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Discovering Africa in Jamaica
published: Sunday | February 23, 2003

By Georgia Hemmings, Staff Reporter

Above, performing the 'Dinki Mini', a traditional wake dance. Below, this young man was in fine form and grabbed the attention of onlookers as he "skanked" during an informal dance competition in downtown Kingston.

THE LECTURE given by cultural consultant, Cheryl Ryman, at the Institute of Jamaica last Tuesday sought to highlight African influences on Jamaican culture (despite centuries of recreation and transformation), and provide a basis for identifying these retentions.

The message was reinforced in an interesting, interactive session, which involved members of the audience, and saw schoolchildren participating in live (sometimes hilarious) dance demonstrations.

"Coming home: connecting with the Motherland", was the theme of Miss Ryman's presentation.

"The African influence is strongest of all the cultures that helped to shape the Jamaican experience today," Miss Ryman told her audience. "And while it is strongest in our dance forms, dance has captured more than just music, and movement. In dance, evidence of our forefathers is reflected in language, food, dress, religious beliefs and practices."

The dance researcher outlined some of these characteristics, chief among them the "bounce."

"The 'bounce' (use of the pelvis) is a very important and unique feature of Jamaican dance by virtue of its persistence in all forms of Jamaican dance (traditional, popular and theatrical/staged)," Miss Ryman said. "The 'bounce' can be seen in quadrille, kumina, Jonkunnu, reggae and dancehall movements. It can also be seen in the way men, in particular, walk on the street and even ride their motorcycles.'

Then, there is the "break" (pulse) when the rhythm of the beat is suspended (however momentarily) to accommodate another rhythm. This can be seen in Kumina, 'Dinki Mini' and Bruckins performances. Other features are:

Posture ­ bent knees, flat foot, hips centred, upper torso and arm in "controlled relaxation" mode.

Use of body ­ rapid footwork, facial expression, multi-rhythmic response of body to music with hands and arms moving around body or raised or twirled.

Greetings ­ a protocol of regular life carried over to dancing with musicians greeting musicians, dancer to musician, lead dancer to others, to audience, to ancestors, etc.

Get-down quality ­ which signals greater intensity in movement and usually leads up to or indicate a climax to a movement.

Sense of mass ­ the use of hands, props, costume/dress, and grouping of bodies in dance space.

Mimicry/mime/buffoonery ­ often seen in traditional and popular forms like Jonkunnu and dancehall.

Possession ­ or 'infilling' by the spirits, which speaks to the community through the dancer.

The Circle ­ as the most common dance space, followed by lines.

Miss Ryman illustrated many of the features with the aid of slides, which kept the audience (comprising students, teachers, dance experts and enthusiasts, ACIJ and IOJ executives and staff, and the Japanese Ambassador to Jamaica, Isao Otsuka) engrossed.

Then it came time to demonstrate some of the dances, and this was where the fun began. Dance researcher, Linnette Richards, ably presented moves of the "S-90 skank" "rocksteady", "cool and deadly", quadrille, bruckins, and kumina. She was matched by one student who boldly went through the "log-on", "Bogle", "passa passa", "butterfly", "urkel", "zip it up" and "go-go wine" of contemporary times.

The lecture hall rang with loud laughter, spontaneous applause, and wild whistles and shouts as the audience showed strong appreciation. And it "broke the ice" and paved the way for the question and answer session afterwards.

Miss Ryman urged her audience to "become aware of the Africa which is a part of Jamaica.

"To do this, you have to acquire new eyes, new sensibilities and a new consciousness of the world around you. And realise that within new dance forms and movements are movements brought from Africa, the bond with our ancestors," the dance expert concluded.

The lecture was organised by the Arican Caribbean Institute of Jamaica/ Jamaica Memory Bank (ACIJ/JMB) in its continuing series for Black History Month looking at African retentions in Jamaican dance forms. It complements the "Movements through the Passage" exhibition, currently on at the ACIJ's offices in downtown Kingston.

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