A Solid Review of DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto

Beyond Boundaries: Sonjah Stanley Niaah’s DanceHall

Erin MacLeod

Sonjah Stanley Niaah, DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2010); 232 pages; ISBN 978-0-77660-736-8 (paper).

During the day, Kingston, Jamaica, is bustling, alive with commerce in the markets and conversation on the corners. At night, the city is no less alive, its soundsystems and street dances ring out through the darkness. This is dancehall, and its music, according to Sonjah Stanley Niaah, is “creating space through rhythm” (119).

In her new book, Stanley Niaah explores these spaces, tracking their development throughout history, from “the slave ships through plantations and colonial cities” (17) to “the gully bank or street” (27) of the ghetto, all through the perspective of what she refers to as “performance geography” (28). With a focus on space, Stanley Niaah quite literally charts her own course in the discussion of a cultural form that “occupies marginal spaces and is simultaneously central to [Jamaican] national identity” (16). DanceHall presents a new and innovative approach that is different from Norman Stolzoff’s ethnographic work on soundsystem culture. It’s also different from Carolyn Cooper’s literary approach to dancehall, which takes the lyrics as focus, and Donna Hope’s political and historical perspective, which charts dancehall’s rise from the watershed 1985 moment of digital music production characterized by King Jammy’s Sleng Teng riddim.

Visual and subcultural approaches are taken into account, and Stanley Niaah has a clear love and appreciation for the music. But her intervention is differentiated by a “social ecological perspective” (3) that attempts to further broaden the field by returning to the space of the dancehall, taking account of the phenomenon as an embodied event. Combining performance studies with cultural geography, Stanley Niaah illustrates the ways in which performance practices transform or create identities for various spaces. Dancehall, for Stanley Niaah, is not simply a genre of music but a space that is created by dancehall participants and performers themselves. Establishing performance geography as an organizing concept, Stanley Niaah presents a focus that is at once spatial and embodied, historicizing dancehall, mapping the Pan-African onto the local of Kingston, Jamaica.

After describing her innovative approach, Stanley Niaah begins to plot out the city of Kingston through the dance—as she puts it, “blocking the dancehall stage” (53). She moves through the history of venues in Kingston, classifying and mapping those both official and unofficial, with specific focus on marginalized communities from whence the music of dancehall originated. “Who are these people and what is the condition of their everyday life?” asks Stanley Niaah. “What are the spaces and habitus of their creativity?” (40). It is via such questions that Stanley Niaah constructs her performance geography.

Her accounting of venues presents a “geography of refuge,” illustrating how this refuge is created through dance as a “ritual of protection” (48) that is significantly both “personal and communal” (50). Each and every rite of dancehall is accounted for—all the “names, times, themes and purposes” (92)—and differentiation is made between the formal stage and dancehall street. Her choice case studies are Passa Passa and Bembe Thursdays, relevant even though neither presently exists in the manner described by Stanley Niaah. Bembe has run its course, and Passa Passa, as an all-night event, has been on indefinite hiatus since May 2010’s incursions into neighboring Tivoli Gardens. The fact that both of these ritual, celebratory venues are now defunct serves to support Stanley Niaah’s argument that dancehall transforms and creates space. Without the performance of dancehall, the spaces cease to serve the same purpose.

Stanley Niaah then moves to analysis of the performances that create the spaces she has outlined. Taking historical Pan-African traditions of adornment, dance, and hierarchy as her starting points, she draws connections to the style, movement, and status of dancehall participants. From the male and female patrons who indicate their participation with flashy, unique fashions, to the dancers and kings and queens who have translated their skills and abilities in the dancehall space into economic capital, Stanley Niaah reads these all as performances.

For instance, Stanley Niaah describes the foreign interest in dancehall queen competitions and touches on the existence of dancehall in Japan—perhaps its most significant international audience. She sees dancehall’s pinnacle of international fame and “journey across boundaries” (166) in the form of Usain Bolt, who transformed the Olympic track into a dancehall through his celebratory performance after breaking the World Record for men’s 100 meters in Beijing. The ubiquitous dancehall cameraman is also a topic for Stanley Niaah, as she addresses how the video light showcases and captures dancehall performances as they happen and how these recordings are then circulated within Jamaica and beyond. The book ends with a chapter-length discussion of international sites of boundarylessness, comparing dancehall in Jamaica to kwaito in South Africa and reggaeton in Puerto Rico. Returning to her analysis of performance geography, Stanley Niaah demonstrates the relevance of her approach: local musics that manifest themselves in the street are powerful forces—each one creating spaces through performance.

And although DanceHall discusses Buju Banton’s transnational positioning as individual dancehall performer and takes into account Stone Love and Tony Matterhorn’s worldwide soundsystem performances, there is room left to further analyze and describe the international impact of dancehall. Swatch International and Bass Odyssey are but two of many extensively well-traveled sounds. Stanley-Niaah’s “rubric of multiple spacialities” (163) is especially evident when soundsystems advertise abroad; for instance, promoting Passa Passa in London, or in New York or beyond.

In particular, the book’s focus on the dance in dancehall is noteworthy. “The portrayal for dancehall as only or mainly a matter of music misses the important role that dance movement plays, not only in the playing of sounds but the playing on sound,” writes Stanley Niaah (124). Hence, she tracks the rise of specific dances, providing an interesting comparison of dances to riddims (145). There is also a discussion of dancers—like the late Gerald “Bogle” Levy—who have made use of dancehall as not only a source of personal and financial empowerment but also a “process and means of connecting to a higher self as well as the community, outside the everyday routine of survival” (130). In keeping with previous work by critics like Cooper and Hope, Stanley Niaah challenges facile assumptions about gender identity in the dance, describing dancers’ challenges to traditional male and female ideals both in clothing and movement choices: “Performers define, project and re-engineer their identities, contesting prescribed categories, and delegitimating, expanding, reinventing or absorbing them as desired” (116). In addition, commenting specifically on dress and style, Stanley Niaah not only provides an explanation of dancehall dress but also reveals the acceptance and celebration of a wide range of female bodies in the dance.

This level of acceptance is an example of the potential of dancehall spaces. And, for Stanley Niaah, it is not necessarily about what dancehall means, but what it actually does. Its ability to create spaces and community has, as Stanley Niaah explains in the penultimate chapter, allowed for dancehall to travel beyond the boundaries of the island of Jamaica, existing in a state of “boundarylessness,” while still limited by its marginal form. However, it is this paradox or liminality that allows for dancehall to be simultaneously celebrated and spurned, existing in ghetto, restricted, garrison spaces while central to the national identity of Jamaica.

In DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto, Stanley Niaah presents a valuable, unique approach to the study of a particularly Jamaican cultural form, while providing extensive connections through history and space. The book also, especially in the final two chapters, provides a wide range of fruitful sites for continued research—“signposts for the next traveller” (xix). As Stanley Niaah sees it, dancehall is not about the construction of a specific identity or a specific space but about movement and process. Her work sheds light on these movements and processes, demonstrating both the importance of the dancehall and her work as part of a growing field.