Hold up! Forgive me for flogging a dead horse!
As if the yank, jerk, bruckins, and dinki mini did not create their own moral anxieties, today we are faced with another dance crisis, only this time it is a horse of slightly different colours involving the ‘discipline and punish’ trademarks of the school uniform worn by Maggotty High students as they celebrated the school year’s end with revelry and abandon all of two years ago. Yes! Two years ago. How does this come to be topical, and earn its place in prime time commentary? The ‘posthumous revelations’ from the two year old video revealed students in a ‘saturnalia’ of sorts fully captured by the ‘videolight’.
Dionne Jackson Miller effectively summed up some of the major issues in her recent blog post here with some of the major points being the uniform as part of a covenant between student and school for maintenance of decorum and decency, as well as the vulgarity displayed in the free and fair play of ‘daggerin’ and other moves which the students executed with precision. The students made it clear that ‘a dance wi a dance’ in the celebratory styles known as part of the rich history of dance culture pulsating down the African Diaspora’s body of memory all the way to Kingston’s riddim amphitheatre. Expulsion, suspension, and counselling were among the restorative justice considerations for the dance crimes committed. Fortunately or unfortunately, only the one student from the video who still attends the institution would bear the brunt of the unrestrained sexually explicit conduct.
Don’t get me wrong. Students must take responsibility for their actions. This is non-negotiable. What is negotiable is how we as a society will chose to treat with occurrences that bring us face to face with our sometimes hypocritical standards for judging a range of behaviours. My one regret is that in the waves of moral panic over the past fifty years in particular, we have been too quick to persecute, penalise and take not only a classist view, but also, an ahistorical approach to the proliferation of a variety of dance styles, performance modes and celebratory patterns. I therefore use this opportunity to share some of my own insights documented in DanceHall: From Slave Ship to Ghetto (2010).
Have you heard of the Yank?
Dance moves such as yanga (mento dance), yank, jerk, and ska movements that emphasise domestic activity (washing clothes, bathing), recreation (horse racing, cricket) or anything that appealed to the ska dancer, are antecedents of popular dancehall moves such as the butterfly, log on and dutty wine. So are moves such as ‘legs’, performed by famous dancers Pam Pam and Baskin of the early years, the ‘chucky’, and ‘horseman scabby’.
African and other continuities
As descendants of African movement and aesthetics, dancehall moves convey continuities such as the emphasis on ‘the beat’ and the ‘natural bends’ – elbow, head, pelvis, torso and knee bends (see Dagan 1997, pp. 102-119) in the movement pattern as documented in various African dance styles. Welsh Asante (1985) recognised that commonalities in all contemporary African dances have an inherent connection to ancestral Africa “through epic memory and oral tradition, even though these dances represent different languages, people, geographies, and cultures (Welsh Asante 1985, p. 71). Following from this she identified seven foundations or senses in African dance: polyrhythm, polycentrism, curvilinearity, multi-dimensionality, epic memory, repetition, and holism which are all evident in contemporary dancehall moves.
Following from the understanding of continuities specific aesthetic qualities have been isolated. Cheryl Ryman (2003, pp. 170-1) discusses the connection to ancestral rhythms and moves through an explanation of the characteristic wining of the hips, the bounce (facilitated by natural knee bends) and an S-shaped stance in both male and female dance. The ‘S-90 skank’ (1970s), mimicking the actions of the ‘rude boy’ on his motorcycle is an early example, as well as traditional Jamaican movement forms such as in Revival, Gereh, Bruckins, and Mento. Ryman discussed the seeming preoccupation with sexual (hip-centered) movements within the context of African principles:
“If we understand that procreation was/is considered vital to the African’s survival in life and death, in Africa as well as the diaspora, then we can perhaps understand their apparent preoccupation with ‘sexual’ movements. Further, it is not unusual, as in Jonkonnu, for the traditional treatment within the context of the dance to be such as to allow for what the folk themselves define as ‘sexual play’. It is simply a representation in dance-movement.” (Ryman 1980, p. 4)
Importantly, the characteristics pervade traditional and contemporary movement, and they have utility outside the dance. The agile pelvic movements help with uphill walks especially with heavy contents on the head and in this sense the hip acts as a ‘shock absorber’ (Eskamp and de Geus 1993, p. 56). Other characteristics such as bent knees, grounding of the body rather than lifts, rhythmic complexity, and parallel feet have also been documented.
The Role of the Dancer
The role of dance and dancers in the dance halls is paramount. The experienced dancer was and still is like a ‘god’; if one couldn’t dance s/he was definitely seen as a lesser being. The ability to execute movements was an indication of one’s class membership (White 1984, p. 75). The portrayal of dancehall as only music misses the important role that dance movement plays – not only in the playing of sounds, but playing on sound. The norms and power of certain dance styles become evident in the description of dance moves at the typical blues dance –
“two “legsman” may trade moves….A group of adolescents may be in a circle, creating new amalgams; a man and a woman may be doing the “boogie-woogie,”…. Another couple may be dancing slowly, closely…sometimes almost motionless, openly sexual….One youth may be all by himself – shuffling or…just “rocking”. He probably pays no attention to women that night, being quite satisfied to rock; self-sufficient and wrapped up in the music. (White 1984, p. 74)
Former dancehall queen Denise ‘Stacey’ Cumberland (crowned 1999) is clear about the role of the dancer in the dancehall: “The dance can’t happen without dancers. They are the crowd pleasers; if the music has nothing to vibrate on, the dance can’t be nice” – it is a dance space. In discussing the trend (1999-2007) in dancehall with the increased proliferation of new dance moves, Stacey highlighted a special synergy between dancer, DJ, the young, the old, the friend, and the enemy. “I have seen dancehall taking out old people; dancehall never so nice in the history of dancehall…because it is not modelling, not hype again, just enjoyment and everybody together uniting, everybody [dancing]” so much so that you forget your enemy on the dance floor. In fact, Stacey acknowledges that the proliferation of dance moves creates a synergy between dancers and DJs because there is always a new dance for the DJs to sing about.