Dancehall is a genre of music that started in the late 1970s that has since transformed into an entire culture. Originating in Kingston, Jamaica at a time wrought with political turbulence and violence, Dancehall provided people with a much needed reprieve from these difficult times.
Dancehall focused on dancing and having fun, as well as the reality of the violence Jamaica was experiencing. This stood in contrast with the slow paced, politically driven reggae music that had dominated Jamaica. Named after the physical spaces called “dance halls”, where working class people would frequent, Dancehall would provide an escape for many inner-city youths.
A local in front of a sound system.
Dancehall started as an underground genre in Kingston. Artists would drop lyrics and rhymes over various instrumentals called “riddims” at gatherings, stage shows and sound clashes where deejays, alongside local sound systems, would compete. The 1980s saw the popularity of dancehall rise in Jamaica when one of the largest shows, 'Sting', made its debut. At this point, Dancehall as a genre of dance began to take its shape.
As dancehall made its way into people's hearts through relatable lyrics about their situation, the rhythms and beats became an attraction for international artists to collaborate. By the 1990s and early 2000s, Dancehall began to receive international recognition especially through artists like Beenie Man and Sean Paul collaborating with American mainstream artists like Mya and Beyoncé, respectively. While Dancehall had its critics, Jamaicans and Americans wholeheartedly fell in love with the music and saw its potential.
Women in Waterhouse, Kingston. The OUCH Crew
What started as mere fun quickly became a trend and a part of Jamaican culture. Eventually, Dancehall was no longer just a music genre. Outside of the lively riddims, Dancehall was characterized by fashion and style, personality and attitude, and of course, vibrant dance moves. All these aspects are critical to the culture that became a space to bring your most creative and authentic self.
The official language of Jamaica is English, but if you’re having trouble understanding what’s being said in Dancehall music, that’s because in Jamaica, people speak the local dialect of Patois or Patwah, as we’d say in Jamaica. You might hear people say that Jamaicans speak “broken English”, and I would like you to look them squarely in the eyes and say “No, you’re wrong.” Patois is a blend of languages with influence from Jamaica’s African, Native Arawak, English, Spanish, and French colonial heritages.
The Dance Style
Like the language, the Dancehall dance style has its roots in Africa. The movements are very grounded and fluid, with an extra element that can be described as “Vibez”. Like many genres of dance, Dancehall has a feminine and a masculine style. The feminine style is known as Female Dancehall and includes movements that focus specifically on the hips, such as the wine/whine, also known as rotate, gyrate, wuk up, and…. BUBBLE. That’s why you hear many Dancehall songs instructing women to bubble 😅.
The masculine side of Dancehall, which both men and women take part in, also has foundations in hip movements, but not in a circular motion like the women, unless they are dancing with a woman. The masculine style can be characterized by smooth movements, footwork, and gun movements.
Here are just a few of the names in the Dancehall scene you should be aware of – vets that have laid the groundwork for those doing it today.
On the music side there’s Super Cat, Yellowman, Shabba Ranks (Also highly influential in the creation of Reggaetón, but that’s another story for another time 😉), Ninja man, Buju Banton, Sister Nancy, and Lady Saw.
On the dance side there are so many dancers that played an influential role, but two very important names you should know are Bogle and The Original Dancehall Queen Carlene.
This post, of course, is just scratching the surface. There is so much more that I can get into, but hopefully this is a start to help you understand more about Dancehall and its culture. Did you learn something new? Have more questions? Feel free to leave a comment below!
Credits to Raah Vibez