Dance at Carnival: The Language of Diversity

By Michelle Simon

Dancehall, soca and reggae music blared from speakers atop vans and trucks as thousands took to the streets of Brooklyn for the 50th annual West Indian Day Parade on Monday. As the vehicles drove slowly down the Eastern Parkway one by one, people of all ages and nationalities marched alongside, winding their hips, swinging their arms, and popping their chests under the September sun.

At the core of the West Indian Day Parade, and all the events leading up to it, is dance. Dances in the Caribbean are born of many layers of history and overlapping cultures, according to Sara Bergman, author of Matikor, Chutney, Odissi and Bollywood: Gender Negotiations in Indo-Trinidadian Dance. “Participation in a certain type of dance is one way of asserting identity,” Bergman writes.

In addition to the dance styles rooted in African movements (easily distinguished by bent knees, feet stamping to the beat, and the rhythmic and often jerky upper-body motions), some dance traditions also have colonial roots.

Tayja John, a dancer in the Roxborough Police Youth Group, posing before going on stage at Dimanche Gras. // Dancers on Stage at Dimanche Gras (Photo by: Michelle Simon)

The Roxborough Police Youth Club, a dance troupe made up of 38 drummers and dancers, came all the way to Brooklyn from Tobago to perform in the parade. At Dimanche Gras, a performance showcasing the best singing and dancing from multiple dance and music groups that is held on Sunday before the parade, the Roxborough team performed a ballet that they had been rehearsing for two months.

“We have put four ballets together,” said Avril, the troupe’s dance tutor. “There’s the Grand ballet, the Fete, the Congo and the Ballet Réel,” she said. Traditionally, “ballet is a French dance,” said Collis Hazel, head of the youth club. “While we were under [French colonial] influence, we learned this dance.” Over time, the Tobagans have added their own style and rhythms that are more closely tied with their African roots. “We have put a piece to it called Congo Ballet,” said Hazel.

At the West Indian Day Parade in New York, however, there is not so much rehearsed choreography as their is freedom and fluidity of movement. “There is dance, but not so much collective dance,” said Dale Byam, head of African American Studies at Brooklyn City University. “If you go to actual Carnival [in Brazil],” she explained, “you would see many more synchronized and choreographed movements. It’s much more of a parade [in NYC].”

The dance on display at the parade is more closely associated with Caribbean party culture. Dancers and parade go-ers are wining (winding one’s hips to the rhythm), twerking, body-rolling, and daggering (simulating sexual intercourse playfully with one’s dance partner) to the sound of soca, dancehall and reggae.

Two parade go-ers wine against each other as friends jeer them on (Photo by: Michelle Simon)

This dance is not necessarily seen as “traditional,” as it typically takes place at clubs and parties. For those unfamiliar with such styles, they can be seen as very suggestive and erotic. However, it is just as much a part of Caribbean culture as the Congo Ballet. “Wining is a measure of belonging,” said Byam. “It’s an access point” for those that are not traditionally and technically trained.

“Pontificating on hyper-sexualisation is dangerous to do,” said Michael Manswell, Executive Director of Something Positive Inc., a nonprofit arts and education organization. “As we look at sexuality, we need to… remove the taboos of sex as shameful,” he said. “If we were to [do this], we would see a different kind of expression that doesn’t impinge on our morality.”

Ultimately, dance is an expression for all participants of Carnival, and acts as a platform upon which everyone can connect organically. “Dance is an expression,” said Steve Lewis, a Trinidadian communications technician living in New Jersey, who was at the parade with his daughter. “The way people work so hard… this is a weekend for them to let loose and relax.”

“Dance is a language in and of itself,” said Nia Salandy, 54, a former dancer who now lives in Atlanta, GA. In Trinidad, where she’s from, dance “really fostered community involvement,” said Salandy. “The thing about dance is that there’s no size, there’s no age, there’s just people.”

At the parade, politicians Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo also came to show support. “Whether you’re black, white, brown, or Asian… we’re all here to celebrate the fabric that is America,” said Gov. Cuomo.

Governer Andrew Cuomo talks to the press about the importance of diversity in New York (Photo by: Michelle Simon)

This sense of coming together is especially important now, in the face of the Trump administration’s decision to potentially rescind the DACA policy. This could result in the deportation of over a million young Americans, 400,000 of which live in New York alone. “I think it is exactly the wrong message,” said Gov. Cuomo. “They wanna demonize diversity. It’s antithetical to New York.”

“The beauty of the New York carnival, [is that] it’s not specifically one group of people and so it has an amazing potential,” said Byam. Despite the countless different nationalities and cultures present at the parade, “dance creates that language that we can connect through, and music is the throughline, which has no boundaries,” she said. “Dance is a sort of unifier, a new nation within the nation but we all connect to it, there’s no explanation necessary.”