Jamaican dance: riding the riddim

Bogle, butterfly, pepperseed, gully creeper, nah linger, passa passa…there’s no end to the amazing variety and gymnastic agility of Jamaican dance...

A dancer does the Dutty Wine. Photograph by Roysweetland@gmail.comGreen Synergy promo girl Vanessa Dennis. Photograph by Roysweetland@gmail.comThe Magnum girls doing the equally raunchy `Pat you P****y and call out your man name’. Photograph by Roysweetland@gmail.comThe popular Magnum girls doing the naughty `Hot Wuk’. Photograph by Roysweetland@gmail.comThe Shady Squad shows them how it`s done in Danny Champagne`s music video shoot. Photograph by Roysweetland@gmail.com

It began with the Butterfly. One minute we Trinis were wining along, as we had done for decades, to soca, reggae and anything with a jumpy beat. Then, out of the blue, Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, the sole soca band from Jamaica, arrived with a tune that had everyone twisting their legs and backsides in and out, supposedly mimicking the movement of a butterfly’s wings. We never stopped to analyse just how or why we were breaking our backs to “do de butterfly”, especially after a few rum and Cokes, when the butterfly began to look like a wounded parakeet.

Byron and his Dragonaires were in fact the harbingers of a new world order. Soon we were hearing about the pepperseed, the world dance, the bogle…as Shabba Ranks shouted “Booyaka, booyaka,” we all, the young and the middle-aged, pointed our “guns” (two fingers) in the air and “bogled” backwards, the not-so-fit nearly dislocating their shoulders and a few vertebrae as they struggled valiantly to dip back lower and lower.

In the 80s and early 90s these dances were seen as mere fads, imported along with dub music from Jamaica. But back in Kingston an entire industry was cranking up: as a “riddim” was released, the discerning Jamaican audience determined whether it was a big tune or not. If it was, other artistes rushed to pen new lyrics to ride the riddim. If it was a big enough riddim, like the pepperseed, a dance was created in its honour.

And of course there was the fashion to go along with the music and the moves. When I finally entered the hallowed hall of the Mirage, a famous nightclub in Kingston, in 1995, I got the shock of my life. Rumours about the clothes that the women wore to places like Mirage and Godfathers were truer than I could ever have imagined: where flesh could have been covered, the wearer had ingeniously taken scissors to the Lycra or leather and simply removed the obstruction.

I barely had time to recover from feeling overdressed – in a mini – before the sound of “Gimme de gyal dem wid de wickedest slam/de kinda gyal weh haffi love up she man…” and the dancefloor was a mass of writhing bodies. The “movementations” defied gravity, biology and description. The Trini wine, as I wrote in this same magazine, turned to vinegar in the face of the Jamaican “bubble”. Convinced that the nightclub had in fact employed the national gymnastic team to embarrass foreigners, I took it upon myself to pay random visits to clubs, stage shows and back-alley “sessions” across the island.

This only deepened the trauma. On Dancehall Night at Reggae Sunsplash, Carlene the Dancehall Queen made an appearance. What I saw that night is seared into my brain for eternity. The buxom bottle-blonde did a headstand with her back to the crowd, then proceeded to “bubble” on her head, bare buttocks popping up and down while her legs remained perfectly still.

And she was just the “official” dancehall queen. From the then infamous Cactus in Portmore to a “likkle” Friday-night village session in Ochi, I came face to face with pretenders to the throne who belonged in a music video…

It’s 2007 and the weekly fashion show at La Maison in Havana has ended. Couples have taken to the dance floor and are spinning like tops in complicated salsa moves. My two left feet are planted firmly under the table. No way am I going to attempt to join the whirling dervishes.

Then we hear “Yo, yo! Mucha gasolina esperanda yadda yadda yadda!” Daddy Yankee lets loose a volley of rapid-fire Spanish and everyone suddenly breaks into a wine. Or what is known as the perreo. A Puerto Rican dance associated with reggaetón, the perreo is not your regular socially acceptable undulation; the verb perrear translates into “dancing doggy-style,” and it’s a low-down, get busy, jock-waist, rodeo-style flex. “Dáme más gasolina!” “Give me more gasoline!” the chorus girls chant, and I suspect that the gasoline they are singing about is not sold in petrol stations. I can only stare in amazement at the Cuban girls humping and jiggling, Jamaican style.

Lawd have mercy, as Bounty Killa would say, the dancehall influence has reached even Cuba.

It was only a matter of time. Having lured the Japanese to Kingston’s roughest ghettos since the 80s, dancehall music will not be stopped by geographical or cultural barriers. Dance, the language with which these West Indians speak to the world, is easily translated via music videos such as Sean Paul’s “Get Busy”, Beenie Man’s “King of the Dancehall” and Damian Marley’s “Move” (the remix of “Exodus”). In the last couple of years entertainers such as Elephant Man, TOK and Tony Matterhorn have been particularly prolific, and only the truly athletic could have kept up with the willy bounce, signal the plane, row the boat, running man (Beenie Man took the running man to MTV’s Spring Break a couple of years ago), log on, badman pull up and dutty wine. Inspiration can come in any form, and from the steamy hot wuk, Jamaicans segued seamlessly back to the schoolyard with the hula hoop. Some dances, like the Taliban, the Jerry Springer, Superman, Santa bounce, Ivan (named after the hurricane), airforce one and over the wall, made only fleeting impressions, then got lost in the flood of newer moves muscling their way in on the dance floor.

The latest craze is passa passa, which started out as a weekly session in the notorious Tivoli Gardens community in Kingston, but has since spread throughout the Caribbean, with pirated DVDs of the “dance-offs” held in various islands selling like hot patties. Watching just a few minutes of the Trinidad passa passa, held in The Cove, is enough to leave you exhausted. One song exhorts the listener to do the hot wuk, dutty wine, raging bull, frog back, red carpet, doctor bird and rock yuh body. A Jamaican “crew” makes a guest appearance to “test” the locals, and the highlight of the show is “de Marvin special”, perfected apparently by a young Yardie with a canerow hairstyle. He puts a young woman to lie on the ground, stands between her legs and stretches from side to side to warm up. Then he launches himself into the air, and performs what would appear to be a half-pike dive – usually seen only in the Olympic diving competition – and lands flat on the girl. A second later he bounces up, and she follows, unharmed and smiling.

Another scene shows a well-endowed lady bouncing on a skinny fella’s mid-section like a trampoline. The fella, who by rights should have been on his way to the hospital on a stretcher, jumps up afterwards and continues dancing.

I ask a friend, a dancer, how is this possible?

“Adrenalin,” he replies dryly. “Ask the fella how he feeling the next day, nuh.”

More than one non-Jamaican has ventured the comment, “Are these people possessed?”

It’s a serious question. Because it’s not only the frenetic energy of their movements, but the actual moves themselves that mimic spiritual believers caught in a trance. And there’s a reason for that. Some of the dances today can be traced back to slavery and the evolution of African rituals. Pukumina dances, part of the rituals of an ecstatic, revivalist, Afro-Christian religious movement known as Pocomania (“little madness”), used music and improvised melodies and harmonies to induce possession. This is all part of every Jamaican’s heritage, what Prof Rex Nettleford, founder of the National Dance Theatre Company, calls “the ancestral sources of energy.”

For those with the gumption to try them at home, many of the popular dances are documented in It’s All About Dancing: A Jamaican Dance-U-Mentary, which includes a “how-to” section. It should come as no surprise that one of the dancers featured, alongside the late great Bogle (Gerald Levy), creator of the popular dance, is the Japanese Kivo Akiba, runner-up to the 2004 Dancehall Queen.