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Early Globalization and The Roots of Dancehall

By Canace Morgan, Mount Holyoke College


The pulsating digital sounds of dancehall music permeate Jamaican life, sometimes to the point of intrusiveness. Its tracks, played in an empty bar, keep community members hearts dancing at nights, and create a steady pulse that leads them into the mornings. This was my first experience of dancehall; as the sound that invaded my room at nights. My second came in a summer school. The voice of artiste “Elephant man” bounced off the walls and a classmate pulled me to my feet. “Let’s dance”, she said and after protest, I found myself hitting my hands above my head, jumping on one foot and “giving them a run” for the next two hours. That day I learned that I could dance long, that I could feel alive in dance, and that my back could sweat. The music felt like a part of me and until it stopped playing, I was going to keep dancing.

There is a barely concealed perception is that someone is not Jamaican if he or she does not listen to or participate in dancehall. It after all, surrounds you from the birth. This characteristic of dancehall music to surround you explains the actions and beliefs of Jamaicans. Though the word dancehall connotes being in a particular space, it really means creating a
space wherever the music is being played, whether on your own, with friends or in a club. Because of this, one can find a woman in the middle of town “bubbling”; a term used to describe rhythmic hip movement to the heavy beat, or a group of friends on a corner creating their own rhythms. Jamaican’s seem to walk with dancehalls within them.

This transportable view of dancehall points to its ability to maintain an identity that is distinctly Jamaican regardless of the changes it undergoes. It also speaks of dancehalls transnational identity that is able to assimilate the culture of whatever country it enters yet maintain its strong Jamaican roots. This paper will  explore how various cultures have contributed to the forming of dancehall and how that dance has spread globally, returning constantly to its source.

Early Globalization and the Roots of Dancehall

The Oxford Dictionary defines globalization as the process by which business or other organizations develop international influence. Globalization, however, also has cultural implications. A reduction of barriers in trade and travel, characteristic elements of economic globalization, creates the opportunity for a meeting and intermingling of cultures, and has given rise to the term “cultural globalization”, defined by Takis Fotopolous, philosopher and economist, as the homogenization of culture.

Despite popular belief, this homogenization is not a recent occurrence. According to Noël Carroll (2007), the exchange of culture began a long time ago between Europe and Asia, Rome and India, and amongst Hellenistic Empires that arose after Alexander the Great. Certainly, in the mid 17th century a form of globalization was taking place through the slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean. The intermingling of people from diverse cultures, Spanish, English and other European slave owners, African slaves and Indian and Asian immigrants, created a hybrid of culture in the Caribbean, and specifically, in Jamaica. According to Yvonne Daniel (2011), Caribbean culture is itself, a constant cultural collision; it is fundamentally global.

The thesis of this paper is that dancehall, a dance expression emerging from the inner-city communities of Kingston, Jamaica, is fundamentally global, being an outcome of centuries of varied dance expressions, predominantly African but with European influences as well. The paper also outlines that having been developed in Jamaica from imported cultures, dancehall is being re-exported through the force of cultural globalization.

The term dancehall in its broadest sense refers to the physical space in which dances are held, but also to the music created for and played within those spaces, to the fashion and very importantly to the dance styles emerging from the music and performed within the physical arena. Most academic research on dancehall has however focused on the music, lyrics and lifestyle, and material on the “dance” in dancehall is relatively sparse. In an interview I conducted with a young Jamaican male, I sought to determine the place of “dance” in dancehall. Because I had previously gotten a response from another interviewee about the music alone, I stated that my interest was in both the dance and the music. He promptly corrected me, “you can’t have dancehall, widout dance”. When I asked for clarification, he explained, “It’s just the way it is ever since. Even before us.” The sparse information on the dance history of dancehall may be a result of the fact that the dancehall tends to be heard before it is seen. As mentioned in the introduction, the music tends to intrude every public and private place, the dance however, tends to go unnoticed unless it is stumbled upon, such as in passing a zealous person or group on the road,   or if it is sought out, in a club, concert or “dancehall” (space). The dance therefore is usually the last to be seen, after the music is heard, the language is spoken, and the fashion is seen. For many Jamaicans however, the dance and music are inseparable.


Despite the emancipation of slaves in 1838 and Jamaica’s independence from Britain in 1962, a cultural dichotomy has persisted in the country. The society was divided into what was perceived as “high-culture” of the white group, and “low-culture”, which was predominantly black. This division created a struggle over the identity of Jamaica, which would display either the “superior” European or American culture or the denigrated African culture.

Dancehall is the most current manifestation of what is deemed low culture and is historically negated. Its primary language, patois, patwa, or Creole, is a mixture of African retentions and British English with some similarities in Chinese syllables. Rather than being considered a separate language it is considered an informal, lower class English. By relying on patois, dancehall created a resistance to the existing state structure of British superiority; it demonstrated the creation of a new state that occurred through the blending of the languages that existed in Jamaica during the times of slavery to the 19th century. Similarly, the dance in dancehall is a blend of dance languages shaped by globalization.

Stanley- Niaah (2004) describes dancehall as the choreographing of an identity that comments on aspects of Western domination. It is, she says, the manifestation of a performance culture created by people exposed to various, differing cultures, in the confines of a small island space. As such, dancehall contains a unique revelry, space, and tension with the ruling class. It is a representation of a restless spirit arising from a globalized environment.

Globalization and the Dance Language of Dancehall

Dancehalls historical dimension is generally unacknowledged. Instead, Jamaicans and onlookers perceive dancehall as a purely Jamaican product; the definition of Jamaican generally suggests that the product was developed in the country or by someone who was lived there. However, the dances are the result of meeting of forces from different points of the globe.

Even during slavery, the African population in Jamaica was allowed some freedom in dance on particular nights. Generally, cultural expression such as drumming was banned, but despite this, hybridized African cultures thrived. Dancehall, which as of this point refers to the dance styles, has its roots in African religious dances as well as in dances of entertainment and celebration. For example Nyaah (2010) traces several dancehall steps, chief among which is the limbo, back to the slave ship experience.


This limbo dance style, she states, emerged from the practical need to “loosen up” after spending days in cramped positions in the holds of slave ships. It is characterized by bending backwards with the torso of more agile dancers almost touching the ground, and was practiced even after arriving on the plantations. It was reintroduced into the dancehall (location) by now deceased dancer Bogle, and so carries his name to this day.


Slave dances in the Caribbean served a practical purpose, were a source of entertainment to the enslaved people and were also a medium through which the slaves could get back at their masters by mocking their manners and attitudes. “Bruckins” a traditional Jamaican dance which is said to be a fusion of Junkanoo and Set Girl parades of the 18th and 19 centuries, portrays rival kings and queens and their entourage in mock duels.   Bruckin’s is a stately, dipping-gliding dance typified by the “thrust and recovery” action of the hip and leg. The movement was said to have been derived from the Pavane, a European court dance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However strong African elements include the jutting out of the pelvis, bent knees and backward tilted torso;  elements attributable to the dances of West Africa. Similar moves are also evident in late 20th century Jamaican dancehall moves.

Other dances in the dancehall echo Kumina an African religious dance practiced in some sections of the island. As described by Shepard, 2003:

“The basic dance posture (of Kumina) is an almost erect back, bent knees, and feet flat in either first or fourth position stance (ballet term) itching and shuffling along as the hip performs side to side or forward thrusting actions. This is accentuated by dip (a subtle drop on the right leg) as the dancers move forward. Intricate footwork, the undulation of the ribcage, shoulders and arm movements, along with wide flat-footed spins followed by a sudden break (a stop in movement) are performed in response to the polyrhythm of the drumming, and reflect retentive African traditional dance elements within Kumina.”

In 1992, The Butterfly dance reigned as the top dancehall move. With the hands and spread legs, it depicts the life force of a butterfly. It is danced on plié (knees bent), a characteristic feature of dance movements of Africa and its Diaspora, with the feet flat, supporting the dynamic displacement of the hip and shoulder girdles and legs, while the fluid movement of the knees laterally on a horizontal axis imitates the flapping of the butterfly’s wings in flight. The dancehall’s Butterfly presents not only a dance but also a dancehall philosophy and ethos of freedom, creativity, celebration, struggle, and beauty. Dancehall style revolves around and is expressed by the body. In particular, the dancing body embodies dancehall style and becomes a crucial site for articulation for the individual and the group.


Jamaican dances have therefore emerged from the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade, the patterning of dances and behaviors of European masters and as well, from African religious expression.


Dancehall and the Jamaican identity

Louise Bennett, Jamaican poet who broke local literary tradition by writing in patois, defines a “Jamaican” as one who has “a whole heap a culture, an tradition, an birthrite dat han dung to dem from generation to generation.” In other words, a Jamaican is one who has had the culture formed in Jamaica and passed down to him/her from birth. I dare to push this further and say that one is not considered as fully Jamaican by only possessing the culture, but by also proudly claiming and acting on with it. A Jamaican therefore will eat the local foods, speak the local language and partake in the local culture. The less one appears to participate in the things considered deeply Jamaican, is the less Jamaican one appears to be.

Participating in dancehall is one of those cultural qualifiers to the Jamaican identity. Though dancehall does not readily acknowledge its historical dimension, it recognizes the continuity of culture within its community, especially when one is heard saying, “is just the way things have been from ever since.”

Dancehall, being the product of black, lower class Jamaican youth responding to (and continuing) the way things have

QQ, a dancehall artist, had already gained recognition at age 10, with a hit song on iTunes titled Stukkie

always been, is Jamaican. It is furthermore, the proud articulation and projection of the distinct Jamaican identity that they have experienced. By creating the dancehall, lower class Jamaicans continued to respond to life through a culture of dance and music passed down to them from birth. By doing so they continue to create a cultural counter-world to Western society that applauds its own fashion, music, dance and language, and works on an almost separate economy. This world passes on its worldviews, motivations and values to the next generation, long before they choose to participate in it. Dancehall therefore, is not merely a genre of music and dance to Jamaicans it is an identity. Ricky Trooper dancehall DJ expresses this belief when he says that dancehall is a part of him because it was in the dancehall that he was born and grown.

Yet, not all Jamaicans were born in the inner cities, in which dancehall was formed, so why is it considered such a defining part of the Jamaican identity? Aside from continuing a tradition of social commentary that others in the society can relate to, especially youth, dancehall is continuously invasive and loud. Through dancehall, the “lower-culture” has fashioned a sense of pride in where they have come from, despite its unfavorable appearances. This pride demands that one wears who they are on their sleeves. As such, dancehall surrounds the island. Combined with its social and personal commentary, its influence is not only far reaching but relatable and thus secure. In fact, by the 1990s dancehall influence was recognized as outweighing the combined influence of the church, politicians and the educational system, as it spoke bare facedly about life. This bold life commentary is acceptable as a solid representation of Jamaican identity, because it is recognized as true for the majority of the Jamaican population and because it embodies well the Jamaican motto, “Out of many, one people.”

In a world that is becoming increasingly conducive to globalization, the dancehall music and dance have migrated beyond the confines of the small island space to North America, Europe and parts of Asia, amongst other countries. In fact, dancehalls global reach has been expanded through the thriving tourism industry in Jamaica; Jamaica was named “The Caribbean’s Leading Destination” in 2011, and the constant display of culture when Jamaicans migrate to the UK, United States and Canada and other countries.  As a major definer of the Jamaican identity, it follows that dancehall is usually proudly displayed in music and dance in the global world.

Dancehalls Global Reach


In 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, Usain Bolt 100m sprint and 200m gold medallist, performed several dancehall movements during his victory lap. The most memorable involved pointing to the sky, then leaning backward  as if launching an arrow. The move, “To Di Werl (world)” was a statement of the extent to which Jamaicans wanted to display their culture. Dancehall was not simply a culture that would rise and die quickly in Jamaica, but is intended for the world, to achieve international popularity.

To di Werl

Usain Bolt celebrate his victories with the famous To Di Werl pose and other dancehall moves, increasing the popularity of dancehall worldwide

Bolts performance, however, was not dancehalls first launch into the global world. In fact, in the second half of the 20th century dancehall planted itself firmly within the Japanese, European and American markets.In 1990, Buju Banton, a prominent dancehall artist began touring the US at the release of his first album, by the turn of the 21st century his tours would cover between 17 and 32 of the states, and on occasion all 50. His tours also took him to Europe, Israel, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa (Stanley Niaah 2010). In 1994, dancehall record sales, in the US, had reached a high of $300 million a year in the market (Stolzoff, 2000). In 2006, US movie producers launched a DVD titled “Dance-U-Mentary” that featured the top dancehall dancers and celebrities in the history of dancehall and their commentary on the dance and music. That same year the top dancehall DJs in Japan, Mighty Crown, celebrated their 15-year anniversary with both Jamaican artistes and Japanese DJs. The anniversary indicated the achievement and uncompromising nature of Japanese performers and audiences at having a dancehall culture that can support its own clubs, sound systems, dancehall tunes, and dance competitions in Japan (Stanley Niaah 2010).  Before that, in 2002, Junko Kudo, from Japan, became the first international dancehall queen. She opened the door for other international dancers to compete in the competitions held yearly in Jamaica. Since then, Japan, Finland, Austria, Germany, and several states in the United States, amongst other countries have held their own National Dancehall Queen Competitions. The start of the International Dancehall Queen Competition in Jamaica, alongside its personal competition, further defined the increasing popularity of dancehall in the face of globalization.

Dancehalls Rejection Letter

Two Dancers engaging in a small scale dancehall event


Alongside dancehalls increasing popularity however, there remains disapproval. Much like the responses from upper class Jamaican citizens, many in Britain deem dancehall a vulgar and inappropriate expression of sexuality and violence. In several other countries, including Caribbean countries such as Barbados alongside, dancehall artistes have been banned from performing because of the violent lyrics, sexually explicit songs, and homophobic content. There has been however no attempt at stopping dancehall events and dancing. Perhaps because the dancing itself changes so quickly, it is hard to put a hand on.


In 2006, however, the US media warned and joked about the dangers involved with the then popular Dutty Wine dance. This mirrored the actions of “high-class” members of Jamaicans in the 1970s when the news and churches carried information on the dangers of performing dances such as the erkle.


Carolyn Cooper suggest that the reason there has been such a backlash on the content of dancehall songs, and by my extension a denigration of the dance style, is because of the lack of understanding of Jamaican culture and language. Indeed much of Jamaica’s culture involves the taking of “Serious matter mek play”. Cooper expands on the matter by saying that much of the language used should be interpreted within the observed context of both current Jamaican culture and historical happenings. It is not enough, I believe she is saying, to claim violence and vulgarity as the centrality of dancehall, and furthermore as the main issue of Jamaica, one must look at the social commentary in light of how the people making it have been taught is good and bad and judge its behavior from there. After all, what is vulgar in one context is not always considered vulgar in another; many Jamaicans have looked at American in disgust claiming they are pompous. This however does not mean that dancehall does not display vulgar commentaries, they do and despite the ban on artist from some countries, they continue to.

The Jamaican Response to Global Reaction

The responses of Jamaicans to commentary have varied depending on which commentary one views as important to respond to. Anisha P. explained for example that the commentary on over sexuality is actually in reference to only one part of the dancehall. In fact, she says, sex only takes up about one quarter of dancehall events. Brizelle T. on the other hand, stated that she no longer identified with dancehall because of its homophobic and sexually demeaning lyrics towards women. She however, sees no problem with dancing to it because she knows it is purely fun for her and her friends. Latanya C. further explains that one cannot simply describe the dancehall they have to experience it. She suggests that, if they do, they would no longer have negative comments.

A group of Japanese dancehall dancers take some time out for a picture at a dancehall event in Jamaica

Latanya’s belief seems to support itself on the large number of people who do support dancehall and its dancing. This fan base, if I may, is highly valued in the dancehall community as valid responses to the dancehall culture.  It is believed that these people are accepting (everyone else is considered “badmind”, a term used to connote bitterness and a desire to see ones downfall), and they are welcomed with open arms. They are met with patience when they attempt the dances and applause when they pull it off. Rihanna, for example, was highly praised after her Grammy 2012 Performance, in which she performed several dancehall moves.

The biggest criticism is reserved for those who are considered a part of the Jamaican family (or a descendant) who seem to reject a part of the dancehall culture to maintain popularity in the international popularity. Recent victim to this disapproval are Sean “Shanda” Paul. Sean Paul received  criticism from Jamaicans for not putting out authentic dancehall music since his award winning album “Dutty Rock”. Despite Sean Paul stating that his allegiance is still with dancehall, his critics have not been swayed, as “actions talk louder than words”.


The history of Jamaica with its convergence of peoples from varied cultural background created a solid foundation for the emergence of dancehall; dance and music. This same history has also made it possible for dancehall to extend its boundaries beyond the small island state of Jamaica to the rest of the world.


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Andrea Shepard, 2003. Dept of Educational Technology, San Diego State University,. Retrieved from http://mydancing.com/port/musicroots.htm





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