In December 2011 the University of Illinois Press published Caribbean and Atlantic Diaspora Dance: Igniting Citizenship by Yvonne Daniel, professor emerita of dance and Afro-American studies at Smith College. Here Professor Daniel discusses the origination of the rumba and the impact of tourism on dance culture.
Q: What cultures or groups dominate the Caribbean?
A: The culture of the Caribbean is distinctly “Caribbean” or “Creole,” which means it is a combination of European and African cultures mainly, but in some islands, that combination is additionally mixed with Asian and American Indian peoples. Those combinations make it unique as (an “American”) culture sphere, but its European and African legacies are the ones that predominate historically from the 15-19th centuries and which make it “Caribbean.” More recently, Chinese in Cuba, Javanese in Suriname, East Indians and Pakistanis in Trinidad and Tobago reveal the important Asian input within Caribbean culture. Also, in some parts of the Caribbean, American Indian culture has blended into the mix, but these areas are limited today to Dominica and St. Vincent, and parts of Central America- like Belize and Honduras. Over time, the Caribbean islands have had African-derived populations as the dominant group, but on some islands and mainland territories like Guyana, the East Indian populations have taken or almost taken the majority.
Q: Where did dances like the quadrille and rumba originate, and how did they spread throughout the region?
A: Quadrilles came from various European countries with colonization, but the European forms shifted and incorporated changes from local islands that made them distinct from their European antecedents. Rumba, on the other hand, is a new, Creole innovation; it developed as the combination of cultures (again mainly European and African) gelled in the 19th century, i.e., as distinct Cuban culture. The spread of both dance forms is different as well. Quadrilles spread with each European group that settled in each island and until the early 20th century, very often islanders did not share their Quadrille variations. Rumba music spread significantly from Cuba in the 1930s and 40s, to other islands and throughout the world with the development of the record and movie industries and with World Fair performances. The original and most “traditional” rumba dancing lingered in African zones of Cuba until the late 20th century.
Q: What are the most dominant dances of the Diaspora?
A: This is hard to say because it depends on who is talking, where in the Diaspora we are focused, during which time period, and it also depends on the definition of Diaspora. For example, are there more types of social and popular dances than there are concert or tourist forms? And if we are in the US, which do you think are the dominant dances? We could say that right now Dominican and Haitian forms of merengue and Cuban and Puerto Rican salsa are performed most often by most Caribbean peoples, but a decade or so before, French Caribbean zouk was just as popular. Additionally, in terms of taste, many non-specialists would say that Jamaican Reggae was “the most” popular dance from the Caribbean.
I prefer to say that there are many genres of Diaspora dance performance and no one genre dominates—because dance and dance music are critical in African-derived or African-influenced cultures. Thus, whether we examine the period of enslavement or today’s dance scene, OR whether we are in Martinique or Cuba, there are examples of several if not most dance genres present.
Q: What sort of dilemmas confront dance in the Caribbean?
A: In terms of survival, Caribbean dance seems to manage whatever is put in front of it, i.e., Caribbean peoples will dance no matter what, so the survival of Caribbean dance is assured with human survival. Still, health concerns and economic security, religious persecution and political restrictions all impact Caribbean dance genres, particularly in the tourist setting. Because tourism is the central economic resource for most Caribbean nations, dance performance is entangled in economic decisions and conditions. Courageous, inventive, but also intimidating body responses while dancing in popular, public settings have pierced political discussions in Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, etc. And, the stigma of “African superstitious religions” still remains despite the beauty and intrigue of sacred dance performance throughout the Caribbean. Thus, dance—like other cultural elements—is affected by all sorts of economic, political, religious, and social dilemmas; however what most people do not factor is how dance performance can assist economic programs that support Caribbean nations and how much expertise is ignored or wasted among dance performers and choreographers who know how to structure dance performances and enhance socio-economic possibilities.
Q: What countries served as some of the biggest influences for dance?
A: In the Caribbean, I would not hesitate to claim that Cuba has had some of the biggest influence in dance practices and dance performance in all the Americas. I would also quickly add Puerto Rico as another seminal country in terms of huge importance of dance. First, Cuba has been able to guard and support the existence of more distinct styles and forms of dance than any other Caribbean locale. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, has been central to Caribbean stylization and dance music development since the late 18th century. I also select these nations first because the dance forms that they have originated and developed hold interest in a way that other Caribbean dances, do not. Spanish Caribbean dance is decorated and embellished by rhythms that allow all body parts to dance; it is more complex than other Caribbean dances that are based on simple, uncomplicated although embellished also, walking steps.
Q: Who are some of the prominent figures in Caribbean dance culture?
A: Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Lavinia Williams Yarborough, Jean Leon Destine, Rex Nettlesford, Beryl McBurnie, Percival Borde, Geoffrey Holder, Molly Ahye, Louines Louinis, Nereyda Rodrigues, Sylvia del Villard, the Ayala and Cepeda families, Ramiro Guerra, Eduardo Rivera, Juan de Dios, La Soso, Josienne Antonnelle, Lena Blou, Ms Clara, Marlene Silva, King Raimundo dos Santos, the capoeira masters of Brazil, Rosy Perez, Willie Colon, Celia Cruz, etc. And, there are many, many others from the ballet and modern dance worlds as well.
Q: What are some of the dances that are used for sacred purposes?
A: An important fact that is necessary to take into account with this question is that many dances are both sacred and secular; it depends on the situation, the cultural context of the dance performance to determine whether a dance step or certain dance sequences are for sacred purposes or not. Given that, most parts of the Caribbean have distinct sacred dance forms: for Jamaica, Cumina and Rastafari have identifiable dances; for Haiti, the Vodou liturgy includes yenalou, mayi, zepaules, and banda among many others; for Trinidad and Tobago, there is Shango and the djab molassie in Carnival, and there are many, many dances in Cuba that are performed in Palo Monte, Arara, Santeria, and Carabali religions. Caribbean sacred dances unite the sacred and secular worlds, the living and the dead, the invisible and the visible; they allow the ancestors and cosmic spirits to receive offerings made by humans and to give to the human community in return wisdom, counsel, and advice.