Dance is a part of Jamaican culture and everyday life, and it always has been. Whether European settlers or African slaves, every new Jamaican brought their own native dances, and many have evolved and combined to form traditional Jamaican dances.
For most of Jamaica's history, traditional dances from Europe and Africa have been part of feast celebrations and life-affirming rituals. The best European example of this style of dancing is the Morris dance, brought to Jamaica by indentured servants from England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Strong similarities among early folk dances make it difficult to dissect characteristics and determine their origins. For example, both African and European forms had all-male dancers, and some men dressed as animals. It's impossible to determine which dance was more important in creating this tradition.
Over time, nearly 40 distinctive dances have been identified, but there are seven main styles that Jamaican dances fall into: Maroon, Myal, Kumina, Revival, Rastafari, Jonkonnu, and Hosay. All but Jonkonnu and Hosay are considered to be religious dances, while the others are secular. Jonkonnu dances still exist today, as does the Revival dance style of Pukkumina.
Jonkonnu is more than just a celebration; it is a dance and a musical tradition as well. However, Jonkonnu dance traditions make it the island's oldest style on record. It blends authentically Jamaican styles to become the dance performed at today's celebrations. Typically, African groups would enact mime-style plays, while European traditions of folk theater played short scenes and recitations. Specific dances are ascribed to the dancers, each with their own role and character to portray.
Set Girls are in costume groups divided between blue and red, usually played by mulatto women, often mistresses. However, this tradition is no longer carried out. Similarly, the character of Babu developed in East Indian communities. "Red Indians" are also characters that were cultivated to participate in the dance, and, though they may represent the Taínos, they could have more to do with the mix with other cultures.
The dance's source in fertility rites can still be seen in the style of the dance moves, including one where the dancers suddenly stop with their hips forward. Other hip-based dance moves are important to the celebrations as well. Further, while it's been associated with Christmas festivities, Jonkonnu is not a religious dance.
Pukkumina dances are based in the rituals of Myalism, but they are part of the Revival tradition. Pukkumina is a distinct Revivalist group and not the same as Zion. Most notable for its possession rituals, this group is also famous for its dances.
The rituals themselves differ from place to place, but they all use music and improvised melodies and harmonies to help induce possession. These three-day festivals include many different aspects, but dancers who surround the leader move in a manner similar to Turkish whirling dervishes, suggesting East Indian influences as well.
Since the mid-1900s, dance in a performance setting has been developing. Although at first, dance was taught only to light-skinned islanders, one Jamaican girl, Hazel Johnston, would change all that. Johnston went to England to learn music and returned to Jamaica to become the first dancer to build her own studio – no one would rent studio space to her. She began working toward dance theater based on Jamaica's own culture.
Johnston never saw her dream come to fruition because she died young. But Ivy Baxter, a student of Johnston's, managed to fuse classical styles and Jamaican folk dances. She founded the Ivy Baxter Creative Dance Group in 1950. Rex Nettleford joined this group, as did Eddy Thomas. The group began teaching summer courses in dance at the University of the West Indies, where Nettleford taught.
Upon Jamaica's independence in 1962, a production known as "Roots and Rhythms" was choreographed by Baxter, Nettleford, and Thomas. They formed the National Dance Theatre Company soon afterward, led by Nettleford and Thomas. They perform annually in July or August in Jamaica but spend time touring as well, despite being an all-volunteer group.
Since then, many other troupes have developed on the island, including groups at the University of the West Indies. The Edna Manley School for the Visual and Performing Arts also includes a school of dance. The Little Theatre Movement was part of what became the Edna Manley School but was instrumental in helping dance performances.
Jamaica's dancers have also gone on to dance outside Jamaica: Clive Thompson danced for the Ivy Baxter group, but he has also danced for the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Garth Fagan developed his own troupe, the Bucket Dance Company, and teaches at the University of Rochester in New York State. He also won a Tony award for his choreography of Broadway's The Lion King.
Each of Jamaica's musical forms has inspired its own dances, but most notorious may be the moves that originated in Jamaica's dance halls. However, travelers should note that the dances that go along with songs change as quickly as the popular songs themselves, so you'll have to pick up particular styles once you've reached the island.
Recently, dance styles such as Taliban and the Jerry Springer have made their way around the dance halls of Jamaica. Perhaps not surprisingly, these dance styles are generally done much the way they sound. Others are dictated by the lyrics of the songs themselves, which dancers follow. These lyrically inspired dances are generally named for the song or lyrics.
However, dancehall wasn't the first musical style to inspire dances. One of the earliest forms of Jamaican popular music was ska. Ska, too, had its own dances, and these energetic routines were inspired by the upbeat musical style. There were a few variations of basic ska steps.
With the musical progression into rocksteady, the dances slowed down as the music did. Rude boys, in particular, did not wish to dance as fast, and the slower beats and dances of rocksteady allowed them to stay on the dance floor longer. This helped to add to the popularity of the ska-inspired genre.
Jamaica is filled with music, and with music comes dancing. Travelers looking to get a taste of dance on Jamaica can find many different types, from African- or European-inspired styles to something truly local.
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