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Dancing identity in a strange land

“…pelvises moving as one, scribing a full circle for the ‘round di worl’ dance. Other pelvises scribe a figure of eight, moving in and out of each other, whilst some merely rock hips in semi-circular fashion, maintaining constant contact, their movement barely visible to onlookers.”

By the rivers of Babylon,
Where we sat down,
And there we wept
When we remember Zion.

Cause, the wicked carried us away, captivity,
Required from us a song,
How can we sing King Alpha’s song
In a strange land?

— Rivers of Babylon, Jamaican traditional/Rastafarian chant

Africans, taken away without tools, were able to rebuild material culture  from the blueprint of knowledge carried in our collective heads.

— Carolyn Cooper, 2004 p.231-232


Echoing the Rivers of Babylon lyrics, this talk is concerned with the politics of Black bodies performing within Britain, a ‘strange land’, wherein a  psychology of racism exists that makes them invisible on one hand, whilst  harvesting and commoditising the cultural expression they produce on the  other. I therefore want to explore the creation of Black ‘countercultural  spaces’ (Beckford 2006), alternative spaces such as ‘blues’ and house par ties, church and school halls, clubs, and various temporary entertainment venues within which Black bodies perform in Britain. Having attended numerous British Jamaican dance sessions from childhood, I will reflect on  how Black bodies themselves become alternative countercultural spaces in  which ‘King Alpha’s song’ – the Lord’s song – is performed through dance. 

Conceived in Jamaica, but growing up in Birmingham, the culture surrounding Caribbean dance made it possible for me to embody the material  culture Carolyn Cooper, a Jamaican writer and scholar, describes as being  rebuilt from the blueprint of knowledge carried by enslaved Africans. In my  case, danced in and through sound system culture featuring lovers rock,  dub and reggae/dancehall. This talk examines the dance within sound system dance sessions focusing on how the symbolic gestures, movements,  attitudes and values foundational to a lived African/Caribbean cultural  expression manifest in what I call ‘ancestral knowledge communication’.  Drawing on what many people acknowledge as cultural memory, I go further in incorporating the spiritual cosmology out of which Jamaican sound  system culture has emerged, before its re-creation within dance sessions  in Britain.  


The creation of alternative Black countercultural spaces

Oppression has been inscribed upon Black people’s bodies, beginning with  chattel enslavement and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, throughout colonialism, and has continued with the migration of African/Caribbean people  to Britain. Racist attacks such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence (1993)  through to the 2018 Windrush scandal demonstrate Britain’s deep-rooted  structural racism. Black dancing bodies have been instrumental in resisting  the hostility Black people have endured in British society.  

Dance exists within most human societies as a mode of communication. It facilitates spiritual, cultural and individual expression, as well as the  negotiation of identity, sexuality, gender, hierarchy, personhood, and profile.  Dance clearly functions also as a means through which bodies connect,  expressing pleasure dynamically, or sensually, or in intimate contact with  others. Crucially, dance enables each individual to move in a way that em bodies the symbols and codes that are important and recognisable within  their particular culture and experience. For example, ballet places emphasis  on clean lines, physical control, psychological and muscular strength; dancers may — 

hold the torso still and stand on one leg, whilst lifting and extending  the other leg, defying gravity to create a straight, vertical line 

— reflecting a society where dance predominantly serves an aesthetic  function. African/Caribbean dance similarly demands strength, alongside  stamina and emotion; for example — 

Performing the ‘reggae bounce’ and ‘rocksteady’ dance all night reflects a  society in which dance is a lived, functional practice. Each culture employs  and positions dance according to the importance dance plays within their worldview. 

Within African/Caribbean cultural worldviews, dance serves a primary  function in being performed as part of the major birth to death life-cycle  celebrations, including birthdays and birthnights, coming of age, weddings,  funerals, etc. Yet historically, from a Western perspective, Black bodies have been dehumanized, stereotyped and over-sexualised, causing Black dance  practices to be dismissed as being un-sophisticated, lewd, with no technique base and little artistic value within mainstream British arts practice. In  resisting these negative perceptions and the Western terms used to categorize Black bodies dancing, I adopt the term ‘African/neo-African’ (meaning  ‘new African’, including diaspora Africans), to replace terms such as Black  people, Black dance, traditional or folk dance. 

Given the central importance of dance in African/neo-African societies,  it is of no surprise that, on arrival in Britain, African/neo-African people developed alternative spaces to continue the celebration of major life-cycle  events, in response to their exclusion from white-owned mainstream clubs  and ballrooms in the 1950s and 60s. This heralded the emergence of regular  house parties and ‘blues’, also called ‘shubeens’ or ‘shebeens’ (paid-entry  house parties), often held in basements and/or abandoned buildings. Dance  sessions, whether house parties, ‘blues’ or ‘shubeens’, even present-day  dancehall sessions, are established by the setting up of sound system  sets (portable music systems with banks of speaker boxes pumping out  heart-pounding, cloths-vibrating, heavy wattage music), within varied locations and spaces. The gathering of people, called ‘the massive’, signals the  start of the dance session, alongside the sale of food and drinks to raise  additional funds. Despite the confining space within house, blues or shu been parties, I have fond childhood memories of watching skilled dancers  perform ‘rock and roll’ —  

feet flashing (flicking) outwards, knees moving in and out (reminiscent of the Jonkonnu ‘Pitchy Patchy’ masquerade or the US  Charleston dance step), as females spun and circled, skirt tails  billowing and swinging around well creamed, or stocking-covered  legs. 

These individuals recreated the lived African/neo-African cultural expres sions of home, through countercultural spaces created around and within  their ‘corporeal dancing bodies’. 


The ‘corporeal dancing body’  

The body, taken over and subsumed by dance, music and the spirit,  undulating and pulsating to the riddim, radiating movement through  every bone, every muscle, every organ and cell of your being.  Movements of the distant and recent past mixed with movements  of the present, injecting a dynamic life and high-energy vibe from  within, moving outward beyond the boundary of the skin into the  atmosphere.  

This is how I can best describe what I call the ‘corporeal dancing body’. The  concept of the ‘corporeal dancing body’ connects the physical body, the  past, present and future, to free the soul from the weary corpse-like shell,  representing the body most African/neo-African people exist within on a  daily basis, whilst being confined, made invisible, marginalised, and branded  a problem merely because of their skin colour. The term ‘corporeal dancing  body’ allows Black African bodies to regain personhood and connect with  the spiritual. Through the performance of dance, the ‘corporeal dancing  body’ permits the life and soul to re-enter human fleshly bodies, connecting  emotion, the physical and the spiritual worlds all at once. I experienced this in the 1970s when sound system operators would ‘drop’ tunes like Warrior  Charge by Aswad, causing almost every body in the dance to break out and  perform dynamic, skilful and intense ‘skanking’ dance steps — 

straight legs working against angular knees jerking, with alternating heel and toe foot actions, torsos bent forward, some almost 90  degrees, alongside arms punching the air  

— as the heavy music bass line pumped through the veins. In this context, I  have witnessed Black bodies transform and become the alternative spaces  in which ‘King Alpha’s song’ continues. 

The riddim-filled corporeal dancing bodies described here both reject  and turn on the head Western ideas of order, respectability and decency.  They simultaneously establish and underscore the African/neo-African  worldviews they are grounded within. Serving as conduits, these bodies  allow the gathering of the ‘collective heads’ of the ‘massive’ from within the  African/neo-African community to generate a renewed collective memory I call ‘ancestral knowledge communication’. Central to the idea of ‘ancestral  knowledge communication’ is the sense of personhood, as each individual  can gain a sense of being ‘smaddy’, becoming somebody of worth. Dance  provides a space wherein individuals gain visibility and profile – especially  those perceived as being inferior within British society – through the free  expression of self.  


Symbolic gestures and values  

If the corporeal dancing body signals the freeing up of emotion and the  combining of historical African/neo-African events, then in Britain, religious  and social spaces serve as creative safe spaces. African/neo-African people  began focusing their attentions on the re-construction of their own world views and symbolisms using cultural expression. Through the music and  dance occurring within sound system dances, important stories and my thologies are recorded and re-presented, whilst historic events, individuals  and locations are memorialised. An example is the legacy of enslavement  and the trauma manifested and employed in African/neo-African popular  dance, music and other forms of cultural expression, as physical healing  processes and survival tactics. Growing up as part of the Windrush generation in reflecting on my early experience of dancing, the execution of  the ‘Chuckie’ dance to Rupee Edwards’ 1975 single Irie Feelings (Skanga) involved — 

sharp shoulder twists and jerks, as each shoulder jerks forward  and back on alternate sides the spine curves with the forward jerk  and arches on the backward jerk. 

Decades later the ‘Bogle’ dance to Buju Banton’s 1992 hit required — 

pulsating ripples travelling up the full length of the spine, with arms  relaxed or raised in a circling motion. 

Despite the deep feelings of enjoyment and unity created in performance  of these dances, both equally manifest deep resonances and symbolisms with the spinal reflex to the traumatic crack of the whip Africans suffered  during enslavement.  

The ‘Bogle’ dance further serves as an example of memorialisation. Although the dance creator, Gerald ‘Bogle’ Levy was murdered in 2005, he  is often toasted and his name called by many, whenever Buju Banton’s song  of the same name is played. The popularity of the dance still commands  most people, young and old, to enthusiastically move their bodies and perform boldly to their own standard and ability. Likewise, Jamaican singer  Millie Small is forever memorialised by her 1960s hit, My Boy Lollipop, as is  the Jamaican spirit of dance, particularly in Britain. Involved in ‘ska’ dance  is the — 

throwing of arms up and down, in and out, with pelvises swaying  side-to-side. 

However, the fact that those very arm movements originated in the Jamaican  African/neo-African spiritual ritual called Revivalism remains unknown to  most. Yet the connection of ‘ska’ to Revivalism symbolises a conscious and/ or subconscious Jamaican resistance act, connecting back to the African/ neo-African uprisings that formed part of the historic Jamaican Baptist wars  (1831-1832) and the Morant Bay Uprising (1865).⁵ Both events were instigated by spiritual leaders who used the power of the African/neo-African  Revival and Kumina spiritual dances as tools to inspire courage and the  spirit of liberation amongst the Jamaican people. The spiritual underpinning  of ‘ska’ certainly adds a unifying dimension to the dance. Today, ‘ska’ draws  dance crowds of all races together in its performance,⁶ while leaving space  for individual creative expression to shine through — 

a leg lift, or a little shuffling heal and toe step  

— injected into the dance is often enough action for individuals to stand out  from the crowd.


Spiritual cosmology and symbolisms 

In the 1970s and 80s, many of the Windrush generation and their children  found themselves negotiating identity through the music and dance styles  they chose to adopt. Those following the more cosmopolitan soul music  were referred to as ‘soul-heads’, many of whom would attend the multi-racial soul clubs held within mainstream spaces. Those preferring reg gae, dub, lovers rock and, later, dancehall music, were called ‘roots-men’  or ‘roots-women’ and often attended black-owned clubs and spaces. This  represented a symbolic choice between embracing a Black British identity,  or in rejecting that, constructing a Caribbean and/or Pan-African identity out side of both homelands. This all foregrounds a racial politics that was played  out through cultural expression, but rarely discussed. 

Stylistically, roots-men wore American Farah slacks or drainpipe pants  (straight-cut trousers) and classic, leather or suede-trimmed Italian Gabicci  jumpers or silk shirts. Females generally wore blouse and skirts (pleated,  or straight-cut pencil skirts), with their hair hot-comb pressed, or natural,  sporting Afros, plaits, flying saucer hairstyles, or head-wraps (often matching their outfits). They were always elaborately styled, despite the physically  darkened spaces in which the blues or shubeens took place.

Importantly, the dance movements reflected the spaces in which they  were performed. I have attended many dances where insufficient space  was available for large gestures to be performed. Frequently within blues or  shubeen parties everyone moves en masse. Often bodies were forced to re main rooted to the spot where they stood, and rock to the body-penetrating  rhythm of the mega wattage sound system. When the dance session became ‘ram’ or ‘cork’ (full to capacity), the music would change to lovers rock  and serious partner dancing would begin. Coupling up, male and female  bodies would dance the ‘rub-a-dub’ — 

locked tightly together, bodies unite and ‘rub’, ‘scrub’, or ‘dub’ each  other in dance. 

This intimate form of dance involves —  

pelvises moving as one, scribing a full circle for the ‘round di worl’  dance. Other pelvises scribe a figure of eight, moving in and out of  each other, whilst some merely rock hips in semi-circular fashion,  maintaining constant contact, their movement barely visible to  onlookers. 

Linked to the fashion of the day, this style of dance initiated the ecstatic  phrase ‘dub out every pleat inna di skirt’,⁸ reflecting the ironing out of pleats  by hot dancing bodies. Each movement could be performed at varying  speeds in relation to the four-four musical beat, demonstrating the ability  for Black bodies to aesthetically express intimacy and affection.  

The union of bodies — 

rubbing, pressing, moving together, thought, flesh and spirit, one  entity, slowed breaths and synchronised heartbeats  

— demonstrates the spiritually ecstatic moment of immense enjoyment  that is both an orgasmic, transgressive and spiritually transcendent encounter, in line with Ralph Norman’s ‘jouissance’ interpretation. Here, Black  African/neo-African corporeal dancing bodies take control in expressing their sensuality on their own terms. Importantly, the spiritual is symbolised  both during the connection of two individuals dancing intimately in complete  synchronicity and in those moments of heightened unification, camaraderie  and sense of community emerging when multiple bodies move en masse within the space. In the gathering of African/neo-African bodies emerges a  renewed cosmology in which ‘knowledge [is] carried in our collective heads’  (2004), facilitating performance of the past, present and future, combining the spirit and the material world, within which ‘ancestral knowledge  communication’ may take place. Despite adopting what may seem to be  divergent cultural or aesthetic routes, whether that of the ‘roots-man’ and  ‘roots-woman’, or that of the ‘soul-head’ through cultural expression, most  individuals re/connect with and embody a material and spiritual root identity,  enabling them to perform ‘King Alpha’s song’ through dance. 

 1. The Windrush generation includes those Caribbean migrants arriving on the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock on June 22nd 1948 (invited to assist in the rebuilding of post-war Britain) onwards and their children (those who came to Britain to join parents and those born  in Britain up until 1973). Many of these British citizens fell victim to Britain’s ‘hostile environment [policy] for illegal immigrants’ (Hewitt, 2020 p.108) as, despite arriving on British  passports, those who had not taken out British citizenship found themselves categorized  as illegal immigrants despite having worked and paid British taxes, or being schooled and/ or raising families in Britain for decades.

2. In Jamaica, we speak of birthdays and ‘birthnight’ parties.

3. Jonkonnu is a masquerade dance tradition practiced in Jamaica and other Caribbean  locations. Sheila Barnett (1979) provides a good introduction to Jonkonnu dance, characters and costumes.

4. Burton (1997), Stewart (2005) and Rediker (2008) all provide accounts of the cultural  practices of enslaved Africans.

5. The Baptist Wars were a series of uprisings instigated and led by Sam Sharpe, whilst  Paul Bogle led the Morant Bay uprising against the British. See: Kennedy (2008) and Hutton  (2015) for details of these Jamaican national heroes. 

6. Ska was adopted by working-class white youths as part of the skinhead movement of  the 1960s and influenced Punk Rock and Two Tone music in the 1970s, with bands such  as The Specials, Madness and many others drawing from the energy of Ska. Christopher  Partridge (2007) provides an insight into the influence of sound system culture on British  popular music.

7. Many black women spent hours using a hot-comb placed on an open flame, such as a  gas cooker or paraffin heater to press their hair straight and style it with curls.

8. This was a common humorous reference to a couple whose romantic coupling had  danced or rubbed out the skirt pleats. Similarly, a female may have entered the dance  wearing a pencil skirt with a six-inch split but may find it had increased, perhaps to twelve  inches, after dancing out the night. 

9. Norman (2008) provides an in-depth interpretation of the sexual connotations and links  with Jouissance relating to spirituality.


Barnett, S. (1979). ‘Jonkonnu: Pitchy, Patchy’. Jamaica Journal. 18-32. Beckford, R. (2006) Jesus Dub: Theology, Music and Social Change. Oxon,  New York, NY: Routledge. 

Cooper, C. (2004) Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large. New  York, NY; Hampshire, England: Palgrave Macmillan.  

Fuchs, T. (2003) ‘The Phenomenology of Shame, Guilt and the Body in  Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Depression’. Journal of Phenomenological  Psychology, 33(2), pp.223-243.  

Hewitt, G. (2020) The Windrush Scandal, Caribbean Quarterly, 66:1, 108- 128, DOI: 10.1080/00086495.2020.1722378

Hutton, C. (2015) Colour for Colour Skin for Skin: Marching with the  Ancestors into War Oh at Morant Bay. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle  Publishers.  

Kennedy, F. W. (2008). Daddy Sharpe: a narrative of the life and adventures  of Samuel Sharpe, a west indian slave, written by himself, 1832. Kingston,  Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers. 

Mills, C. (1997) ‘Smadditizin’, Caribbean Quarterly, Volume 43:2, pp.54-68  Norman, R. (2008) ‘Jouissance, Generation and the Coming of God’,  Theology & Sexuality, Vol 14, Issue 2, pp.153-180. content/14/2/153  

Partridge, C. H. (2007) Dub in Babylon: The Emergence and Influence of  Dub Reggae with Particular Reference to British Punk and Post-Punk in the  1970s. PhD Dissertation. University of Liverpool.  

Reid, C. S. (1988) Samuel Sharpe: From Slave to National Hero. Kingston,  Jamaica: Bustamante Institute of Public and International Affairs. 

H Patten 

Dr H Patten, Artistic Director of Koromanti Arts and H Patten Dance Theatre Company is an experienced choreographer, performer, filmmaker, storyteller and author. He currently teaches African and Caribbean dance  and popular culture at several universities and arts organisations, including  IRIE! Dance Theatre’s BA (Hons) Degree course. His international reputation in African and Caribbean arts spans over 35 years, winning him several  awards including the Jamaican High Commission 50th Anniversary Award  for services in Arts, Culture and Entertainment (2012). Having authored a number of articles and books, H is currently embarking on an Independent  Social Research Foundation (ISRF) Independent Scholar Fellowship.  

© H Patten