Who Run The Dance?

Dancehall is love, struggle, energy, resiliency, and the dance, a celebration of life and success, in spite of the odds. Without these elements and a true representation of source, the expression feels empty and devoid of spirit.

What Jamaica lacks in size it makes up for in reach and even if unfamiliar with the name, it has been nearly impossible to escape the sounds and movement of one of the island’s most popular music genres. Dancehall has and continues to have a major impact on a global scale, igniting conversations on appropriation and various efforts at highlighting the source. In spite of this, many love the look and sound of it without really knowing what it is.

I love the fact that dancehall is being embraced by so many. It’s amazing to see people from all walks of life come together to express their love through dance and movement, no matter their nationality. However, I find myself at an interesting place where, as a Black woman, I am learning more about myself and what it means for me to practice and share this aspect of my culture with a global audience while watching a shift take place. Dancehall is now being adopted by those who, despite their love for the culture, have very little ties with it beyond that. Their involvement is one of consumption, practice and profit without the lived experience.

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Dancehall music and culture originated in the late 1970s within the poorest communities in Jamaica. When you ask those who are directly connected to its roots and creation, they will add that one of the biggest aspects of dancehall is the people. Jamaican people express themselves in a very unique way that many people have embraced and adopted, from the way the dancehall queens would dance in the clubs, to the way the DJs would interact with patrons. Many dancehall movements have important stories attached to them, their popularity being owed to their association with hit songs voiced by some of Jamaica’s most beloved artists. Dance steps like the bogle, butterfly, one drop, and others, are created based off of the dancers’ creativity and lifestyle and are often inclusive, designed in a manner that allows them to be easily taught and executed by dancehall lovers worldwide. It’s clear that the people of dancehall are integral to its sustenance. Without our people being there to share it, the soul and authenticity is broken down and lost. It was and still is used as a way for many Jamaicans to express what they experience in their daily lives. This comes through in the fashion, music, parties, dance and even dancehall king and queen competitions.

At this time, the number of international dancers now competing in dancehall king and queen dance competitions is staggeringly high. This is interesting because many of the dancehall competitions of the past, held in Jamaica, Canada and America predominantly featuring Black men and women, were frowned upon. The dancing was considered too sexual, too lewd and too aggressive. Now there is an influx of non-Black men and women who enter these spaces and receive praise for doing what we have done for so many years.

The issue is not that it is being loved and enjoyed all over the world. In fact, I celebrate mutual exchange as it brings us together and I also want to be able to learn about and enjoy other cultures. I only want room to share our culture and for it to be recognized on the same level and with equal opportunity being afforded to us. We do not want to be overlooked. We simply want to be central in the story we created.

Mesmerized by the rich vibrancy of Jamaican culture, much of my personal development has been shaped by my constant desire to learn more about myself and my ancestors. I do much of this through my dance classes. I’ve been teaching Caribbean dance classes for over 12 years and use my skills to educate other women on how they can use Caribbean dance to express themselves.

The majority of my classes are comprised of white women and more often than not, any attempt made to delve further into the essence of dancehall is usually met with blank stares and a subtle insistence that I stick to the dance steps. I do this in spite of knowing one of the reasons many are having a hard time learning the moves is because it requires more than simply learning the steps. The student has to be able to tap into and appreciate the years of struggle, cultural wins and the willingness to truly be open to moving your body in a way that allows you to be free. All of this brings life to the movement.

I remember a student asked me if what I was teaching was really dancehall. I asked her to elaborate and she did, sharing that she follows many Dancehall Queens on social media and their iteration of dancehall looked different. I asked her who she follows and all the names she called out were of dancers who were not born in Jamaica, nor were they of Jamaican descent. Many of these women have a love for dancehall, have travelled to Jamaica to learn more, have a large following, and also have aspirations to empower other women to dance and express themselves freely through the genre.

Again, I think it is great that so many men and women from all over the world are embracing Jamaica’s dancehall culture, however in light of all this, I had had to ask myself what makes me unhappy about this situation. It’s the challenge of reconciling that which I love being represented by many who have no idea of the fullness of the expression. It feels like exploitation to varying degrees, as both Jamaican men and women are still looked down upon and overlooked for doing what we love and are naturally good at while people who stand outside of our identity are praised and have more doors opened for them; doors that include opportunities to teach, travel abroad and make money from.

It is not abnormal that during dancehall dance conventions, many dance teachers who teach are not directly from the Jamaican dancehall spaces. Through cultural experiences like personalised classes led by local dance groups, attending parties and visiting popular Jamaican cultural and historic sites, dancers and teachers from abroad will go to Jamaica, participate in the aforementioned activities just to declare themselves experienced enough in the culture to count themselves as ambassadors and educators. They fall in love with the the culture and have taken it upon themselves to teach dancehall classes worldwide, often creating their own versions of dancehall in their respective countries.

This has definitely helped the Jamaican dance community in the sense of bringing attention to their culture and talents, widening income streams and increasing opportunities for the dancers and teachers on the island. However, this has also resulted in many taking what they have learned from Jamaica, returning to their respective countries to teach dancehall dance classes, often a dancehall style of their own creation, without crediting the source.

So here I am: experiencing and witnessing a part of my culture have an influence on a global scale. It’s not a matter of not wanting to share the culture but you can’t overlook the people that created the dance. You can’t distort it to accompany your personal narrative. Dancehall should be enjoyed and loved, however, be respectful of its origin while ensuring that those who create it can also share it and have the same opportunities granted to them.

I am a Toronto based Caribbean movement artist. Writer and entrepreneur.  Follow me at @kayann_ward.