In the first quarter of the twentieth century in Tunapuna, various sections of the Yoruba community threw an African dance, or belé, once a year. Belmont Yoruba, nine miles away, was invited and so were those from St Joseph. Dancing took place in a bamboo-framed tent roofed by carat leaves. Female celebrants dressed in douillette and carried large handkerchiefs. – Maureen Warner-Lewis, Guinea’s Other Suns
THE African component of the belé dance is strong, across the Caribbean and here in TT.
In Martinique for instance, belé more closely represents the dances of mating and fertility common on the African continent. Here, belé is a couples dance, consisting mainly of feet moving front and back, turning dipping, bending of the back and other movements culminating in the thrusting of the pelvis between man and woman.
I discovered the Ekombi dance of the Efik peoples of Nigeria, meant to celebrate female beauty and honour the healing power of water. It is also said to be a mating or marriage dance.
Our Congo belé from Tobago shares some similarities with Ekombi. There are patterns familiar to other versions of the belé, including coupling and executing some of the movements while kneeling on the ground.
I noticed as well, parallels with the costuming and movements usually attributed to the Dame Lorraine.
Why does any of this matter? While many of our cultural traditions contain influences from French and other cultures, it must be recognised that Africans hid and preserved much of their culture which, after emancipation, was then revealed.
It is true there was considerable cross-culturisation as well. That is, the Europeans mocked the power they had over the Africans by adopting and even changing some of the clothing and customs of the enslaved, while the Africans imitated some of the practices of upper-class European society.
In TT, belé evolved in different ways. belé was also called Belair. The term Belair was used to describe dances performed at Carnival time, as well as songs of sensuality and pleasure.
The strong African influence of the Tobago dance was contrasted in Trinidad by a dance “presided over by elected kings and queens, with women wearing old-fashioned French dresses.” The songs that accompanied the dance were led by a chantuelle. The Trinidad version of the dance is flirtatious as well, as represented by the flick of the wrists to adjust the skirt or the hip movements.
Why did the enslaved dance? Contrary to racist academic writings, they did not dance because they were happy.
“One myth that Southern slave owners and proponents perpetuated was that of the slave happily singing from dawn to dusk as he or she worked in the fields, prepared meals in the kitchen, or maintained the upkeep of the plantation.”
As part of the justification for the brutal institution, this falsehood was repeated wherever in the world people were enslaved. Of course, as all humans do, they found moments of joy in their cruel existence.
However, throughout the Caribbean, many anti-slavery rebellions were planned while the enslaved dance, sang and made music with the instruments that they were allowed to play. Festivities were thus often about resistance. The dance, song and other forms of expression were their means of survival; it was how they plotted rebellion.
It is essential that we make a concerted effort to "unlearn" the destructive narratives of the colonisers.
The stripping away of what we have been taught is essential to becoming more comfortable with the various beliefs and practises that make up the entire TT culture.
This is the only way to deny the influence of narcissistic politicians, or ill-informed people who are more focused on the factors that divide, rather than unite us.
Further, mutual respect for our traditions will allow us to firmly locate the people of this nation at the centre of our quest for development.
Our Carnival, our festivals, the way we worship, dress, speak or wear our hair – these are all ways of celebrating our unity and collective strength.
I chose to write about the belé dance, because of the love that the late Gregor Breedy had for this artform.
My piece today is therefore in memory of a dancer who was committed to teaching but who never stopped learning.
I also pay homage to the local dancers who loom largest in my own dance journey – the formidable legacies of Molly Ahye, Beryl McBurnie, Pat Roe, Julia Edwards and Astor Johnson. Rest in peace always, through the movement and power of our dance.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN.