Intersectionalities of Jamaican Self-Care: On Carnival and Street Dances

Like many a feminist, I believe in the overwhelming power of Audre Lorde, so much so that the “word of the Lorde” is paramount. I first discovered Audre’s work after I was gifted Sister Outsider in December 2017, a bit late by many standards, but still a notable discovery nonetheless. As I read, I sent screenshots of memorable lines to my friends. One such line is among one of Audre’s most quoted, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

As Jamaicans, self-care can, at times, feel innate but muted. We exist in an environment that is hostile to our existence. This hostility is particularly heightened for us women and women-identifying folks, and more so for those who engage in unpaid, emotional and/or physical labour. Though this country is idyllic, some of us live in fear of being harassed, robbed or even murdered. We live in fear of fellow citizens and state-operated machinery designed to “protect us.” When we find small ways to celebrate our existence and perseverance, we must remember there are multiple ways to do so, and that there is no single model for self-care, for the act itself is political warfare. It is an act meant to celebrate and honouring one’s capacity to resist all efforts to constrain your right to exist.

However, the term self-care has largely been co-opted to reflect a certain ideal; one that largely caters to a small section of the population, viz. bubble baths, spa treatments, trips overseas and purchasing designer clothes. This is often wrapped up behind the mantra of “treat yourself” and variations thereof. These are, of course, valid ways to recentre, but many of us see self-care through limited edition, designer-framed, rose-coloured lenses, and often fail to take a more holistic, intersectional view of self-care. Self-care isn’t relegated to a certain P.O. Box or geographical location. In simpler terms, not only the rich should be afforded the opportunity to self-care. We need to move past the limited notion that people from low-income communities spending money on themselves is equivalent to squander. There is simply no upper-class monopoly on emotional and physical well-being.

There have been numerous arguments that focus on the spending habits of low-income groups and very rarely do we examine what self-care means to them. These arguments range from the food they buy, to the phones they use, and even how much they spend on wigs, clothes and prepping for street dances. When we do this, we forget that as Jamaicans, we often find (relative) simple ways to unwind, whether it’s from the bathtubs in Cherry Gardens, chilling pan di kahna on a Friday evening or stepping out for a mid-week street dance. Simply put, self-care looks different for everyone but it doesn’t make it less valid. As we move forward, we must recognize that self-care cannot be exclusionary and cost-prohibitive.

Beyond the socially accepted images of Carnival is its economically prohibitive nature, and by extension, the classism entwined in and surrounding its discussions. Carnival costumes costs for both men and women often run upwards of $400 USD ($525 CAD). There are of course cheaper options including t-shirts, but more often than not, revellers opt for more elaborate costumes. While many participants do save and budget for Carnival, there are those who are never able to fully enjoy this opportunity because of the cost-barriers. Carnival is a celebration of self and a major cultural event, but is exclusionary.

Natalie Blake

Natalie Blake

Similar to the model used across the Caribbean region, Carnival Day revellers are roped off from sidelines, with police and security personnel located nearby to prevent the eager spectators from getting under the rope. This clear delineation of those who paid and those who did not (or cannot) further deepens the divide between the haves and have-nots since the only way to stand on the other side of the rope is to pay to do so.

Additional costs are borne by plus-sized revellers. Despite the growth in the number of bands, parties, and costumes, the face of Carnival remains the same: light-skinned and skinny. Band launches rarely showcase costumes for plus-sized women. Similarly, scanning the social media pages of Jamaican entertainment/photography houses leaves the impression that Carnival is limited to a certain size and skin colour. This projection via the careful curation of popular pages locks us into this notion that Carnival is for certain body types, and fails to reflect the diversity of the Jamaican people. Considering the body diversity, revellers who are not model-sized are faced with costly amendments to ill-fitting costumes. For some revellers, participating in the road march is a part of their journey towards body positivity and self-acceptance. In fact, being more accepting of one’s body, what it is capable of, as well as its limitations, is but another facet of self-care. At its core, Carnival is meant to celebrate freedom and self-acceptance despite the limits placed on our physical forms. However, an event created to celebrate freedom has somehow become the poster child for classism and erasure.

The faces and apparent wealth associated with Carnival often results in a juxtaposition vis-à-vis dancehall street parties, which are somewhat unacceptable to a segment of Jamaica’s middle and upper-classes. In contrast to the largely cost-prohibitive aspect of Carnival Jamaica, dancehall street parties are less economically onerous.

Few street dances have entry fees; and when they do, these costs are comparatively low. While high profile community members attending street dances may prepare by buying new outfits including, for some, wigs, shoes, etc., the general attendance is less financially onerous for those who attend. The major costs to consider are food, and for those travelling from further out, transportation. Overall, this could cost an individual approximately $50 USD ($65 CAD) to attend and actively participate in an average street dance.

Natalie Blake

Natalie Blake

Notwithstanding these relatively low costs, street dances are an equally celebratory environment. Not only are these community dances a way to elevate Jamaican music, dances and overall culture, but they are also a way to self-care without breaking the bank. Nardia Lipman, a recent University of the West Indies (UWI) graduate, describes the welcoming, stress-free environment often associated with street dances. She recalls her first street-dance on Chisholm Avenue, which had a community vibe. “The first thing I noticed was that [these events] are stress relievers for persons…they are always so happy,” she says. “Everyone is there together. It is, generally speaking, a jovial, happy environment.”

She continues, noting that for some participants, “dancing [can offer] a kind of energy, a confidence that they wouldn’t have otherwise.” As such, street dances offer an opportunity to engage the body and mind in an activity that rejuvenates and celebrates. Lipman’s words capture the passionate side of street dances. When talking about her experience at Weddy-Weddy, she highlights how inspirational that environment can be, allowing participants an opportunity to step outside of their comfort zone and simply live in the moment. Here, self-care is more inclusive, body positive, and less costly. For some, it allows them to be and feel seen and in a fun, non-competitive space.

Despite this welcoming, diverse space, street dances have been pigeonholed to reflect a negative image. The self-care benefits of street dances are rarely afforded space in public discourse, and in some cases the focus is rarely on the role in community and individual upliftment, but in painting attendants as uncouth and low-class. A clear foil to the polished images of Carnival.

Notwithstanding the location, street dances offer a similar degree of freedom seen in Carnival revellers, but in a significantly less costly manner. At the core, both Carnival and street dances offer an opportunity to celebrate what we love about ourselves. They afford an avenue to step away from the rigours of daily life. Less cost-prohibitive, street dances remove the cost barrier to self-care beyond the model praised by the capitalist zeitgeist. As we move forward, we should continue to elevate the diverse aspects of Jamaican culture, including challenging the narrative regarding the cookie-cutter Jamaican Carnival and elevating the significance of street dances.  

Self-care will never look the same for everyone and we must broaden our discourse to be more inclusive and forward thinking. Self-care is not an uptown concept and our discussions must include increased access to celebratory spaces. Wah good fi di goose is definitely good fi di gander.

Illustration by Natalie Blake