To contextualise our work, here is a brief background and historical trail of some of the dance styles that have inspired us in creating our pieces. Ella Mesma Company uses a diverse range of folkloric dance styles including contact work from partner dances (such as salsa, tango, kizomba), breaking, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian folkloric dances and capoeira. The meeting of these different styles and cultures reflects the diversity and life experience of company members, and we have begun to refer to the work we make as diaspora dance theatre, because we recognise that the roots of these folkloric dances lie in Africa,and that we are also making our own new journey, just as these dances did: taking influence from the past and making sense of them in the context with the lives we live now.
Dance has always been an integral part of daily life in Africa. Africans forced to Brazil, Cuba, America and the Caribbean islands as slaves meant that the diverse dance styles of many African ethnic groups merged with indigenous and European dances. Dance helped enslaved Africans maintain connections with their homeland, keeping cultural traditions alive. Enslaved Africans in Cuba, Brazil, the Caribbean, and South America were given more freedom to dance than enslaved Africans in North America.
The term Afro Cuban refers to music and dance that combine elements of black African, indigenous and Spanish culture. Nearly 1 million Africans from West and Central Africa were captured and brought to Cuba from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and Afro Cuban dances reflect the traditions and dances of four main groups of enslaved Africans. The majority of enslaved Africans in Cuba were Yoruba and thus the Yoruba religion is still strong in Cuba today. As the religion includes drumming and dancing, these feature in Afro Cuban folkloric dances. Some of the best-known dances are attached to the Yoruba-based Afro Cuban religion of Santería: a syncretic religion (interlacing intra-African and Roman Catholic belief systems and religious practices). Both men and women sing and dance, but only men traditionally play the sacred batá drums that accompany the rituals. The percussive rhythms, songs, and dances of Santería are meant to please the orishas (deities) and to persuade them to join the celebration. There are many Afro Cuban dances, but they include dances of the Orishas (spelled òrìṣà in Yoruba), Rumba and Palo (explained further below).
Originally, the term rumba was used as a synonym for party in northern Cuba. Traditionally, the three main styles of rumba are Yambú, Columbia and Guaguanco, each of which has its own rhythm and a characteristic style of dance and singing.
The columbia style is a solo dance, generally, though not always, performed by males as a competition. The dance of the columbia is acrobatic, mimetic, and competitive; one dancer follows another, each trying to outdo the rest. The columbia is the most virtuosic showpiece for the rumba dancer, with a wide vocabulary of movements that can include gestures from Abakuá, Congo, or Yoruba dancing; Tumba Francesa from Oriente (which is to say, Afro-Caribbean Domingan / Haitian influence); Spanish dancing; pantomimes and mini-dramas that can involve boxing, household tasks, or memories of slavery; and moves from later genres like tap or breaking (breakdance). Women also insisted on dancing columbia, traditionally the province of the male dancer. The most famous Columbiana was Matanzas’s Andrea Baró, and in the UK there is the amazing Luanda Pau daughter of Domingo Pau.
Guaguancó is a dance for couples representing sexual competition between the male and female. The male tries to “catch” his partner with a single thrust of his pelvis. This erotic movement is called the vacunao (‘vaccination’ or more specifically ‘injection’), a gesture symbolizing sexual penetration. The vacunao can also be expressed with a sudden gesture made by the hand or foot. The drummer often accents the vacunao. Holding onto the ends of her skirt while seductively moving her upper and lower body in contrary motion, the female ‘opens’ and ‘closes’ her skirt. The male attempts to distract the female with fancy steps, until he is in position to ‘inject’ her. The female reacts by quickly turning away, bringing the ends of her skirts together, or covering her groin area with her hand (botao), symbolically blocking the ‘injection’. Most of the time the male dancer does not succeed in ‘catching’ his partner.
“The dance is performed with good-natured humour” David Peñalosa
Palo, also known as Las Reglas de Congo, is a religion with various denominations which developed in Cuba among Central African slaves from the region of Congo. Palo dances involve many pelvic and torso movements. Drums and hand rattles are used in this music, which is based upon communication with ancestral spirits, the dead, as opposed to the Orishas.
Haitian music and dance combine elements of black African brought to Haiti as slaves, indigenous and European culture. It reflects French, African rhythms, Spanish elements and others who have inhabited the island of Hispaniola, Saint-Domingue (later Haiti) and minor native Taino influences.
Haiti saw a steady succession of slave revolts beginning as early as 1679. This would continue into the 18th century, when in the last years before the French Revolution (1785-1789), the French brought 150,000 slaves to Saint-Domingue. Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution inspired millions of free and enslaved people of African descent to seek freedom and equality throughout the Atlantic world.
Close to 4 million slaves were captured and brought to Brazil from the African continent. They belonged to two major groups: the West African and the Bantu people. The West Africans were sent in large numbers to Bahia. They mostly belong to the Ga-Adangbe, Yoruba, Igbo, Fon, Ashanti, Ewe, Mandinka, and other West African groups native to Guinea, Ghana, Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Nigeria. Afro Brazilian dances include samba, capoeira and the dances of the Orixás from the religion Candomblé. Candomblé (meaning dance in honour of the gods) is a religion found primarily in Brazil that incorporates some religious aspects of Yoruba, Bantu, and Fon African societies, and some characteristics of Catholicism as well. These dances are explained further below.
Òrìṣà/Orishas/Orixás (A selection)
Spelled Òrìṣà in Yoruba, Orisha in Cuba and Orixá in Brazil, Orishas are gods that reflect the manifestations of the Supreme God / the All Father Olodumare or Olofi. Different Orisha may have different preferred colours, foods, saints and objects as well as their own characteristics, stories, dances and rhythms.
The Orishas focused on in Ladylike (shown below in artwork by Hugo Canuto) are:
Òrìṣà/Orishas/Orixás: Changó (Shangó)
Chango is the owner of fire, lightning, thunder, and war, but he is also the patron of music, drumming, and dancing. He represents male beauty and virility, passion and power. His colours are red and white, and his eleke (sacred necklace) is made of alternating red and white beads. He had three wives, namely Oshun, Oba, and Oya. Oya is his favourite wife.
Òrìṣà/Orishas/Orixás: Oshun (Osun)
Oshun is an deity of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria. Oshun is commonly called the river orisha, or goddess, in the Yoruba religion and is typically associated with water, purity, fertility, love, and sensuality. Like other gods, she possesses human attributes such as vanity, jealousy, and spite. Oshun gave birth to twins with Shango. When Shango heard the news that Oshun had given birth to the Ibeyi (twins), afraid of what Oya might do to these children, (since she had borne him no children), he decided to take these children from Oshun and leave them with his mother Yemaya. He took the children without a word to Oshun. Upon her return, Oshun found her children gone and knowing that Shango would help her find them, left to find her babies.
Òrìṣà/Orishas/Orixás: Oya (Yansá)
Oya is an Orisha of winds, lightning, and violent storms, death and rebirth. She is similar to the Haitian God Maman Brigitte, who is syncretised with the Catholic Saint Brigit. In Candomblé, Oya is known as Oiá, lyá Mésàn, or most commonly, Iansã, from the Yoruba Yánsán. Iansã, as in Yoruba religion, commands winds, storms, and lightning. In Yoruba, the name Oya literally means ‘She tore’. She is also known as Ọya-Iyansan – the ‘mother of nine’. This is due to the Niger River (known to the Yoruba as the Odo-Ọya) which has nine tributaries.
Òrìṣà/Orishas/Orixás: Oba (Obá)
Oba is the Orisha of the River Oba, whose source lays near Igbon, where her worship originates. She is traditionally identified as the first wife of Shango (the third king of the Oyo Empire and an Orisha). Oba was tricked by Oya or Oshun into cutting off her ear and trying to feed it to Shango.
Òrìṣà/Orishas/Orixás: Osumare (Oshunmare)
Osumare is the spirit of the rainbow and the roadway to unleashing divine consciousness. Osumare represents both masculine and feminine energies with an ability to change sex. Osumare is in essence an archetypal representation of kundalini energy and the chakras. The divine rainbow serpent provides us with the opportunity to connect with our destiny by traveling through the inner self. This powerful Orisha provides an infinite gateway of immense power.
Capoeira is a martial art developed initially by African slaves that came predominantly from Angola, Mozambique and Nigeria to Brazil, mainly in Bahia, where there was a high concentration of black Africans. A popular conception of capoeira is that it was developed as a means of self-defence (disguised as a dance) for slaves hoping to escape to independent black communities or quilombos. A game, a fight, and a dance, capoeira is composed of kicks, acrobatics, and traditional Kongo dance movements. One doesn’t speak of dancing or fighting but rather of playing capoeira (jogar capoeira).
Samba is frequently identified as a musical expression of urban Rio de Janeiro, where it developed during the first years of the 20th century. The word ‘samba’ is thought to be derived from the Kimbundu (Angolan) term ‘semba’, which referred to an ‘invitation to dance’. Artists used samba music to express their opinions on the social, economic and political issues in the country. In the 1870s, politicians attempted to prohibit samba on the pretext that folkloric dances shamed Brazil’s national image, but it is widely believed that artists were censored during the country’s dictatorships for disguising protest messages in songs. By the 1980s, samba became associated with a more ethnically aware political movement, aligned both with the Black Power movement in the United States and the Caribbean as well as the Pan-African movement in Africa.
African-Americans sang and danced while working as slaves, and as they converted to the religions of the Americas, they incorporated these traditions into these religions. Many North American slave owners barred Africans from most forms of dancing. Africans found ways of getting around these prohibitions. For example, since lifting the feet was considered dancing, many dances included foot shuffling and hip and torso movement. Dances dominant through the 18th century included the ring shout or ring dance, the calenda, the chica, and the juba.
The Creole Show, a revue staged on Broadway in 1891, introduced ‘The Cakewalk’, the first dance created by blacks to become popular with the white population. Other black-influenced dance trends that followed were the Charleston, the lindy hop, the jitterbug, and the twist. Black musical theatre, derived from minstrel shows, popularised and legitimised black dance traditions and black performers.
Tap combined elements of African-influenced shuffle dances, English clog dancing, and Irish jigs. Black dancers such as Bill Robinson, brought the new form respectability and popularity. Tap dancing developed further in the 1930s and 1940s when white dancers included it in motion pictures. During the 1930s and 1940s, leading white choreographers integrated African-American themes and movement styles into their dances and hired black dancers to perform them. Also during this time, two American dancers who had been trained as anthropologists, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus made immeasurable contributions to African-influenced dance based on their research done in Africa and the Caribbean. Lester Horton and Alvin Ailey contributed significantly to modern dance. (extracts taken from African American a Brief History)
Salsa is a music and dance that initially arose in New York City during the 1960s, but the music had already been going strong in the city for several decades prior to the use of the label ‘salsa’. New York had been a centre of Cuban-style dance music since the 1940s. By the early 1950s, there were three very popular mambo big bands in New York: Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodríguez. The Palladium Ballroom was the epicentre of mambo in New York. At the height of its popularity, the Palladium attracted Hollywood and Broadway stars, especially on Wednesday nights, when a free dance lesson was offered. The mambo and its ‘temple’, the Palladium, were racially and ethnically integrated.
Latin jazz, which was also developed in New York City, has had a significant influence on salsa music. Salsa is primarily Cuban son, itself a fusion of Spanish canción and guitar and Afro Cuban percussion, merged with North American music styles such as jazz. Salsa also occasionally incorporates elements of rock, R&B, and funk. The first salsa bands were predominantly Cuban refugees and Puerto Ricans who moved to New York in the 1920s. Some of the founding salsa artists were Johnny Pacheco (the creator of the Fania All-Stars), Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, Rubén Blades, Willie Colón, Larry Harlow, Roberto Roena, Bobby Valentín, Eddie Palmieri and Héctor Lavoe.
Salsa lyrics often quote from traditional Cuban son and rumba songs. Sometimes there are references to Afro Cuban religions, such as Santeria. Salsa lyrics also exhibit Puerto Rican influences. Hector Lavoe, who sang with Willie Colón for nearly a decade used typical Puerto Rican phrasing in his singing. Politically and socially activist composers have long been an important part of salsa, and some of their works, like Eddie Palmieri’s ‘La libertad lógico’, became Latin, and especially Puerto Rican anthems. The Panamanian-born singer Ruben Blades in particular is well known for his socially-conscious and incisive salsa lyrics about everything from imperialism to disarmament and environmentalism. Many salsa songs contain a nationalist theme, centered around a sense of pride in black Latino identity, and may also be in Spanish, English or a mixture of the two (Spanglish).
Hip hop combines rapping (also known as mc’ing), graffiti, breakdancing and D.J.-ing.
Hip hop music is considered to have been pioneered in New York’s South Bronx in 1973 by Jamaican-born Kool DJ Herc. At a Halloween dance party thrown by his younger sister, Herc used an innovative turntable technique to stretch a song’s drum break by playing the break portion of two identical records consecutively. The popularity of the extended break lent its name to ‘breakdancing’, a style specific to hip hop culture, which was facilitated by extended drumbreaks played by DJs at New York dance parties. By the mid-1970s, New York’s hip hop scene was dominated by seminal turntablists DJ Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and Herc.
Rocking came before breaking and is also known as ‘uprock’ or the ‘Brooklyn rock’. It is a competitive dance battle from early 1970s New York. Evolved from salsa, the hustle and other popular dance forms, the youth were ‘rocking’ as entertainment and in an effort to avoid involvement in gangs and violence. The dance consists of footwork, burns () and a four point body movement called the ‘jerk’. While many other dance battles and popular dances happen in a circle, Uprocking battles take place in a formation called the Apache Line. The battle is like a ‘faux-fight’ and is danced to a whole song facing one another. In the break in the music (the point where there is only instrumentals and no lyrics: for example the montuno section in a Salsa song) is where they will jerk on the ‘Apache line’.
B’boying or Breaking is a style of street dance that originated among African Americans & Puerto Rican youths in New York City during the early 1970’s. A style of acrobatic and funk dancing, breaking is often performed to hip hop & funk. The dancers came to be called ‘B-boys’ or ‘B-girls’ because they got down on the floor and used the breaks in the music to show off their moves.
The earliest b-boys are said to be 90 percent African-American, and the rest mostly Puerto Rican-Americans. Elements of breaking may been influenced by a wide range of dance styles and other sources. These include Kaduna (dating from 1959 Nigeria), tap dance, salsa, ‘Good Foot’ (from James Brown’s record of the same name), Kung Fu films and capoeira. However, B boys ‘Crazy Legs’ and ‘Ken Swift’, say they never witnessed capoeira when they were young.
Breaking is clearly connected to ‘Breakbeat’. Bboying is one of the four original elements of what we know as the hip hop culture, a term coined by Africa Bambataa to include the sub cultures that were developing organically in NY City. Beginning with DJ Kool Herc, Bronx-based DJs would take the rhythmic breakdown sections (also known as the “breaks”) of dance records and loop them (in salsa these would be called ‘montuno’). These shorter ‘throwdowns’ also meant they had more energy to dance complex and highly acrobatic moves than in rocking. The breakbeat made a rhythmic base that allowed breakers to display their improvisational skills for the duration of the break. This led to the first battles (competitions between two individuals or dance crews, judged with respect to creativity, skill, and musicality). Battles occurred in cyphers (circles of people gathered around the breakers).
Breaking movements include intricate toprock (stand up moves), get downs (moves to transition to the floor), fast footwork (such as the 6 step), and power moves (such as windmills). The dance spread worldwide due to popularity in the media, especially in regions such as South Korea, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and Japan.
Towards the end of the 1980s, partly out of the black community’s frustrations with racism, a more politically engaged rap music, known as ‘conscious rap’, rose as a sub-genre of hip hop.
Some important figures in the preservation and promotion of breaking include Kenneth ‘Ken Swift’ Gabbert and Richard ‘Crazy Legs’ Colon of Rock Steady Crew and Gabriel ‘Kwikstep’ Dioniso and Ana ‘Rokafella’ Garcia of Full Circle Productions.