A'Keitha Carey, Texas Woman's University
This summer has been full of challenges. I recently ended a one-year contract at a university in the mid-West, worked on several essays and articles for publication, prepared for my qualifying exam for my PhD studies, presented at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, and packed to prepare my three-day drive cross country to relocate to New York. It has been hellish!
For this blog, I will focus on my experience at the National Black Arts Festival as it serves not only the topic for this blog but also fosters great fuel for my both my academic and personal lives. I presented CaribFunk, a dance technique and social movement that I developed as part of the National Black Arts Festival Symposium titled: “Dance Across the Diaspora: A Historical Lens on a Black Cultural Movement” developed and moderated by Professor Thomas F. DeFrantz, a dance historian, dancer, choreographer, and scholar. CaribFunk is a fusion of Afro-Caribbean (social and traditional), classical ballet, modern, and fitness elements and principles.
The experience as a participant was both validating and inspiring as the theme of each workshop and/or presentation was centered on: Survival, Identity, Cultural Integrity, “Black and U.S. Social Dance as Resistance,” and The Technologies of Indigenous People of Color in the Americas Revealed Through the Lens of Performance. Resistance in motion and embodied protest were illustrated throughout the day-long symposium. Each panelist shared their personal stories of how dance and Diaporic sensibilities and expression informed their articulation (physical and oral) of their particular narratives.
For ritual community members, the dance/music performances suggest myths and retell cultural stories, but most important, they charter and encourage social behavior in present everyday lives. (Daniel 2005, 1)
Each presenter discussed the “radical” social movements that were constructed through performance that functioned as a form of embodied protest, revealing “what the body knows, [and] what it is capable of” (Daniel 2005, 4-5). Dancers demonstrate a “resilient and exciting ritual performance [in this instance] dance and music embody memory and perseverance and, in the end, inspire and support survival” (Daniel 2005, 5).
Three examples of African communities that resemble survival, resistance in motion and embodied protest are Capoeira in Brazil, the Jamette’s in Trinidad, and Jamaican Dancehall. As I listened, observed, and participated in the symposium, I reflected on the history of each social movement and how elements of these cultural movements and performances could be traced in several of the presentations at the festival. To provide some context, I will proffer some historical background to support my declaration.
Capoeira in Brazil: Capoeira, “An Afro-Brazilian art” premised on principles of resistance is a clandestine practice that was disguised as a dance. This strategy was used to resist those who policed and prohibited Blacks them from performing the “martial arts technique and choreographic and rhythmic vocabularies [that] were brought from Africa” and allowed them to “practice their games in seclusion” (Browning 2001, 166).
Prior to their captivity and enslavement in Brazil, the people of the Kongo-Angola region practiced certain kicking games for sport and recreation … In Brazil, the games were prohibited for all too obvious reasons. (Browning 2001, 166).
Capoeiristas perform an embodied protect, a physicalized activism that functions as a “technique of resistance” (Browning 2001, 166). This system of movement is “outside of the [upper] class [expectations], status quo and aspirations,” signifying an oppositional stance in [Brazil’s] “race-class hierarchy” (Niaah 2004, 103).
Many of the panelists discussed the oppositional or the political resistance that they either performed or encountered and the Afro Diasporic traditions that can be traced in their research. This was particularly evidenced in dance scholar, Dr. Osumare’s presentation on “They Were BAAD: Black US Social Dance As Resistance” where she examined “Black Badness in Dance.”
The Jamette’s in Trinidad:
From the late nineteen to the mid-twentieth century, the poor black women who defied standards of propriety and retaliated against her dehumanizing position in society was referred to as the jamette. Although the jamette is no longer a symbol of disorder and licentiousness in Trinidad, her impact on the corporeal expression of the contemporary woman in Carnival is unmistakable. (Noel 2010, 60)
This ideology has certainly set the tone for women’s morality, administering and proscribing how they should perform in social spaces. The movements of the pelvis were abhorred and those that performed such movements were policed and vilified.
The 1980’s would be pivotal in respect to the way women moved during Carnival, with the majority of women masquerading by wining and gyrating without reservation. The disconcerted reactions to these public acts of transgression were immense, and the behavior soon became a moral and sociological issue on a national level. (Noel 2010, 61)
The dance technique CaribFunk is premised on the activism and embodied protest exhibited by the Jamette’s in Trinidad, focusing on the hip wine (circular rotation of the hip. CaribFunk locates “the politics of identity and subversion through the exploration of the hip wine (circular rotation of the hips) often found in the stylistic and virtuosic performances of Jamaican Dancehall and Trinidadian Carnival (Carey 2015).
Jamaican Dancehall: Dancehall is considered by some to be a musical genre, social movement, and space.
It flourished in Jamaica around the 1950’s, and its name derives from the exclusive space, or ‘halls,’ in which dance events were held. It tells the story of a people’s [inner city and of lower socio economic backgrounds and culture] survival and need for celebration of the survival against forces of imperialism and systems of exclusion through dance, music, and attitude. Dancehall’s story is ultimately the choreographing of identity that critiques aspects of Western domination. (Niaah 2004, 103)
Panelist, independent artist, and international street dancer Storyboard P discussed his street dance technique which he defines as a “mutant style” which is a fusion of “bruka from Jamaican culture and ‘flexin’ in the streets where animation rules.” Storyboard P stated that his style was developed “from his pain and isolation of being beat up.”
… The movement is continuous, like the body must be constantly reminded that it is not in control.
… I said “I want to ask you about pain”
He said, “It’s funny that you say that, pain is the backdrop to all I do”
… And there you have it. (An excerpt of Onye Ozuzu’s reflection on Facebook 2015)
The day began with a participatory workshop in “CaribFunk” taught by myself and ended with a participatory workshop “Technology of the Circle” taught by Onye Ozuzu, the Dean of Fine and Performing Arts, Columbia College Chicago. Onye’s “Technology of the Circle” is a methodology used as a form of communication, to tell a story and to problem solve, very similar to how the roda functions in capoeira—the same circle formation that delimits all traditional Afro-Brazilian dance” (Browning 2001, 165).
The festival functioned as a technique of resistance providing meaning making and storytelling through embodied protest, allowing participants to become practitioners of the techniques taught. I left Atlanta with a sense of renewal and a calmness that was much needed as I prepare to venture into the next chapter of my life.
Browning, B. 2001. "Headspin: capoeira ironic inversions.” In Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader, eds. A. Dils and A. C. Albright, 144-151. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
__________. 1995. Samba: Resistance in Motion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Carey, A. 2015. CaribFunk: A Melange of Caribbean Expressions in a New Dance Technique. Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics-Emisferica <http://hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/emisferica-121-caribbean-rasanblaj/carey>
Daniel, Y. 2005. Dancing wisdom: Embodied knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Bahian Candomblé. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Niaah, S. S. 2004. Kingston’s dancehall: A story of space and celebration. Space and Culture 7 (1): 102-118.
Noel, S. A. 2010. De jamette in we: Redefining performance in contemporary Trinidad Carnival. Small Axe 14 (1): 60-78.
Ozuzu, O. 2015. Storyboard P Reflection. <https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=10234649&fref=ts&ref=br_tf> Posted July 19, 2015.