A review of Sonjah Stanley Niaah's Dancehall: From Slave Ship To Ghetto (2010)
"Dance allows the dancer a particular kind of flight, the possibility of permanent and instant elevation in daily life, beyond sadness, pain and injustice." (Niaah, 2010, p.131).
The sacred space of the dancehall arena thrives on wonder and mystery, valiant is the person who enters. The average observer of today will witness a spectacle quite like no other with a synergy of agency being claimed and revoked by the different characters. Every time dancehall is performed a folk tale is manifesting through movement, but though there are victories, the stories are far from idealistic fairy tales. Sonjah Stanley Niaah presents the history behind dancehall and provides a thorough analysis of its presence in Jamaica. Sonjah takes the readers on a journey from dancehall's humble beginnings and provides a cultural map of the raw kinasthetics and context behind it's creators. Her first hand accounts explore how the streets have transformed into living platforms for vivacious cultural legacies and how the lingering effects of displacement within the African diaspora continues to unearth an abundance of creativity that is paramount to survival. After reading this book you will gain a serious respect for dancehall culture and an abundance of important facts if you do not possess them already. The read in itself maintains a high energy which is almost symbolic to the Jamaican dancehall saying "new day, new dance." This is especially felt in various chapters where Sonjah partakes in participant observation and is therefore able to provide a reading of Kingston which is more valuable and accurate than any tourist information book for those looking to get to grips with the notorious nightlife. The real triumph of this text is in the realisation that the practitioners of dancehall and the environment are synonymous with each other and their coexistence provides the narrative of Jamaica's social political history.
The map of cultural identity becomes a performative reading of the landscape through analysing the key figures, music and movements, so though it is not explicitly stated (or the purpose of the text) there are great similarities with Hip Hop culture, (which is worth mentioning as the presence of Caribbean influence is not necessarily acknowledged when referring to Hip Hop.) The relationship the dancers have to their inherited spaces are very well documented. For example, Niaah will explore how the people will transform their behaviour, posture, mannerisms and dance styles according to the environment. The concept of ritual is paramount to the study which brings to light an important idea that dancehall a is rite of passage and not just a form of entertainment. By using historical contexts and writing the evolution of dance through the Middle Passage, performances will articulate the history and the present; the dancers will almost play between the dimensions of their heritage and in doing so perform displacement as black people and the underbelly of society. The marginalisation of Jamaica's poorer class is ironic and a common theme in the Caribbean despite the earlier movements for unity, but it is out of these incredible hardships where the dancers emerge as triumphant in their moments of fame.
This text is an ode to the practitioners' achievements and their legacy which is nothing less than remarkable; however, though it is very easy when reading Sonjah's essays to feel moved by the short lived moments of triumph various dancers receive when performing; it is also easy to forget that there is something highly sinister about the representation of these movements in the West and how these perceptions transcend back into the performances. If you have ever witnessed a dancehall fete you will see several wars being re enacted, between rival groups and between the sexes concerning both gender roles and gender identity. If dancehall is a reflection of its environment then how has misogyny played a role in the lifestyle? Dancehall has transformed the world of popular culture but how has Western culture influenced the world of dancehall? And, as dancehall evolves how has the balance of power in the arenas shifted between genders? Although I am extremely grateful this book proves that the history of Jamaica, black power and black struggle is present in every movement from the One Foot Skank to the Bogle, these are questions that plagued me not only as a Caribbean woman but as an African/ Caribbean dance practitioner.
...The debate about the dutty wine dance between 2006 and 2008 centered not only on the physical danger it was said to pose, especially to the dancer's neck, but also on the supposed association of the pelvic moves in the dance with lewd, licentious, devilish behaviour. (Niaah, 2010, p.122).
In 2007 I won my first dancehall queen title performing my own version of the infamous Dutty Whine, it was as if I had transcended into a peaceful spiritual realm though my body was clearly in an energetic state. Regardless of what it may have looked like I did not feel as though I was being overtly sexual, I was experiencing freedom and contrary to what others may believe it was the power of the movements that deterred men from dancing with me. In dancehall, when the woman is dancing what is known as "vicious" the man does not tend to engage with her, it is when she is behaving or dancing in a sutler manner that "he" will approach. The way the sexes interact with each other is part of the ritual, what I described will not always happen but there is a rule of engagement, an unwritten code which has transcended throughout the African diaspora. However, in 2011, having witnessed several unfortunate events (live and on social media) my relationship with the dance became too strained and so I discontinued my ventures to those arenas. Dancehall had become "too" violent, not just the criminal activity that may have occurred at various events such as fights involving weapons, but I witnessed and found myself vulnerable to excessively aggressive behaviour carried out by the men. As if the boundaries has disappeared, as if the women were no longer Gods and the rhythmic flexibility had been neglected for bouts in a wrestling match. These encounters sometimes resulted into sexual harassment and in worse cases, death. I also witnessed women endangering their own lives attempting to do "head tops" on 11 ft walls only to plummet to broken bones. The dancers were taking on a literal meaning to sacrificing themselves for their art. I wondered if these antics were extensions of frustration and if those extreme moments were an embodiment of a society that had corroded their principles.
I never fully disembarked from dancehall as this would be treason to my own practice. As Niaah explains so well these movements are "sacred" and are part of a great "ritual" that binds the past and present, manefesting into a private conversation the audience becomes privy to. However, from carrying out studies of my own I witnessed the increasing popularity of this new direction of dancehall and how it was influencing the efforts of the once famed dancehall kings and queens.
The reason why this book is important is because it portrays dancehall as the powerful art form that it is and provides a reading of its history so it is not abstracted and vulnerable to misinterpretations like so many other African derived cultural artifacts. The fundamental principles of dancehall culture reside in this unique text, it is an introduction. As a practitioner and woman of Jamaican descent I felt great pride reading Sonjah capture these epic moments of the revelers and was impressed with the vast amount of research on the movements I have grown to love and embrace as part of a need to exercise catharsis. However, the same reasons I am proud also became the same reasons I felt the need to continue this study as I wanted a deeper critical evaluation on subjects which I felt Niaah only just touched the surface of. These topics include: The role of colourism in dancehall; The increasing violence against women; The facets of the dance which increase the likelihood of its circulation on social media; How the popularity of certain movements have reconstructed or sustained gender roles and identities.
Despite how magnificent the culture of the African diasporas are there is a crude perception that has been created and sustained by the West which effects the practice and progression of these cultural artifacts. And, unless these issues are addressed there will be a disconnection from the understanding of the practice to the reality of its presence in the real world. Although the text notes the colossal leaps dancehall has made to becoming so present in popular culture it does not discuss "how" and indeed "if" the sacred space of dancehall can become defiled. I find myself conflicted by the reluctance to address the stigmatisations to the dances experienced by the dancer and audience, contrasted with the extreme performances of masculinity. However, that was not the purpose of the text but it will be the purpose of my essay. It's time to unearth the problems with Western interpretations of African dance cultures and how such gross misrepresentations with a misogynistic ideology have led to the assaults on millions of women including the late Tiarah Poyau.