choreographers and musicians. The National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica was formed by Rex Nettleford, Eddy Thomas, and Ivy Baxter to help further the art to help others throughout the world learn Jamaican dances. Olive Lewin and Edna Manley were also influential. Perhaps the most well known contemporary dancer or choreographer is Garth Fagan, who not only leads his own dance company but also choreographed the Broadway show The Lion King, for which he received a Tony Award.
Also known as ragga, dancehall music contains elements of hip hop, ska, soca, and the Rastafarian reggae music. Some of the more famous Jamaican artists include Byron Lee, Fab 5, and Lovindeer. With a fast and intricately rhythmic style, many of the dancehall moves were developed based on the lyrics of the songs themselves. This has led to some very unusual names for both the songs and the dances:
- The Myspace
- The Bogle
- Pon the River, Pon the Bank
- Tek Weh Yuhself
- Dutty Wine
The last example, "Dutty Wine" (Dirty Wind) by Tony Matterhorn has been the source of some controversy in Jamaica. Dyema, a professional dancer from Montego Bay, created the dance and popularized it with her group of dancers. Performed by women, it involves a rotation of the neck and buttocks while at the same time moving the knees in and out in a butterfly-like motion. Other moves such as splits were also added by more advanced dancers, and as it gained in popularity some dance injuries began to be seen among the young women performing it. In spite of medical warnings against the dance, or perhaps because of it, the dance has spread throughout the world. Even a reported death (which may or may not have been related to performing the dance) has failed to reduce its appeal, though there have been movements within the Jamaican government to ban it.
This is just one example of the rich and nuanced history of Jamaican dances, a beautiful part of a beautiful island and culture.