[post #4 in my week of reggae blogging]
I know it is a wicked thing to admit, but is true – sometimes there is nothing so entertaining as watching tourists try to ‘bust a move’ on a Jamaican dancehall floor. That is how they might say it – ‘we’re bustin a move.’ Tourists don’t ‘walk out pon da tune ya!’ nor do they give lion paw salutes or light aerosol cans in support of a big tune. No. They bust a move. Oh my days! And they’re usually so earnest about it! If only passion were equal to talent.
Sometimes I have tried to give dancing instructions. I have said ‘Stop! Now don’t listen to the words. Or don’t listen to every instrument. Just listen to the bass-line – that thing underneath the music – that doop-doop doop-du-doooop. Yes. Do you hear it? How it pours over into every song. That is what we are dancing to. That is what *you* should be moving to!’ But sometimes it’s hard to explain to people who don’t know that a ‘riddim’ can be more popular than a song … and that you can have a whole set of ten songs on the same ‘riddim’ and that’s not a lack of creativity – that just makes the dancing continuous, and it makes it swell.
But you know what – every now and then there is that one tourist who will make the locals do a double take. Oh no; it is never ever the smiling, middle-aged man in his bright blue Hawaiian shirt and his straw hat and his orthopaedic sandals. That’s just a bad scene right there. If you are that tourist, I’m sorry — there’s simply no hope. But every now and then there is that one tourist who goes to the middle of the dancefloor and the locals immediately smile their widest patronizing smile. This tourist then begins to move – a movement that starts from her pelvis, while her upper body remains rigid, her eyes looking inward as if observing herself. The locals stop smiling. The locals’ eyes become large. The locals pull their heads back slowly as their eyes now become narrow in scrutiny. And then the grudging acknowledgment: ‘Rhaatid! Dat white gyal can dance!’
Here is a moment that was a little bit like that – a video that went viral of two Canadians dancing to Vybz Kartel’s song Clarkes and with a choreography that references all kinds of moves – from Willie Bounce to Butterfly to Dutty Wine.
Incidentally, my friend Kathy tells me the joke that Kartel’s song made Clarkes so popular in Jamaica that the shoe company was thinking of releasing an exclusive line for the island. They were to be called Bumbo-Clarkes, Raas-Clarkes, and Blood-Clarkes.
The video clip is from the show, ‘So You Think You Can Dance’. Dancehall might not be the chosen genre for those dancers, but they are professionals – so that they could pick up the moves is probably not that incredible.
What I have wondered is if there is a way to give more helpful instructions to regular people. Such instructions can in fact be found in many dancehall songs, but especially Tony Matterhorn’s 2006 ‘Dutty Wine’
I should quickly say that the actual dance, Dutty Wine, is the most dangerous move for anyone, let alone tourists, to try. It is the only dance in Jamaica’s history that I can remember coming with a surgeon general’s warning. Allegedly ‘dutty wine’ can kill you, or lead to neck injuries. A week after this warning came out a girl really did die in a ‘dutty wine’ competition. It was all over the news and a wicked old woman appeared on TV preaching that the girl’s death was sure judgment from God.
I was so amused and also upset by this old woman that I wrote a poem about the whole thing – not about the old woman, but about the dead girl, Tanisha, who was not worth her sympathy.
|For the Girl who Died by Dancing
Forgive the old woman who only sees
Forgive her, the selfish belief
She will be surprised soon enough
© Kei Miller (from There Is An Anger That Moves)
If you want to see a video where some girls really seem as if they could die from dutty wining, check this out. I really thought one of their heads was going to pop clean off! I was dizzy just watching.
One of the ways tourists often get this whole thing wrong is by thinking, oh – it’s reggae, it’s one love, it’s paradise, it’s ganja, it’s feeling high, it’s just doing what you like. But no! Dancehall moves are very specific and often require precision, but the kind of precision that always looks fluid and effortless. Still, it is also true that even without knowing the exact moves (because who can keep up!?), you can still rock to dancehall well and look like you know what you’re doing. If we go back to Tony Matterhorn’s song, the simple instruction is there in the first word: ATTITUDE!
You want to know specifically how tourists get it wrong? They get it wrong by smiling. You cannot smile when you dance to dancehall. And what’s more – even if you get the moves right, but you were are grinning throughout, it will look wrong. Dancehall requires ‘attitude’, it requires you to look ‘cross/angry/miserable’ to steal a phrase from Bounti Killer. Just listen to Matterhorn’s instructions in his song: ‘bend your face and twist it up, and turn two sides like you know you fed up!’ Elephant man in his dance song Gully Greepa demands an even worse facial contorting. He says: ‘make up yur face just like a creature, then yu do the gully creeper.’
That’s it. Simple, simple. Over and over in dancehall, the instructions are clear: Don’t smile! For godsake don’t smile! Which must be hard if you’re a tourist and having a good time, and listening to great music, and drinking rum. But resist. Don’t do it. Because when you don’t smile, the locals will respect you for doing it right!