Embodying Multiculture

Artists and Scholars Trace Sex, Politics, and Religion Through Caribbean Dance

One quarter of the population of New York City may have roots in the Caribbean, asserts Susanna Sloat, the editor of Caribbean Dance From Abaku to Zouk: How Movement Shapes Identity (University Press of Florida, $39.95). The archipelago that embraces islands from Cuba to Trinidad was a crucial link in the slave trade; island cultures were the crucibles in which European cultures melded with African religious, musical, and dance behaviors.

These Creole populations migrated north; cultural manifestations from breaking, popping, and locking to mambo can be traced to Caribbean origins. But the ripples do not stop in New York. Last summer, walking through downtown Helsinki one weekend at two in the morning, I was startled to hear the recorded voice of Harry Belafonte drifting from the open door of a bar, singing the '50s calypso hit "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)."

Twenty years ago, engaged in a research project about Latin American dance, I discovered there was next to no scholarship or criticism available in English. That Sloat has managed to assemble this hefty collection now speaks to a maturing of the field, and especially of a population of performer-choreographers who are also scholars, and who have contributed the liveliest essays in the book. Brenda Dixon Gottschild lays out the major issues involved. Cynthia Oliver, whose newest work premieres at Dance Theater Workshop this week, offers "Winin' Yo' Wais'," a study of dance on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix. Her essay, graced with her own poetry, reflects a sophisticated understanding of the political dynamics at play in the region. The Virgin Island dances, she observes, manifest African polyrhythmic and bent-knee movement below the waist, the "winding" or rotation of the hips, topped with a more vertical, European-style carriage in the torso and arms.

Rub-a-dub-dub, three Cubans in Narciso Medina's Metamorfosis
photo: David Garten
Rub-a-dub-dub, three Cubans in Narciso Medina's Metamorfosis

Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Danish, and other settlers brought their own dance styles to the region; after decimating the native populations and taking control of the real estate, they imported labor from Africa, taking some of the slaves into their own homes. There, the new arrivals observed European dance behavior at close range (and, to be sure, vice versa). North American culture has been thoroughly permeated by the hyphenated-African dance and music of the Caribbean, to the point where American popular culture is this African-derived mélange, a process that began with the popularization of swing and continued through the rages for mambo and cha-cha in the '50s, up to the present crazes for salsa and breaking.

The 21 writers in this collection explore theatrical as well as folkloric and social dance forms; Suki John delineates the técnica cubana, the modern dance technique formed after the 1959 Cuban revolution by a group of ballet, modern, folkloric, and nightclub dancers who stewed together African, Spanish, and Caribbean movement within the theatrical modern dance tradition. Melinda Mousouris profiles Ramiro Guerra, the Cuban dance pioneer at the center of this development.

VéVé Clark, who teaches African and Caribbean literature and cultures at Berkeley, contributes an essay on Katherine Dunham's Tropical Revue, a Broadway show that Sol Hurok forced her to "lighten up" during World War II, but which she gradually restored to its more authentic Haitian glory. Dunham, an anthropologist as well as a choreographer and performer, used a range of Caribbean material as the basis for her popular shows. Her troupe once toured 57 countries in two years; some of her classic work has recently been reconstructed and displayed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Halbert Barton, an assistant professor of anthropology at Long Island University in Brooklyn, describes his efforts to untangle the many strands of the Puerto Rican bomba, a form in which drummer and dancer constantly play off each other. And Thomas Osha Pinnock, a Jamaican, details his encounters with the concrete "lawns" of West Kingston, where he learned to "drop legs." Later, having emigrated to Brooklyn, he made his expertise in reggae-related dance forms the basis of choreography both here and for Rex Nettleford's National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica.

A scholar, Molly Abye, hunts down the origins of the limbo; a choreographer, Gabri Christa, tracks the evolution of tambu, the Afro-Curaçaon dance form that began as a religious ritual and is now a popular form, analogous to tango in Argentina and rumba in Cuba. Christa, the child of a Dutch woman and a Surinamese man, currently choreographing in New York, explores every possible aspect of tambu. "I, like a tambu singer, comment on society, on love, on politics, on events. I use choreography to create a sphere where I can rebel and comment and create my own sense of nationhood. Most of the movements, as in tambu, begin with the hips, traveling down or up and, in my case, into the space." Her world, she continues, "is a reflection of the complexity that comes from being a member of a crossroads culture, and from the multicultural baggage that it entails. I aim . . . to create something Creole in its truest sense."

Sloat provides a thoughtful introduction and a tour through contemporary manifestations of Caribbean dance visible in New York's theaters, and includes a useful glossary, bibliography, and filmography. Sure to be invaluable to generations of students, this groundbreaking book is an intriguing read for anyone who's ever spun out on a dancefloor, or wanted to.

 
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