Traditional Jamaican Dances
African derived, European derived and Creole, which is, a mixture of both types, are the three main categories that Jamaican traditional danced call under.
The African derived dances are mainly religious, being integral parts of ceremonies of worship. These dances take the ritualists into the realm of the spiritual and heighten their readiness for spiritual possession e.g. Kumina, Myal and Pocomania.
There are other African derived dances that were social in intent and which are still performed in Jamaica. These include Etu, Quadrille and Maypole which though originally of religious significance, is now largely social. The dances which accompany work songs and ring games also fall into this category are examples of social dances that are of European origin and have kept their popularity throughout the years.
Kumina is the most African of the cults to be found in Jamaica, with negligible European or Christian influence. Linguistic evidence cites the Kongo as a specific ethnic source for the ‘language’ and possibly the music of Kumina. There are varying theories as to whether it was brought with late African arrivals after Emancipation, or whether it was rooted in Jamaica from the 18th century, and deepened by the later African influence.Expand to read more on Kumina ►
The cult is to be found primarily in St. Thomas and Portland and to a lesser extent in St. Mary, St. Catherine and Kingston. Kumina ceremonies are usually associated with wakes, entombments or memorial services, but can be performed for a whole range of human experiences (births thanksgivings, invocations for good and evil).
Kumina sessions involve singing, dancing and drumming and are of two general types: bailo the more public and less sacred form of Kumina, at which time songs are sung mainly in Jamaican dialect; and country-the more African and serious form, and at which time possession usually occurs.
Male and female leaders must exhibit great deal of strength in their control of zombies or spirits and assume their positions of leadership after careful training in the feeding habits, ritual procedures, dances, rhythms, and songs of a variety of spirits, by a previous King or ‘Captain’ and Queen, or ‘Mother’.
One is said to catch ‘Myal’ when possessed by one of the three classes of Gods-sky, earthbound, and ancestral zombies, these last being the most common form of possession. Each god can be recognized by the initiated by the particular dance style exhibited by the possessed, and by songs and drum rhythms to which it responds.
The two drums used are the Kbandu and the Playing Cast. The Kbandu (battery of drums), larger and lower pitched, on which the rhythm is played with emphasis on the first and third beats; and the Playing Cast or treble (lead drum, on which the most complicated and specific ‘spirit’ basic rhythms are played. In the centre is a bottle of rum used to anoint the players and instruments, which is usually done with an incantation before the ceremony. The drummers on the Playing Cast is afforded much respect with the cult since he must be both knowledgeable and competent in playing the variety of rhythms which invoke, repel, and control the many spirits or deities. The Queen plays a similar role in her selection of songs and often engages in call and response (with the King/Captain) type singing of both bailo and country country songs.
Other instruments employed at dance music sessions include Scrapers (which can be an ordinary grater), Shakas, gourd or tin can rattles, and Catta Sticks which keep up a steady rhythm on the back of the drum or on the centre pole of the dancing booth. The drummer sits on the body of the drum while a player behind uses the Catta Sticks (c.f. expression ‘Catta Sticks’). Hand clapping often accompanies the ‘Catta Sticks’. The group heard in the first selection, who consider themselves the most authentic, also use a gourd which they blow across and a bamboo stamping tube.
At Bailo dances, the spirits who are called, more often than not make their presence known by ‘mounting’ (i.e. possessing) a dancer; whose given dance style helps in identifying the spirit, but can span all possibilities of movement. The basic dance posture constitutes an almost erect back and propelling actions of the hips as the feet inch along the ground. The dancers move in a circular pattern around the musicians and centre pole, either singly or with a partner. The arms, shoulders, rib cage, and hips are employed, offering the dancers ample opportunity for variations and interpretation of the counter-beats or poly-rhythms. Spins, dips, and ‘breaks’ on the last beat are common dance variations.
The journey of the spirits from the ethereal to the mundane world is no less ritualized than other Kumina elements. Once invoked by music and other ritual paraphernalia (rum with blood, candles, leaves) the spirits are said to hover near the dancing booth. If successfully enticed they travel down the centre pole into the ground, then through the open end of the drum to the head of the drum, where the drummer and Queen must salute its presence. The spirit then re-enters the ground, from where it will travel up the feet of the person selected to be possessed, along the whole length of the body, culminating with full Myal possession in the head of the individual.
Maypole which is now richly Jamaican is from an European background which was originally celebrated on May first at the May Day fertility celebration in England. Danceg groups may consist of twelve (12) to sixteen (16) dancers and are sometimes all female or with mixed couples. The plaiting of the pole with coloured ribbons has basic traditional patterns, starting with the grand chain basket weave wrapping the ribbons around the pole from the top. The plaiting then continues away from the pole ending with the "cobweb" plait before the full unplaiting takes place. Mento music is usually the musical accompaniment, but it is now not unusual to have groups perform this dance to popular reggae tunes.Back to top
John Canoe or Jonkonnu
The John Canoe or Jonkonnu has a very long tradition as a folk festival, incorporating both African and European forms. The ‘Jonkonnu’ Festival is secular in nature and its performance at Christmas time is merely historical. It was conceived as a festive opportunity afforded the slave class by the planter class, as Christmas was one of the few periods when the slaves were relieved of their duties.Expand to read more on Jonkonnu ►
Hence, Christmas formed an appropriate season for festivities as all normal business activity on the island was halted by official decree and all males were called up for military service, augmenting the population in the larger towns. Therefore, ample opportunity was given to the slaves to show off their talents to the spectators who had also been given time off from work. From as early as the beginning of the 18th century masked and costumed performers have paraded the streets of Jamaica most often at Christmas time, but also at state functions, receiving money and food in return for their performances.
There is a bit of controversy as to the source of the name of the festival. While some believe that the origin of the name is unknown, others contend that the name and principal character are honourable memorials to John Conny, an active, successful black merchant near Axim along the Guinea Coast around 1720. John Conny was an important historical person. He worked for the Brandenburg Company, having command over three trading forts – Pokoso, Takrama and Akoda on the coast of Ghana. Over time, the spelling has varied, with British influenced writers spelling the name John Canoe, while the Jamaican spelling more closely resembles the pronunciation – Jonkonnu.
Traditionally, the Jonkonnu festival was held on a regional basis accounting for differences in characters, costumes and performance styles. The English influenced troupes never include animal characters. Instead their core members are usually a king and queen, courtiers and incidental characters bases on the English masquerades. The traditional and English based troupes dress differently with the latter wearing ‘fancy dress’, while the former demonstrated a strong African influence. Notwithstanding these differences to be recognized across the island, traditional Jonkonnu most often includes as core participants, the cow head, the horsehead, the devil, the different categories of warriors and Indians, as well as a character known as Pitchy-Patchy.
The more popular characters are quite worthy of further mention as their presence in the festival evoked an admixture of fear and excitement in onlookers. The Jonkonnu cowhead attire is made from a pan, or from half a shell of a coconut, with holes allowing for the insertion of real horns. The headdress is worn over a headwrap and a wire screen mask with painted facial features; a cloth tail is attached to the dancer’s backside. Meanwhile, the horsehead is made from a mule’s skull, equipped with and articulated jaw, and attached to a pole. It is painted, eyes are added, and the player covers himself with a piece of cloth. The rest of the costume is left up to the individual performer but generally consists of white tennis shoes, pants, and a shirt in contrasting colours and patterns.
Another character that may reflect an African heritage is Pitchy-Patchy. He is usually the most flamboyant and athletic troupe member and appears in both Jonkonnu and Masquerade bands. His costume is made of layered strips of brightly colored fabric. Contemporary oral tradition claims that this costume is based on a vegetal prototype (layers made up of plant leaves). The eventual transition from a costume of layered straw or palm fronds to one of layered strips reflects the increased distribution of such materials, an increase in prosperity, or merely a visual statement of an urban image rather than a rural one.
The Devil carries a pitchfork and wears a cowbell attached to his backside. His headdress is a cardboard cylinder on top of which rests a flat rectangular cardboard section. The entire costume is black. Meanwhile, another male plays Belly Woman, a pregnant lady whose antics, especially her ability to make her belly move in time to the music, are designed to amuse the onlookers.
Warrior Jonkonnu wears a foil-covered cardboard heart on his chest and strands of beads; his wooden sword is painted silver. In addition to the obligatory head cloth and mesh mask worn by all performers, warrior wears a cone-shaped headdress with feather or groups of feathers at the top of the cone, which is adorned with mirrors, cutouts and old newspaper photographs. Wild Indian wears a very similar costume with the exception that he carries a tall cane and cross-bow.
Although a tradition of the ‘common’ people, Jonkonnu has also received official recognition. In more recent times, however, Jonkonnu is mostly seen on such important state functions such as the second celebration of Carifesta, held in Jamaica in 1976. Also during the mid-1970s Michael Manley’s People’s National Party actively supported many grass-roots cultural forms, giving official sanction to Jonkonnu performances. Also the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission has hosted competitions in the field, opening up avenues for public performances.
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The quadrille began in the 17th century, within military parades, in which four horsemen and their mounts performed special square-shaped formations or figures. The dance became very popular, which led people to perform a quadrille without horses. In the 18th Century the quadrille evolved more and more in an intricate ball room dance.Expand to read more on Quadrille ►
It was introduced in France around 1760, and later in England around 1808 by a woman known as Miss Berry. It was introduced to the Duke of Devonshire and made fashionable by 1813.
The quadrille was now a lively dance with four couples, arranged in the shape of a square, with each couple facing the center of that square. One pair was called the head couple, the other pairs the side couples. A dance figure was often performed first by the head couple, and then repeated by the side couples. In the original French version only two couples were used, but two more couples were eventually added to form the sides of a square. The couples in each corner of the square took turns, in performing the dance, where one couple danced, and the other couples rested.
It was eventually introduced to the Jamaica where it was danced by the gentry during slavery where it was creolized and considered to be the “Camp style” version, the former being the “Ballroom style” version. Mento Bands accompanied these dances and played a variety of traditional European tunes, except for the fifth figure which employs the Mento, the first music created by Jamaicans.
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Bruckins is a member of the creolised group of traditional dances. As with Jonkonnu, the dance reveals a unique mixture of African and European influences. The Bruckins party is a stately, dipping-gliding dance typified by the "thrust and recovery" action of the hip and leg. It was formerly done to commemorate the Emancipation of slaves on August 1, 1838.Expand to read more on Bruckins ►
The form and content of the dance, with Red and Blue Sets competing, is reminiscent of 19th century plantation Jonkonnu and the Set Girls' parade. The movement was said to have been derived from the Pavanne, a European court dance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Pavanne originated in Italy.
In Bruckins, the pomp and ceremony of British royalty is mixed with African dance performance practices. The dance take the form of pageant - a bright processional parade of Kings, Queen, courtiers and other gentry. The movement, however, is mainly African derived; the jotting forward of the pelvis, use of bent knees, flexed foot, tilted back torso and bent arms are all elements attributable to the dances of West Africa.
Bruckins party would usually begin late in the evening. Dancers, formed in two sets, would proceed from one house to another, parading their costumes and displaying their dance skills. The set was parted into two, one in red and the other in blue, consisting a King, Queen and courtiers known as grand-sons and grand-daughters, sergeants, soldiers, pages. This was a direct imitation of what the newly-freed slaves saw as the Royal Family and their military complement.
The two sets are rivals and often kept their costumes a secret until day of the celebration. The queen of each set would first come out and have the dance competition for the duration of one song to see which would "bruck" the better. Following this there would be a Tea-Time session. This session, today, is very uncommon.
Bruckins includes music from the drum, knocking of the sticks, a fife and singing songs. The drummers and singers do not dance but move with the procession. Today Bruckin's is found mainly in Portland, the eastern section of the island. The coordinated culture is however kept alive by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission through festivals.
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Dinki mini is mainly found in St. Andrew, St. Mary and St. Ann. It is a member of the Wake Complex of traditional dances. Dinki mini is performed on the second to the eighth night of the traditional ninth night observances. These sessions are primarily lively and celebratory in nature and are geared to cheering the bereaved. Dancing in couples and sing lively "mento" type of music occur for the first few nights.
By the sixth to the seventh night, Ring games, Anansi stories, riddles dominates the proceedings. The ninth night is climaxed by rituals designed to send off the "mature" spirit properly. It is related to the Gere practices best known on the western end of the island.