The first time I heard about A Lontra disco was the night that Luísa Roubaud, one of the best experts in the dance scene in Lisbon and a great colleague and friend at INET-MD (Instituto de Etnomusicologia), talked to me about it. We were enjoying a night out with some of her friends who used to go to African music clubs since the eighties. Having witnessed all the transformations of the last decades, they were making a contrast between nowadays´ kizomba fashion night life and the golden times they remembered in the 70s and the 80s. As memories started popping up, their eyes shone when talking about A Lontra, a mythical dance club that opened in Lisbon after the outbreak of the independence wars of Portugal’s former African colonies. The owners were a married couple that came from Luanda and landed in Lisbon in 1975, running away from the war of independence in Angola, like other more than 500.000 people after-25th April 1974 (see Machado 1974). These frequent visitors of A Lontra remembered that the couple consisted of an incredibly beautiful Black African lady (Dinah) and her husband, a White Portuguese gentleman (Carlos Correia). Just like in fairy tales, the beauty of Dinah was well-known and admired in the kingdom of the African nights of Lisbon. They insisted that I should go and speak to her to know the whole story from her lips. Since that day, I had been looking forward to meeting her and making her an in-depth interview. I had seen the front door with the old metal sign representing an otter (that´s the meaning of “Lontra”) many times when passing by Rua de São Bento, and it was the night of Saturday 28th February that I decided to visit the place.
DOOR OF A LONTRA
METAL ICON OF A LONTRA
As I entered and approached the bar to ask about the politics of consumption, an ageless beautiful lady dressed in an elegant black suit came along walking slowly to attend. At that very moment, I said to myself: “no doubt, there she is”. Indeed, she was the legendary Dinah. I was lucky enough to get an appointment for an interview to know more about the history of the place and its secrets.
A Lontra was opened in 1977, right after Angola achieved its independence. This means that it was one of the first African discos of Lisbon. Like all the people who went to Portugal running away from the African wars of independence, they had to restart their lives from zero. Until they could find a way to make a living, they depended on public subventions aimed at “retornados” (“returned people”) and on the hospitality of their extended family. As they were experienced in managing discos in Luanda (such as the ones they owned, Cave Adão and Veleiro), they decided to start up a new business in the same branch. It was directed in principle to an audience of “retornados” that missed Africa and their lifestyle there. Gathering for listening to their beloved music became an urgent need, and A Lontra came to offer a home to alleviate homesickness through dancing together. The following images show some of the original spaces of A Lontra.
FIRST BAR, A LONTRA
SECOND BAR, A LONTRA
DANCE FLOOR, A LONTRA
A Lontra is situated in an emblematic place (Rua de São Bento 157), less than 5 minutes from the Assambleia da República, the most emblematic political institution of Portugal. It was not long time before some deputies, as well as intellectuals and artists heard of A Lontra and came to satisfy their curiosity. This nucleus of the political, artistic and intellectual elite of Lisbon became a faithful group of clients: these were the golden times of A Lontra, between the 80s and the 90s. In those days, DJing was combined with live music. Among other treasures, Dinah still keeps a large chest full of old vinyl discs of African music:
THE CHEST OF VINYLS
SOME OF THE OLD VINYLS (WE SEE IMAGES FAMILIAR FROM OUR RECENT VISIT TO COTONOU!)
Dinah also possesses a beautiful collection of art handcraft bought during travels to Angola, which are also displayed in the disco.
ELEPHANT WOODEN CHAIR
FEMALE FIGURE IN WOOD
MASK IN WOOD
Another jewel that she keeps carefully is a collection of pictures of those days. Some deputies used to gather in A Lontra for a drink after their sessions in Assambleia da República. Sometimes, they held meetings in a private room that Dinah gently opened for them. It means that important decisions for the future of Portugal were taken inside A Lontra´s walls.
A LONTRA, A NIGHT IN 1996
Through the 70s and 80s, more African houses opened up in Lisbon. Dinah and her husband Carlos opened a second house in 1980, “Cave Adão”, following the style and fame of the disco they had opened in Luanda, and in 1989 Dinah opened the disco “Rainha Njinga” (an epical Angolan queen known for her fierce resistance to the Portuguese colonizers). The clientele changed through time, and A Lontra started being visited by more and more people from Cape Verde. Vinyl music changed to CD, and later to digital files in the DJ´s computer, and the styles and ambience of the house changed too. With the recent boom of kizomba music and dance throughout the world, A Lontra adapted to the new times and DJs started introducing the most recent hits of kizomba. This is an excerpt of the fieldnotes I took that night:
“The night starts with loud afrohouse music, what indicates that the audience will probably be mainly people in their twenties. As expected, young boys and girls start coming since approximately two o´clock at night. The first beats of recent kizomba hits make some couples jump to the dancefloor. There is a pair of couples doing school-like steps, but the rest are dancing free style. Two boys leaning on the bar encourage themselves and finally leave their glasses on the counter to go and invite some of the girls that gather in groups by the edge of the dancefloor, but they refuse. Only when one of them insists and pulls a girl´s arm she accepts with a facial expression of resignation. Anyway, she abandons him in the middle of the song. It seems that it´s a hard job for boys. Then the DJ turns to Brazilian and international commercial music, such as Enrique Iglesias´ “Bailando” hit. Girls go crazy dancing in groups and having fun. The moment of funaná creates a new atmosphere: there are not many people dancing in couples, but mostly girls dancing among themselves and joking with and through the music. There is a girl dressed in a stripped blue and white tight dress who dances in an amazing and crazy way, moving her hips and feet in every possible way without ever losing the beat. Dinah is looking at her from the counter and smiling with pleasure. Then the DJ moves to batuque and people get even crazier, shaking hips and bumping navels on the dancefloor. Popular music from Cape Verde, mostly from Santiago, is played for a long time and intertwined with musical blocks of kizomba and afrohouse.” (Fieldwork diary, 28th February 2015) (To know more about batuque music and dance in Lisbon, see the work of Ana Flávia Miguel and Jorge Castro Ribeiro, INET-MD)
In conclusion, A Lontra can be proud of being one of the oldest African houses of Lisbon still open today and of having witnessed the recent history of Lisbon. It has resisted the changing times through adapting to the social and cultural transformations of the city. The dance steps of artists, politicians, intellectuals, curious visitors and people of all ages and from every corner of the PALOPS, have written on its dancefloor the history of relations between Portugal and Africa for at least the last 38 years. But, unlike an old museum, music has kept A Lontra young and alive. When asked about the secret for this, Dinah smiles and says: “this is something you do because you love it”.
Livia Jiménez Sedano is currently a member of INET-MD (Instituto de Etnomusicologia-Centro de Estudos em Música e Danca) and her work is being funded by FCT (Fundação para a Ciencia e Tecnologia) of Portugal. She is a collaborator in the Modern Moves Project and will become a full member of the team in September 2015.
Machado, Fernando Luís (1994) Luso-africanos em Portugal: nas margens da etnicidade. Sociologia: Problemas e Práticas 16: 111-134
Featured image: Archival photo of A Lontra, a night in 1996
Korzo Theater, The Hague: sunny afternoon outside, total darkness inside. Out of the dark emerge footsteps and the faint outline of bodies. Slowly six bodies, sitting cross-legged in a circle, are revealed. An Indian soundscape– tablas, Sanskrit chants— makes itself audible. A South Asian sacred ambience is unfolded through hand gestures that combine mudras, Islamic ablutions, and Hindu rites. We are in a meditative memorial space. Gestures that have become hegemonic in a majoritarian context are here, in double diaspora, as fragile and precious as a rose.
The bodies rise, their writhing movements around a single central box-like frame. The minimalist prop (which will stay on stage throughout the performance) is complemented by the outfits of the six dancers—short kurtas and dhotis of white homespun cotton—the signature garb of South Asian migrant labour down the ages. Beneath them we can glimpse the black stretch tops and leggings—the uniform of contemporary dancers. We are in a layered world. Here, bodies, space, sound, and movement bear witness to migration and mixing, to the subaltern’s labour that laid the bricks of modernity. This is the history commemorated in Shailesh Bahoran’s magnificent piece, Lalla Rookh.
Lalla Rookh was the ship that transported the first Hindustani emigrants from colonial India to the Dutch colony of Suriname. As the flyer accompanying the show reminds us, ‘the first group, consisted on 399 emigrants, came to shore at Fort Nieuw Amsterdam on 5 June 1873.’ As elsewhere throughout the imperial world, they came to fill the labour gap left after the abolition of slavery in 1863. ‘Between 1873 and 1916, over 34,000 Hindustanis chose to leave their homeland to go to Suriname to work as a field labourer or to work in the factories’. Bahoran and at least some of his multi-ethnic cast claim this history as their own. At the end of 50 minutes, Lalla Rookh leaves the audience with the realisation that all of us, subjects of late modernity, are also part of that history.
Lalla Rookh’s six dancers move from the particular to the universal through a versatile dance style with global reach: hiphop and associated kineasthetics (b-boying, breakdancing, funk, popping, locking). Afro-diasporic dance heritage here tells the story of the pagal samundar: Hindustani for ‘the mad sea’ that the ships encountered as they turned the Cape of Good Hope. Popping and locking suggest the ship tossed on high waves, and the dislocation of a body and mind in extreme agony. Whirling movements executed on the knees suggest incapacitation, even dementia. Two dancers lock their bodies; their crouching, swaying, and headstands remind me of capoeira. Battle steps forged through resistance on the slave plantation now enact the birth of the jahaji-bhai—the new camaraderie of the ship-brotherhood.
In this twilight of passage from the old to the as-yet-unknown, a young woman is wrapped in a sari and disrobed by her ship-companions. This extremely powerful sequence draws on the myth of Draupadi from the Indic ‘epic’, the Mahabharata. Draupadi’s kinsmen had tried to rape her in public by disrobing her, even as the god Krishna came to her rescue by merging his infinitude with her sari that consequently never left her body. But this is a new world; there is no Krishna here; the woman writhes as her sari is ripped off. A male dancer whirls it around his body in a mad frenzy; the sari becomes the ship’s sail. New myths for old: Rape, brutality, and the violence born of violence constitute the jahaji-bhai’s baggage.
The remainder of the production uses hiphop and urban dance to evoke the complete transformation of the new arrival to what, in the Fijian context, was called the ‘girmitiya’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girmityas: the subject of Empire whose body is worth the labour it is contracted to deliver, measurable in years, months, days, and hours. The soundtrack highlights this extreme measurement of human worth by capitalist time through the predominance of a metronomic ticking clock and the dancers’ breathtakingly accomplished body isolations. These movements peak into a long sequence of body shudders to a percussive line that becomes increasingly industrial and machine-like. These are the Robots of the Plantation and the Factory, the zombies of the Caribbean imaginary, the cogs in Capitalism’s monstrous wheels.
Periodically, melodies and chanting voices revive a sense of the sacred. Fragments of a thumri in a minor key are interspersed with atmospheric crackles. An existential problem emerges: how to heal through these fragments? Can the trauma of Lalla Rookh and kala pani (black waters)— the dark passage that robbed one of identity and moorings—ever recede? The box-frame that signified the ship is viciously and urgently rejected. But it never leaves the stage. The suggestion is of identities lost, but new ones born— without amnesia. This is why a New World dance vocabulary, forged through the embodied experiences of those who had been displaced earlier by slavery, makes such poetic sense here.
Yet Indian-ness persists in the little traditions that Lalla Rookh lovingly celebrates. The ritual gestures of meditation and prayer return. The labourer who dies after an all-consuming burst of physical rebellion and exhaustion is anointed on top of that same white box-frame. His companions consecrate his body with drops of water shaken from fresh leaves dipped into small ritual vessels, in the same way as his ancestors would have done in the plains of India’s great rivers. As the five remaining dancers circle the prone body in course of the ritual, their sobs mingle with the already layered soundtrack. I wonder—is this the end? Let there be something else. Please.
Suddenly, thankfully, we get the release we crave. A series of shudders unite the group and transform into a burst of triumphant movement. There are many deaths in the piece, but there are rebirths, too. And what is reborn is a new creolized body— with Indian hand mudras and b-boying lower bodies, with relentless metronome of Capitalist time overlain by the lovely notes of the wooden flute—Krishna’s flute— carrying the essence of Indic sweetness across the mad seas. As I resurfaced in the minimalist foyer of the very Dutch Korzo Theater, blinking away my tears, my understanding of the Netherlands’ inner history and its hidden connection with my own postcolonial Indian-ness was once again expanded— in a process that started when I visited Suriname a few years ago.
From the CaDance Festival brochures, banners, and website, an arresting figure has been watching us. It is Shailesh Bahoran himself, a contemporary Amazonian river-deity rising from the edge of where Plantation meets Rainforest (or so I imagine); painted blue like Krishna, wreathed with feathers and grass like a mythic figure from a Wilson Harris novel; sunglasses jauntily proclaiming his swag, and body arrested in a ribcage move that is typically Afro-diasporic. This palimpsest of a body is what Suriname, one of the most culturally and demographically mixed up places in the world, brings to our consciousness. We are all more or less like that body. It is the labours of that body to which we owe the modern world. The search for culture is now conducted through a creole language. And we all must learn to speak it, recognise its fragments within us, treat it with love and respect. That’s what Lalla Rookh‘s visionary director and its superbly talented dancers teach us.
Thanks to the dancers and director for a wonderful and moving theatre experience!
All photos of the Lalla Rookh performance courtesy of Shailesh Bahoran
All photos of Paramaribo, Suriname, and final photo of the CaDance brochure courtesy of Ananya Kabir
‘Africa habla en mi’ (Africa speaks in me): 8th-13th November 2014
My last week in Havana reflected the usual double-life ‘routine’ of my fieldwork– with research in the archives during the day and research in music and dance places at night.
I spent most of my days during the week in Archivo nacional and Biblioteca nacional and by increasing the work around what I was supposed to be limited to, I managed to access some nonpublic documents issued by different Ministries — and of course, these were the most interesting ones, like the cultural agreements established by Cuba with African countries between 1964 and 1975.
Cultural agreements between Cuba and African nations
I continued to look for what could be of interest for Modern Moves as well and collected more documents about couple dance genres, some of which should provide enriching information about the Cuban political involvement in supporting these popular music dance forms.
Centenario del danzon
As for the nighttime, I organised private dance classes in various Cuban dance genres, from danzon and danzonete to son and salsa via chachacha, mambo, rumba and ‘yoruba’ (orisha-related dances). In so doing, I was able to feel in my body a kind of continuity from danzon to son to salsa, even if I was trying carefully to not recreate a pre-established genealogy outlined in the official history of Cuban music and dance. Despite these precautions, the observations I made in the field helped me to understand how what is now globally known as ‘salsa’ could emerge from all the various Cuban dance genres, and as I discussed with Ananya during her visit this weekend to Paris, even a link between reggaeton dance and guaguanco can be felt from this perspective.
Guaguanco at Callejon de Hamel
These specific Cuban dance forms help us to rethink the notion of couple dance itself, as they are undoubtedly couple dance with the exception that other parts of the body play the role of linking the two dance partners together. And the Afro-Cuban dance genres I experienced in both their social and staged settings helped me to understand how the Afro kinetic heritage has been uniquely reshaped in Cuba. Despite the knowledge and practice of West African dance I already have, I was really challenged when it comes to learn rumba and orisha- related dances, as the apprehension of the rhythm and how you coordinate your feet and your arms and how you basically move on sometimes a quite slow tempo were completely new for me.
En route to a rumba event
Besides these dance classes, I continued to enjoy music and dance events Cuba has to offer on a daily basis. Among others, I was invited to a private event called ‘toque de santo’ celebrating a Santeria birthday of a young woman recently initiated under the patronage of Yemaya. Ironically, even if I in a way dedicated my life to understand the social power of music and dance, I am always amazed to witness and be part of this kind of phenomenon.
Altar for Yemaya
As for a global overview of this month of fieldwork in Cuba, it was both hard and enjoyable, and I feel happy to be able to say: ‘I did it!’. For a first-time Cuban experience, I think I did my utmost, dealing with the no-other option than speaking Spanish (which as a result quickly improved!) among other fieldwork difficulties. Despite the fact that I did not find some specific documents I was looking for, I followed every trail and the clues I dug out, and I collected findings that were very interesting in any case. I will now be now able to return more equipped to face a potential other fieldwork trip, my notebook and pockets full of numbers of new friends!
fruits of fieldwork labours!
Stretching my limits through this enriching experience and learning every day a bit more about the complexity of multi-faceted Cuban society, I am now about to leave for the other side of the ‘Black Atlantic’ to go to Burkina Faso after a quick stopover in Paris. Keeping in mind all the different kinds of references to Africa I encountered in Cuba, from the most discreet to the most tangible, like the message written on the t-shirt worn by the drummer of Conjunto Chappottin ‘Africa habla en mi’, I am sure that the Cuban experience will allow me to perceive differently this forthcoming African trip.
The time has come to close here this last dispatch from the field, on the eve of this new adventure, let’s go!
Oshun, ‘la muchacha francesa’, and her ‘Maravillas de Mali!’: 1st – 7th December 2014
As usual, what was planned barely happened and each day brought its share of surprises.
This week I chased up pending meetings, I came back to places I already visited and I continued to explore some new ones. I went to the headquarters of OSPAAAL (Organización de Solidaridad de los Pueblos de África, Asia y América Latina), Museo de la Danza, Universidad de la Habana and Instituto Superior de Arte. The latter, Che Guevara’s project, was quite amazing: the atmosphere was filled with sounds made by young music students who were training everywhere in and around the Facultad de Música. Creativity, inspiration and labour were palpable, and I really enjoyed this experience.
Instituto Superior de Arte
Young music student rehearsing outdoors
After coming back for the third time to the Instituto Cubano Radio y Televisión (ICRT), I could finally start the long process of asking for the authorisation for consulting their archives, both for my own research project and other Modern Moves interests. I really hope that it will yield something tangible.
Like every week I came back again at EGREM studio to try to obtain something there, but even if I got a few little new things, it is not really what I was hoping for… Each time I met other people there, they seem to be aware of who I am and what I am looking for since when I start explaining, they interrupt me by this kind of comment ‘¡Si, la muchacha francesa, Las Maravillas de Mali!’
Well, as it is written on a little piece of wood in the ‘casa particular’ where I am staying: ‘Todas las personas que visitan esta casa nos dan mucha alegría, unas cuando llegan y otras cuando se van…’ – ‘All people who visit this house give us joy, some when they arrive, others when they leave’ —, I think that EGREM studio and some other places where I keep coming will be relieved to see me leaving their premises! However, I know that some people acknowledged my ‘obstinación y perseverancia’ and they really tried to help me in my quest.
I also returned to the national archives and national library, and dealing with sudden interruptions of service due to untimely fumigation, electricity or water cut, or other unexpected problems, I managed to collect interesting documents, like the telegrams exchanged by Ministerio de relaciones exteriores and African countries at the time of their achievement of independence.
I am also working on finding documents for other Modern Moves purposes but it seems that, like everywhere else, the topic of couple dance has been less explored than the music linked to these forms.
Books at Biblioteca nacional
Speaking of which, I diversified my discovery of Cuban music and dance landscape by exploring new places. I was advised to go to Teatro Brecht for a Latin jazz, rock and funk event; I danced salsa, merengue and rueda de casino in ‘al fresco’ places or during live concerts of the new generations of mythical orchestras Conjunto Chappottin and Conjunto Arsenio Rodriguez; I went to nightclubs where I could definitely not deny that the Cuban way of dancing reggaeton is extremely far from how I learned it in Paris. As I was told, it is considered here as a couple dance, and indeed it is, with the difference that they don’t face each other.
Another interesting thing I saw in nightclubs and other places: at some points the crowd moves together with the same steps on various kind of electronic-like music and the steps they do, labeled under the name of ‘discoteca’ for which I could know so far, correspond exactly to what I learnt as kuduro when I was in Mali. In front of this manifestation of globalisation on the dancefloor, I would really like to find out more about the circulation network of such dance moves which are differently interpreted worldwide despite their shared kinetic basis.
I also attended a santeria ceremony and it was really impressive to see the initiated respond to the songs and rhythms played on the bata drums, how the crowd does certain things at specific times, all being expressed through gestures, dance moves and songs.
Bata drums played in honour of Chango
Later in the week, I watched a show made in honour of the orishas by a group of female drummers, singers and dancers. Through a completely different setting and with the representation of some orishas, it was interesting to see how Afro-Cuban religious items are used and mixed in a contemporary dance performance.
Oshun the group of female drummers Obini Bata
I set up classes of different Cuban dance genres for next week, and I am now about to start with danzon and danzonete!
In August 2014, the Modern Moves team collaborated with London’s Batuke! Festival of Afro-Luso dance culture. This month’s Moving Story presents a kaleidoscope of our individual responses to the weekend, which included classes, parties, and participation in the Notting Hill Carnival on Monday.
Four very different perspectives here, which are not shy to reveal the intensely personal impact the festival had on each of us—and each one emphasizing the ‘exhilaration’ alongside the ‘learning’. 1. THE (JOYFUL) WOUND OF HISTORY- Ananya
Batuke 2014: In a basement room in central London, a group of dancers are going through the steps of the Angolan dance ‘Rebita’. The Rebita involves men and women promenading in a circle. When the ‘Commandante’ (here, the teacher Mestre Petchu) calls us to attention—‘atenção!’— we shift our steps from tempo to contratempo. Stepping into the circle with a crossed step, we shift back, face our partners, and flex our torsos towards each other. After this movement, we resume our Rebita promenade.
What we were performing in that group was the infamous gesture of ‘semba’— which Portuguese and other colonial authorities found the most scandalous element in the dances they observed amongst the Africans they encountered in the region that is now Angola, as well as amongst those transported to Brazil to work as slaves. It is a gesture that – despite this heavy weight of disapproval—has survived and lives on in various social dances across the Afro-diasporic world; it has even given its name to the modern dances ‘samba’ and ‘semba’.
A very specific experience that recurs in my dance research is the feeling, while I’m dancing, of being transported to another time and place. This uncanny encounter between my dancing body and a history that is not mine per se repeats itself often enough for me to not want to dismiss it as the product of an overheated romantic imagination. In the course of my research I constantly ask myself about ‘methodology’. What do we scholars actually do with social dance? How do we use living practice to reveal the past, and why should that past be of any importance and interest to the present?
The Batuke festival presented me with two moments of cutting through space and time. The first was the class in Rebita and Angolan carnival rhythms (such as kazukuta) that Mestre Petchu and Vanessa offered. An exhilarating session of men and women facing each other, led by Petchu and Vanessa; we moved by mimicking their gestures. The heat, the beat, the advance and retreat- the collective energy that warped the present- Petchu and Vanessa coming together briefly in couple hold to dance a few semba steps. I was somewhere in Angola, sometime when the rebita and kazukuta were transforming into semba.
The second class released a different energy. Kwenda Lima led a large group through Caboverdian rhythms: mazurka, coladeira, and batuke. As with the other class, we sometimes formed couples, sometimes divided into male and female groups. The atmosphere was defined by Kwenda’s mix of childlike joy and complete control over the archive he was opening. It was delightful to move from the mazurka, with its clear links to Central European partner dance, through the lively coladeiras and finally our fantastic finale of the batuke (more meaningful for us by being one of the songs in the Muloma soundtrack). Facing each other, keeping the rhythm by continuously slapping our thighs, we performed for each other, gave each other strength.
Once again I was translated to an ‘elsewhere’– an island in Cabo Verde, where women sang work songs and produced percussion out of their bodies—because they either did not possess percussion instruments, or because percussion was forbidden (as with the ‘patting juba’ traditions of the American South). That evening I discovered massive bruises on my thighs produced by the energetic batukeira that I had momentarily become. I remembered the wound that never heals on the ankle of Achille the Caribbean fisherman, in Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros? Yes, the wound of history– but also the mark of intense pleasure and a physical understanding of what it means to feel the batuque.
There were other moments, too, when the unexpected conjunctions of Afro-diasporic history passed through my body as participant and spectator. Jessica from New York paying homage to her Haitian heritage by dancing the yonvalou (voudou movement in honour of the snake god Damballa) at the start of her kizomba show with her dance partner Phil (also of Haitian heritage via Montreal); Nuno Campos and Iris de Brito teaching us to sing in Criolu (‘Sodade’) and Kimbundu (‘Muxima’), the sounds and words forming in our mouths and throats; all of us at the final class chanting in call and response format, participating in impromptu animations, and cheering on those who entered the drum circle to delight us with their quicksilver movements.
It’s unusual to find a festival that finds space for discussion, history, and reflection, as well as for dance pedagogy. When these elements are integrated into a festival it facilitates a different kind of learning experience. Dance and music illuminate each other in a mutually enhancing manner. The learning breakthroughs for me came in Phil and Jessica’s ‘kompa to kizomba’ presentation, and towards the end of Petchu and Vanessa’s seminar on Carnival. In the kompa presentation we were asked to dance in two-step to different genres- kompa, semba, zouk and merengue, while in the Carnival seminar, different couples danced social semba, funana, samba and carnival semba to the same song.
As each presenter asked members of the audience to dance to demonstrate the co-existence of similarity, difference and continuity, many things that I had only read about in texts suddenly came alive and made real sense.
2. ‘TIME GOES BY SO SLOWLY’- Elina
After a long weekend of dance classes and parties at Batuke! Festival in London from 22nd to 24th August 2014, anyone who has experienced so many different kinds of body activation would be both exhilarated and exhausted.
It was also an intensive brain ‘boot camp’ — as this word is now used in the dance context — that allowed me to experience and to think more deeply about how Afro-Luso dance culture, particularly kizomba, is now so popular among a very diverse range of people.
Besides the dance classes I attended, from Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen class to Coupé décalé (offered by an Angolan dancer by the way), from Rebita and Semba to Cape Verdian Mazurka and Coladeira, the parties taking place in the evenings were also a space where you could experience another relationship to dance. People are no more in training clothes and running shoes, but dress up according to the different themes (‘Union Jack swag’, ‘Great Gatsby’, ‘Miami Beach’), ready to apply on the dance floor what they learned in the day. The multiplication of possibilities to connect with dance in different ways during the festival allowed me to think about the complexity of spatiotemporal dimension in this frame.
As multi-layers of time are already entangled in the context of dance floors, the kizomba scene adds another dimension that could be related to the world of electronic music: the music is deliberately mixed in such a way that you can barely feel when a ‘song’ ends and another starts, especially during tarraxinha sets.
This also implies that the change of dance partner is not obvious at all and reshapes the relationships between the dance couple and the energy produced on the dance floor. You do not see a moving tide with hands and arms flying around like in a salsa party, but in the contrary, you can see a slow undulation of bodies, head against head with closed eyes, that seems able to never end. Indeed, if the dancers are both enjoying the dance, they can keep dancing without feeling any need to look for another partner for a while.
Thus I discovered during the Batuke! parties that some of the codes valid in the salsa world – for instance- are not accurate here. I am afraid that my ‘salsa’ tendency to move away from my dance partner at the end of the song was surely felt quite rude sometimes. You have to penetrate a world that is not only a space for a completely different kind of couple dance and music but has also its own rules. If you try to apply the ones you know previously without keeping this in mind and accepting your ignorance, you may be ‘chopped’ ¬or seem to ‘chop’ someone by mistake — to use a word from the Vogueing scene that I’ve learnt thanks to Madison!
Thinking about this phenomenon when we are used to dance according to a very specific setting which involves the change of partner after each song, then suddenly, discovering the possibility of being ‘locked’ with a complete stranger for about half an hour or more raises many questions: how the partners feel that it is the time to release each other? Who is responsible for ending the dance? Are both men and women feeling bad for being released only after one song? Besides, how important is the influence of the music production in this setting? Are the possibilities offered by electronic sounds ‘responsible’ for expanding the dance?
This slow dance, which is experienced by an international audience and could be considered, for many reasons, as a product of the globalization process in itself, thus confronts the realities of the globalized capitalist world where – in short – accumulation and speed are emphasized.
The notion of ‘song’ duration is transcended by the need of people to connect themselves with another body through the length of the dance. The longer the better to be completely immersed in a kind of transcendental space, where the two bodies are building a little story, song after song, without any words or even any eye contact sometimes, but with the sharing of a close body contact and the feeling of moving in a compatible manner.
My global assessment of the kizomba parties I first experienced so completely at Batuke is that they completely invert the balance between the couple dance part and the solo dance parts (on Afro House music) as I have experienced as a teenager during the first parties I ever had that we called ‘booms’ at that time. You were mainly dancing in solo but were secretly waiting for the ‘slow’ couple dance moment. At Batuke! parties, it seems that I had to forget all my expectations to be able to go beyond the dance culture in which I grew up!
3. ‘LAS PENAS SE VAN CANTANDO’- Francesca
Batuke! definitely represents an exception among the many festivals of kizomba, in terms of the effort to represent Afro-Luso culture in the most complete way and in terms of the quality of the professionals chosen for the event.
My impression of the teachers was really positive. I realised that they were chosen not just for the quality of the shows that they could produce –which is one common criterion of choice in this kind of event – but especially for their pedagogic qualities and their ability to move in a comparative way between different dances from the most traditional to the most modern ones throughout the Afro-diasporic world.
Some classes — the Kompa, Zouk, Coupé-decalé, traditional dances of Cape Verde, Rebita, Sabar — were really important opportunities to understand how the most contemporary dance evolved, and other activities like the seminars and the singing class very interestingly complemented this approach t o African culture and rhythm. I must say that very few organizers invest in the introduction of these elements in the dance festivals. Among the different classes that I participated in, I found the following ones particularly interesting:
New York Ginga by Jessica of Kizomba NYC: A comprehensive and interesting class by someone who was for me a lovely discovery through Batuke!. She explained basic movement technique for ladies’ ‘ginga’, starting form the opposition between chest and hips and the position of the knees, which is something fundamental to obtain the correct movement but that most teachers forget to explain. She then proceeded to the description of very simple movements as the frontal wave and hip rotation during the second basic, but she was able to deconstruct the movement to demonstrate very clearly the coordination between the changing of weight and the lateral step in order to make the process clear to even absolute beginners.
In the second half of the class, she applied some tango steps –following her own description of the work – to the ladies’ and men’s saidas. Despite my doubts about the fact that this kind of improvisation very hardly can work in couple dance and that very often women in kizomba have neither the time nor the occasion to plan correctly their own embellishments, the exercises were very useful to train quicker change of weight, balance recuperation, and a little improvisation using the contratempo.
What was evident to me – and it was also confirmed by the couple demo provided at the end of the class – was that the sequence could be applied only partially, and not easily, in a couple’s spontaneous interaction; yet it represented a very good training exercise. (video available)
Dancehall: This class brought together some nice movements that I recognized as belonging to very different African traditions. The typical traditional African movement of the hip circle was combined with the opening and closing of the knees– elements characteristic of some dances from the southern Congo areas that have evidently been developed in different ways in Jamaica adding to them the special cadence of ragga music and a deep bounce at the moment the movement is linked to another one. The basic ginga of capoeira was also used in the mini-choreography that we danced during the class, the basic step reproduced once with the original cadence and then twice at double the speed.
This dance beautifully demonstrated how Jamaican dances unify the idea of a fight with the idea of smooth and provocative movements that can use similar gestures with a completely different attitude. The teacher himself, Safwaan Ess Daboogie, said that he is constantly surprised by the presence of many heterogenic elements that he discovers in dancehall. Traditional kinetic codes are being constantly renewed in these street dances.
Singing: this class to me really represented the spirit of the festival: led by the teachers Iris de Brito and Nuno Campos we spent one hour trying to memorize and sing Creole and Kimbundu lyrics of the two songs Sodade and Muxima, and we received an explanation of the importance and meaning of the two songs that are really emblematic for the two cultures of Cape Verde and Angola. The experience was fascinating: when we try to reproduce the melody of a song in the singing we immediately feel our body interiorizing the rhythm and the cadence; consequently this starts coming out naturally even in the dancing gestures and in the posture of our own body.
Nuno’s explanation of ‘Saudade’ in Cape Verdean culture as a suspended moment, a calm but uncertain wait really clarified the Cape Verdean spirit and was maybe the most profound cultural topic that we touched: he described Sodade as an accepted sorrow, not dramatized, not desperately assumed, but the brief and intense sound of a drop, constantly falling over the echo of a wide but peaceful loneliness.
Final class: The best idea of the festival, and a moment in which we shared our own work and presence there, giving something back to ourselves and to all the group, to fellow participants and to the teachers, celebrating our own presence and energy. This final class has already become a classic and permanent element in the structure of the festival and is definitely a liberating moment in which people can experience the purest essence of dance and music. The dance can be improvisation on the drums, collective moment following a leader, or even just following with our own body the percussion without almost moving.
Dancing to the sound of live drums and without specific structure to follow is an experience that takes people to another level of interpretation of music and of their own movements. In the same way the experience of playing for somebody else for the first time is something really powerful that puts the dancer in a new position and stimulates new cognitive capacities of interpretation of the music and very physical conception of the rhythm.
Notting Hill Carnival: an amazing experience– one of those moments in which the body is part of the dance and part of the music and we can no longer separate them. People from all cultures participated and mixed in the event. We could recognize people that were not born into the cultural groups that paraded, wearing the same costumes with a sense of pride and love. I felt positively surprised by people’s capacity to embrace a new culture to the point of rebuilding the image of their own body and trying to live it in a new way. This was absolutely evident in the Brazilian parades, where people of all provenances were sharing the exhilaration of feeing the freedom and joy of their own body beautifully dressed and decorated, without any taboo due to aesthetical or social rules. It was truly a suspension of the common regular order and the opening of a new dimension in which the body seemed to surpass its limits and capacities and transform itself into a collective entity that was dancing shaking singing and screaming together.
This moment can be a very rich learning process for newer generations within a particular culture, since we actually experienced movements that were suggested by other people in the crowd without even seeing them, but just by means of the vibration of the bodies, without even knowing what our body was doing. Simply being part of a Carnival group is already a way to learn, and we learn by responding directly to the bodies of the other members of the group that impose on us their movement. The Batuke group was really full of energy and well organized and we danced in the rain for almost six hours without stopping. Nobody left till the moment when we decided to leave.
A very good experience was also the one of seeing represented the symbols that I discussed during my seminar on Maracatu on Sunday: seeing kings and queens opening the parade, Brazilian groups playing stick fights (Maculele), and having our own parade opened by an African folkloric group that had at their head a sort of joker figure with a very long stick pointing at the sky, decorated with colourful strips. Maybe he knew, maybe not, that he was recalling some unknown ancestors from another world, geography, dimension… anyway, we knew he was in the right place.
4. DANCE, RECOVERY, REDISCOVERY- Madison
As someone who can spend hours in nightclubs – so long as I’ve had an adequate ‘disco nap’! – during the Batuke! Festival I found myself experiencing a completely other sort of exhaustion. I participated in a number of classes, from Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen Dance and Cape Verdian Dances to Sabar from Senegal and AfroMix, but after each course, and sometimes during the middle of the class, I had to stop to catch my breath or sit out entirely. This was my first Batuke! Festival as well as my first hands-on exposure to many of these Afro-diasporic dance forms, and part of the incredible learning experience was staying in tune with my body, how it was moving and what it was telling me.
What’s the difference between dancing by yourself to music in a nightclub and being taught choreography as part of a group? How does the body labour differently in each situation?
The best class for me was the Sabar class, mostly because I loved the presence of the drums (and I would) as much as I loved the movements. The whole time there I kept thinking about Barbara Browning’s concept of ‘infectious rhythms’, where cultural transmissions occur through various types of ‘infections,’ with the powerful rhythm of the drum playing a key role. I loved the interplay between the dancer and the drums, with the dancer in many ways ‘conducting’ the drums. I noticed, too, that at the penultimate Batuke! Finale workshop, as each participant danced by the drums, there was definitely a sort of call-and-response, a direct communicative link between the body and the instrument, or the body as instrument.
If the dancer made smaller movements, the drummer made smaller sounds. If she or he made big movements, the drummer made bigger sounds. Certain sounds even lent themselves to all types of booty pops and pops, and this interplay between the body and the drum really made me think about the work a DJ does on any dance floor in inciting you to move, and to move in particular ways.
What I loved most about the festival was the sense of it being a shared space of learning and cultural transmission. People were there to learn. I bought homemade black hair care products and asked the person who sold it to me the best way to take care of my hair. But in terms of the dance itself I’ve already said that this was my first exposure to many of these forms, and even then I could already see how many of the moves percolate throughout contemporary popular music – and I’m thinking specifically of the global popularity of popping and locking, twerking, booty popping, grinding and all the rest.
But it was also a shared space for expressing one’s own connection to the diaspora. French, Spanish, Portuguese and German was spoken, in addition to English, of course. I was asked by several different participants ‘where I am from’, a question that most brown bodies are used to being asked. When I told folks that I was from New York, which is what I always say, the answer was never sufficient enough and people always dig deeper.
‘No, but what are your origins? What is your cultural background?’
And in that instance I say what I always say: my father, who I have never had any contact with, is Jamaican, and the rest is unclear. My mom made various kinds of curries and oxtail, culinary delights that in America are as much a part of Southern Style Soul Food as anything. I feel more African-American than anything as I have never really had any direct ties to Jamaican culture, not least because of rampant homophobia.
When I said this to one person in particular who asked me about my ethnic origins, she rightly told me that it doesn’t matter whether I feel any connection to the culture. It’s in my blood. The way I move and the way I dance is already impacted by my Jamaican roots because ‘it’ is in my blood.
The festival was also a shared space for experiencing connectivity and the universality of the human experience. More than one person I talked to emphasized the power of kizomba to highlight the feelings of being human. Though Kizomba does privilege heterosexuality and traditional gender roles, which admittedly I do have serious issues with, I did notice at least one lesbian couple, and another gay male I talked to told me that when he dances with a girl in kizomba, clearly for him he is not interested in a sexual experience but more in the spiritual feeling of connecting with another body. There’s something about being so in tune with another person that gives you an out-of-body experience.
Kwenda Lima’s exhilarating and fun Kaizen Dance class ended with an unexpected therapy session where his philosophy to life, as mirrored by the dance, was expounded on. Participants eagerly talked about their feelings, love, feeling free through dance, with some people in tears. Immediately I began wondering about the interplay between physical exhaustion, sweat, tears and confession all within the same dance class. How do all of those emotions relate together?
Some questions are best answered by us performing the answers.
We hope this report has made you both think about dance and want to experience, whether for the first time or the hundredth, the exertions, exhilarations and epiphanies of the Afro-dance floor!
All photos courtesy of Kizomba United Kingdom.
The Modern Moves team thanks Iris de Brito for the opportunity to work with Batuke 2014.
This Moving Story was put together by Ananya Kabir on the basis of individual reports from Modern Moves team members Elina Djebbari, Francesca Negro, Ananya Kabir, and Madison Moore.
Over the past few months I have been busy with all sorts and kinds of research, from attending vogue balls in Paris and Berlin to going on a special research visit to the Katherine Dunham Archives held at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois — a place not too far from East Saint Louis, Illinois, where black performance talent like Katherine Dunham, Josephine Baker and Tina Turner once held court.
For anyone interested in Katherine Dunham the archive presents a real treat: you’ll find materials ranging from original scores to Dunham’s own passport, and from costume drawings to Western Union telegrams (!). In addition, when leaving the archive I was told that 100 more boxes had just arrived, a research delight!
One of the most memorable things I found in the archive was a 1945 New York Times article about how Katherine Dunham had purchased a $200,000 house at 14 East 71st Street on the Upper East Side, an extremely wealthy area of New York City, to live in and to act as a headquarters for her school. This was big news given that her neighbors were the Fricks, the Lehmans and the Guggenheims, as stated in the press release, which Dunham used to drop the news.
The interesting thing about the article was that the tone was very much about how a black woman was able to purchase such an expensive home, particularly during a time in the US when African Americans still did not have property rights and indeed could not purchase their own homes in certain areas (and would not be able to for at least another 20 more years). Of course, the article never spelled any of this out directly, but the date it was published along with the fact that the paper talked to Dunham’s neighbors to get their take on what they felt about having an unknown black woman buy such an expensive house lets us infer the punch line of the article. “I’ve never heard of her,” one neighbor commented — the shade of it all. Indeed, the house was actually not purchased by Dunham herself but by lawyers, which drives this point home even further.
When I tell you that the archive holds deep financial records of Dunham’s company it sounds pretty boring, I’m sure. But these financial secrets tell a colorful story of their own about the labor that goes into making a performance happen. You’ll find box office statements showing how well a performance did in a given place, contracts stipulating what rights Katherine Dunham has and what rights the hosting venue does not have – for instance changing the performance at the last minute was not an option. There were even details on how much a single performance cost. We even know how much her dancers made. For a February 11th performance in 1944 at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, just a stone’s throw away from Yale University, Dale Wasserman, the highest paid dancer for that show, made $125.00. Ora Leak, one of the lowest paid, earned $45.00.
But it’s not just all ledgers and receipts. Fans sent letters professor their love and the great black American opera singer Marian Anderson wrote her a letter requesting a donation for charity. Some of the juicy stuff — the real tea — included letters from fans who were desperate to be a part of the Company as well as audition headshots from prospective dancers that included their professional resume at the back. On July 25, 1955 Miss Mary Irene Wemberly of Chicago auditioned for the Company. Her “Chief Ambition,” as it said on her resume, was to “become a member of The Katherine Dunham Dance Group.”
Something tells me that Dunham was a bit of a diva, not unlike most celebrities of her stature – and she was a celebrity. On November 15th, Dorothy Gray, an assistant to Katherine Dunham, informed the Locust Theater in Philadelphia that their choice of hotel would simply not do. “In Philadelphia Miss Dunham does not want to stay at Walton Hotel,” the Telegram read. “I suggest Bellevue Stratford-Ritz.” Built by George C. Boldt, the name behind the famous Waldorf-Astoria luxury hotel in New York, the Bellevue Stratford-Ritz was a luxury hotel built at the turn of the century that was meant to compete with its New York counterpart. For me, this really solidified that Dunham absolutely penetrated the laps of luxury, which during this period was almost certainly a majority white world (pre-desegregation).
In my work I am always on the hunt for queerness, as I am interested in how people make space for themselves outside of a dominant hetero-patriarchal gender binary. I knew that there had to be some type of queerness when looking through Dunham’s archive, and I was pleased to find at least two images that satisfied my thirst. One of them shows a dancer in what must be a carnival or Mardi Gras costume, a beaded headdress, drum beating, and you can tell he is moving a great deal because one of his feathers has fallen on the floor from his headpiece.
The Caribbean has a great history of homophobia, but it always seems like Mardi Gras and carnival are two events that are malleable in the way those types of parties allows participants to break out of the normative roles of the everyday. This would, of course, tap right into Mikhail Bahktin’s theory of the carnival as providing just that type of experience.
The other queer image is a totally static one, meaning there is no movement. It shows a male performer in a type of drag. His face is painted, the lips white and the line of the eyes stretched out and up, and he wears a long half wig with a cropped headpiece on top. I liked this image because, in 1944, we see that there were specific types of queerness that were possible through performance.
The last connection I noticed, one that is extremely powerful in bridging the gap between the legacies of Katherine Dunham’s dance and the movement of pop culture is an image of two dancers. One of them is shiny, very shiny, as he stands there in an athletic pose. There is already some The image shows a male dancer, relatively sweat-covered, holding a stretched out pose in a dance studio. The leg is curled back and up in the shape of an “L,” the arms cocked back as if attached to springs.
Taken together, these two images appear to be inspiration for, or at the very least diasporically connected to, Grace Jones’ 1985 album Island Life. In that famous image, shot by Jean-Paul Goude, Jones’ shiny Caribbean body poses in a similar fashion: leg curled up and back in the shape of an “L,” arms stretched out. While the poses might not be exactly the same, they do appear to come from a similar movement archive and indeed the sheen that appears across both images is an unmistakable trope of blackness.
‘Frequently when watching variations of the Lindy Hop in the Savoy Ballroom, I have seen individuations that might have come directly from folk, even tribal areas’… So observed Katherine Dunham in one of her essays of 1941, ‘The Negro Dance’, written soon after her pioneering field research in the French Caribbean and Jamaica researching different kinds of Afro-diasporic dance.
I have always considered Katherine Dunham a goddess-guru figure, and I’ve always longed to dance the Lindy Hop, but I didn’t imagine that- like her- I would find myself one day in the midst of a packed room of Lindy Hoppers, making observations on the similarities between Lindy Hop and traditional dances of the Caribbean islands.
And how appropriate that it was the folkloric dance from the French Caribbean that should have led me to the Lindy Hop party where I found myself recalling not just Dunham’s words, but all those videos of classic Lindy Hopping on You Tube, which at a certain point in my life (writing the grant proposal that made Modern Moves a reality, to be precise) I watched obsessively!
It all started with yet another fabulous class in Brixton with the London-based dance and drumming group Zil’oKA one Saturday (30th August 2014), which focused on ‘mende’, the Gwoka carnival rhythm from Guadeloupe. As an enthusiastic group learnt an energetic choreography full of high kicks, jumps and lunges, one of the participants commented how close these moves were to certain steps of the African American vernacular tradition. As Erica demonstrated the parallels between the Mende steps and the Cakewalk, I felt transported to research heaven.
Afterwards, we sat in Brixton’s Windrush Square, eating delicious Venezuelan arepas and chatting about African-heritage social dances. My new friend turned out to be a Lindy Hopper! And she was going to a Lindy Hop event that very evening— before I knew it, I was clicking ‘join’ on the FaceBook event page for ‘Stop, Drop, and Rollers’. It didn’t matter that I had never taken a single Lindy Hop class—I would simply observe (that’s the best thing about dance research—it saves you from feeling neglected or out of place on the dance floor. ‘I’m taking notes, don’t you know?)
So now it was 8.30 pm on a Saturday night and– while I was getting ready for a night of salsa at ULU to celebrate MamboCity’s 15th anniversary of party-throwing- I was also multi-tasking for my Lindy Hop pre-party. At Windrush Square Erica and I had chatted about the difference between the salsa and Lindy Hop scenes—never the twain would meet, it would seem from that conversation. Ironic that I was doing both the same evening, and trying to devise a look that would work for both!
‘No heels’, Erica had warned—music to my ears, as I prefer flats any day. I had my salsa shoes in a shoebag and some flat pumps on my feet. The ULU party theme was ‘black and white’. Typically, the only suitable clothes I had at hand were my white Raghavendra Rathore Jodhpur pants and a black t-shirt emblazoned with the ‘Brazouka’ show logo. Not really a conventional salsa outfit, but I’ve been dancing salsa long enough to know what works for me. I’ve even danced salsa in a sari on several occasions recently…. But a new scene—that’s quite different!
At least with my idiosyncratic clothes no one would identify me as coming over from the dark side. ‘Too much booze and sleaze’ is what, it seems, some Lindy Hoppers associate with salsa dancers. Plus passing as Brazilian (which is what I am often assumed as being in Latin dance circles) always helps as Brazilians are considered by most to be charmed dancers. I pushed some faux-Amazonian earrings through my earlobes and hoped that they, together with the ‘Brazouka’ t-shirt, would make me appear a slightly less weird alien to London’s Lindy Hoppers.
When I arrived at the party I realised that there was no way I could fit sartorially. I seemed to have entered a time warp of sorts. The women were nearly all dressed in little printed or polka dotted frocks and flat canvas pumps. The men were preppy – waistcoats, pleated trousers, ties, flat caps. Everyone was boogieing as though it was 1922. Percussively, I was in 4/4 land. A live band called ‘The Dixie Ticklers’ was playing jazz and swing. The crowd was heaving and the standard of dancing, simply amazing. I sat down at a window seat and simply gaped.
Surreally, the venue was the London club Nomad, where I often drop by on Wednesdays for a long-running kizomba night. Talk about multi-layered dance scenes! Angolan kizomba, with its small, discreet moves, much-vaunted ‘connection’ deriving from close body contact, vs. Lindy Hop, the classic swing dance from Harlem, showy, stomping, acrobatic, and lithe. And the demographics- the kizomba night’s predominantly black crowd vs. this party’s mostly white dancers (I spotted one black woman and one South Asian man).
There was, however, a star couple from Korea, and who, in their matching Burberry checks, were dancing up a funky and humorous storm. Watch them here competing at the Lindy Finals of the 2014 London Swing festival!
Where did the black investment in Lindy go, I wondered, not for the first time. And where were the hips in this Afro-diasporic dance? The energetic bounce, kicks, and twists of classic Lindy kinesthetics seemed to have banished all lingering traces of the ‘ginga’ and ‘bunda’-aesthetics of the kizomba-world that populated this very room each Wednesday. But I didn’t have time to wonder for too long—for, to my delight—a friend of Erica’s (‘a dance polyglot like you’, she said) was coming up gallantly to ask me to dance. And—I was away!—dancing my very first Lindy Hop to the sweet sound of the Dixie Ticklers!
The night turned out to be pretty fabulous, actually. The songs were long, and I danced for about an hour. How did I do it, without a single class in the dance genre? Well, firstly, by being a good listener—to the rhythm of the music as well as its accents for embellishment; secondly, by being a very attentive follower— even on more than one occasion, faithfully mirroring my leader; thirdly, by letting go all restraint and fear of parody and recalling the moves of the Harlem Lindy Hoppers in the YouTube videos. ‘I can’t believe this is your first time’, said more than one dance partner to me. I was so gratified!
I tore myself away like Cinderella to make the midnight cut off point for entry to the ULU salsa party. It was the first time probably that I was entering a salsa party drenched in sweat from another form of dance… and with the moves of that dance form still imprinted on my muscle memory…. But it worked to my advantage, for, as I found myself dancing in a pachanga style it now felt to me like a speeded up Lindy Hop. That was not at all surprising given that the pachanga (which developed in response to evolving charanga music from Cuba), like the Lindy Hop several decades before it, crystallised in the dance crucible of uptown New York.
That Saturday was one of my best dance nights ever, as I finished with some crazy improvised bachatas in the kizomba room (why those dance styles are made to share a floor is another story, but it worked for me)—it was really a night when 4/4 rhythm showed me its hidden magic. Of course I had some fantastic salsa dances too and if one adds the great Zil’oKA class to the mix it was altogether a day that London had allowed me to cross all kinds of Afro-diasporic rhythm worlds in the space of 12 hours.
My unexpectedly lovely evening and the warmly welcoming Lindy Hoppers made me think how, all too often, we are curious about dances we don’t have expertise in or knowledge of, but feel too shy or inadequate to explore them. There are many people who are content to shine in one partner dance—and that’s absolutely fine; but others who might want to branch out are restrained by thoughts like ‘I’m going to look like an idiot’ and ‘I won’t know what to do’.
But expertise in one partner dance lends itself to another form more easily than we imagine. And a party should be a space of enjoyment, fun and experimentation. So– if you dance any form of couple dance with Afro-diasporic history, and are yearning to try another one—don’t miss an opportunity that may come your way! Your training in leading and following, turning and—most importantly—syncopation and breaking— will stand you in good stead.
Of course, it may be easier for followers than leaders, initially, to dip in and out of different dances. If you find yourself dancing with a man who is doing stuff you don’t really know, if he’s a good leader and you’re a good follower, you will do exactly that—follow. Which makes me wonder: at all those Harlem venues, when sounds and moves from Cuba and Puerto Rico mingled with African American sounds and moves, it must have been the followers—mostly women—who would have been the first meta-improvisers, those who would have found the space where these Afro-diasporic traditions met and transformed each other.
Another way to think of the power dynamics of so-called ‘leading and following’! In the meanwhile, I certainly shall be seeking out more London Lindy Hop parties….!
Postcolonial tartan: we heard its sound before we saw what it looked like. The distinctive sound of bagpipes directed us towards the East London square where the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora were launching its first exhibition: Travelling Tartan. As we drew closer, we heard the djembe in the mix. A kilt-clad bagpiper jamming with a drummer wearing batik-printed ‘bazin’ fabric! The unexpected beauty of this sonic-sartorial encounter brought to life the routes through which Scotland, India, Africa, and the Caribbean met and mingled during the dark centuries of expansionism, colonialism and empire.
This valuable work of retrieval, of celebrating stories lost in the grand narratives of national history, is what makes the work of CIAD so very precious. This work takes its inspiration from the remixing of much-travelled cultural practices in the postcolonial present, layered by multiple diasporas. As Teleica Kirkland, creative director of CIAD announced while welcoming us, ‘sometimes the Caribbean is thought of as second hand, poor. I feel, looking around here, we have power and we have gravitas.’ Power and gravitas indeed, without sacrificing style!
Resplendent in her own purple tartan dress, Teleica was the embodiment of her words. Her dress, which she made herself, paid homage to her female ancestors, who sewed for a living but used their creativity to define themselves as stylishly as possible. Slavery, displacement, re-making of the self: Teleica once told us how she draws on the ‘creative energy that comes from those darker histories– because your work is your personage- you keep creating- constant cycle of death and birth.’
For Teleica, the Caribbean is ‘boundary-less’. How wonderful to hear this philosophy of the Caribbean’s fractured yet endlessly repeating self manifested in practice. While celebrations of Caribbean culture in the UK tend to focus on the Anglophone Caribbean, CIAD is firmly invested in crossing the linguistic barriers that often prevent an overview of the region’s shared histories of creolized song, dance, music, dress and food. So fitting, then, that the djembe-bagpipe duo was followed by dancing, drumming and chanting by the French Caribbean rhythm makers Zil’oKA, with whom Modern Moves had enjoyed an afternoon not so long ago!
Zil’oKA’s members proudly flaunted a splendid palette of Madras fabric: the dancers in headscarves and traditional dresses, the drummers in colourful shirts and, in the case of the lady drummer, a most fetching ‘modern Madras’ outfit from Guadeloupe. Their performance transformed the square into a living, breathing, moving enactment of the travels of the tartan and its continuing relationship to music and dance. Nature too obliged- that most Scottish of trees, the Rowan, was transformed into a guardian spirit of the square, its trunk wrapped in an orange and green Madras that echoed its clustered berries.
And there was food, of course, to remind us of that other sphere of creativity which emerges from survival and the need to create and enjoy life in all its dimensions. Rum punch, mini-patties, barbecued skewers, tropical fruit, little pastries with mango and raspberry toppings, fried shrimp— the point of this litany is not merely self-indulgence, but to point out how beautifully micro-managed the launch was. The organisers looked after all the desires of the guests and made sure that our different senses were equally pampered and kept busy!
The exhibition itself is taking place at Craft Central, a small but very attractive Victorian building in Clerkenwell. CIAD has used the space beautifully. Mannequins draped elaborately with variations on tartan fabric, or wearing Madras-based national dress from different islands, alternate with bolts of checked fabric—tartans, Madras, and even lungis from South Asia. If you want, a member of staff will even show you how to tie a flamboyant headscarf with multiple peaks and knots in the manner of the islands of old!
And tartan continues to inspire: also on display is a crazy tartan poncho and bag designed by Vivienne Westwood, conversing with a lovely gown of Jamaican bandana and Madras– a prizewinning design by a 15 year old London schoolgirl. Panels describe the forms taken by different takes on the tartan from East and South Africa to the Caribbean via India. To follow the tartan is to traverse once-busy, now forgotten, imperial routes. Who could imagine that a product of cold Scotland would morph into this riot of tropical checks!
The exhibition is a sensory lesson in the unexpected cultural developments that flourished through the webs of Empire. While imperialism was a machine to which humans were subordinated, creativity always found an outlet for self-expression. Resistance and style are intimately connected. As we left with goodie bags filled with little Scottish-Caribbean delights—rum and whisky, the mainstays of colonial outposts and postcolonial revelry (today, more ‘Scotch’ whisky is produced in India than in Scotland)— the tartan-clad ghosts of Empire seemed to come alive through the windows of Craft Central.
Feature image courtesy Elina Djebbari
ANANYA JAHANARA KABIR with inputs from ELINA DJEBBARI