Dance at Carnival: The Language of Diversity
By Michelle Inez Simon
Jasmine “Noir” Warren, 25, is a dancer for the band Sugacandy Mas, winners at this year’s West Indian Day Parade. A New York native, she has been dancing in the parade with different masquerade bands since she was 12.
With a Trinidadian mother and Jamaican stepfather, the carnival is very much a part of Warren’s identity. “This is the best time of the year for all Caribbeans. It represents everyone coming together, it represents unity, and brings us back to culture,” she said.
At the core of the West Indian Day Parade, and all the events leading up to it, is dance. The art form is central to Caribbean Carnival culture. There is choreographed dance, which takes months of preparation and rehearsal, and is performed by masquerade (Mas) bands. Group performances take place at Dimanche Gras (a formal dance and music showcase held on the Sunday before the parade), as well as at the parade itself. At each Carnival event, there is also informal, celebratory dancing that nearly everyone participates in.
Sugacandy Mas, like every other band, had to choose a Carnival theme. This year, they chose “Coming to America,” which touched on Caribbean immigration history to the US, and was demonstrated through their costumes and choreography.
Their dance routine, according to Warren, paid tribute to their African and Caribbean roots. “We added more Afro-Caribbean choreography, and we used Caribbean music,” she said. “What made us stand out this year was the passion behind our theme. Our presentation and efforts touched the hearts of a lot of people,” which is why she believes they won first place.
“We start rehearsing once the summer hits,” said Warren. “Our rehearsals begin straight away in July, with two to three rehearsals per week.” Mas bands perform their routines to a panel of judges at the end of the parade route on Labor Day. Groups are judged based on presentation, routine, music selection, and staying true to their self-appointed theme, according to Warren.
More African-inspired movements are distinguishable by bent knees, a wide stance, feet stomping to the beat; and the rhythmic, often jerky upper-body motions. Some dance traditions during Carnival, however, also have colonial roots, according to Collis Hazel. Hazel is the leader of Roxborough Police Youth Club, a dance troupe from Tobago.
Traditionally, “ballet is a French dance,” said Hazel, who manages the group made up of 38 musicians and dancers. “While we were under [French colonial] influence, we learned this dance.” Over time, Tobagans have added their own style and rhythms that are more closely tied to their African roots. “We have put a piece to it called Congo Ballet,” Hazel said.
The Roxborough Police Youth Club came all the way from Tobago to New York for Carnival celebrations. The team rehearsed for two months in preparation for Dimanche Gras and the parade on Labor Day.
The majority of people at the parade on Monday, however, were not dancing rehearsed routines. Almost everywhere, crowds were jumping and dancing freely to the music.
“There is dance, but not so much collective dance,” said Dale Byam, head of African American Studies at Brooklyn City University, who marched with a Mas band called The Oildowners on Monday. “If you go to actual Carnival [in Brazil], you would see much more synchronized and choreographed movements. It’s much more of a parade [in NYC].”
“At the parade, everyone is a dancer,” said Nia James, 25, a part-time dancer from Brooklyn, who went to the parade with her friends. Dancing at the parade is more closely associated with Caribbean party culture, according to James. “What I saw was more fun dancing,” she said.
Dancers and parade go-ers were wining (winding one’s hips to the rhythm), twerking, body-rolling, and daggering, which is when dance partners playfully simulate sexual intercourse to the beat. People were moving excitedly to the sound of soca, dancehall, and reggae. “Soca is really upbeat. You hear a lot of steel drums, guitar… it has this really jumpy feeling to it,” said James.
For those unfamiliar with such dance styles, these motions can be seen as sexually suggestive. It is not hard to pick out men and women “dirty dancing” in the crowd. But those forms of dance are just as much a part of the Caribbean culture as the Congo Ballet. James is Jamaican, but has spent her whole life in America, and understands both cultures. “I understand how these West Indian-style dances can be seen as sexual. But with Caribbean people, it’s a matter of fun. Wining is not to be seen as overtly sexual, it’s just dance,” she said.
Dance is fundamental to Jamaican culture, according to James, and Jamaicans are best known for wining. “Wining is a measure of belonging,” said Professor Byam. “It’s an access point” for those that are not traditionally and technically trained.
“Pontificating on hyper-sexualization is dangerous to do,” said Michael Manswell, executive director of Something Positive Inc., a nonprofit arts and education organization based in Brooklyn. “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.”
“Dance is a language in and of itself,” said Nia Salandy, 54, a former dancer who now lives in Atlanta. She also took part in the parade, marching with Pagua Mas band. In Trinidad, where she’s from, dance “really fostered community involvement,” Salandy said. “The thing about dance is that there’s no size, there’s no age, there are just people.”
“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 is a sort of unifier, a new nation within the nation, but we all connect to it, and there’s no explanation necessary.”