The place of dance at Carnival

Caroline Muraldo, performing at the 2016 NHC launch

The place of dance at Carnival

By Caroline Muraldo
Photographer Stephen Spark

United Kingdom | Sunday 16 October 2016: 14:14 BST

One only has to look back to the mas characters of Ol’ Mas or to contemporary greats of Trinidad such Peter Minshall, Wayne Berkeley and George Bailey to see examples of how dance has been used to create a spectacle that is true performing art theatre.

Ol’ Mas characters each had their own costume, music and dance movement. The Bat, for example, used bat-like movements, crawling, flapping, dancing on his toes and folding his wings in a series of choreographed movements. Those who danced this role often enough would develop their movements to truly resemble the bat.

The Burrokeet mimicked the antics of a donkey in the Burriquite dance, which originated Venezuela. When confronted by a pool of water on the road, the Dragon had to dance in submission to the Imp King before he could attempt to jump over the water after being taunted by the little imps. Fancy Sailors had several dances, such as the Bote, Crab, Marrico, Pachanga, Rock de Boat, Skip Jack and the Camel Walk. The dance movement of each character was an inextricable part of the mas portrayal.

Then there are the productions by great mas artists such as Peter Minshall, Wayne Berkeley and George Bailey. Peter Minshall described mas this way:

Mas is a powerful communicative expression of the spiritual and physical energy of human beings. Mas is a combination of music, dance, sculpture and painting. Mas is communication with gesture and movement, it is danced, it is played, from the speech of the Midnight Robber to the extraordinary brilliance of the Fancy Sailor.

Low status of African heritage dance in England
When carnival began in London there was no context of communal dance practice enjoyed in England that could compare with the continuity of practices found in Ol’ Mas in Trinidad. Dance is not generally esteemed or taken seriously by English culture unless of course you talking about classical ballet, and even its supporters form only a minority of the population.

When I studied dance at BA Hons, MA and PhD levels, I wanted to deepen my understanding of and participation in dances of African heritage generally and Caribbean dance forms specifically.

In the dance establishments I attended, I was dismayed at the lack of understanding of dance of African heritage. Most of the texts I had to study displayed blatant ethnocentric, racist views about dance forms from Africa. We were never given any texts that were about dances of the Caribbean. It was as if they didn’t exist; even renowned dance practitioners such as Beryl McBurnie and Catherine Dunham didn’t get a look in.

The result was that unthinking dancers came out of such training believing dance of African heritage was of little worth, while ballet and contemporary dance forms were ‘real dance’. At Surrey University, the head of the dance department at that time told students that there was no benefit to them studying dances of Africa heritage.

Dance at Notting Hill Carnival
As a professional choreographer I delight in the challenge of communicating ideas to an audience where the dance choreography comes first and all else is created to support it. But with choreographing for carnival in Notting Hill the challenge increases. It has to include the effective movement of the costumes that are often made without dance in mind to be danced by non-professionals in a sizeable group of masqueraders of mixed levels of dance ability. The dance has to be enjoyable for all, yet still effective in communicating the theme.

However, what I see today often amounts to hastily put together routines on the actual day of carnival, simple routines merely mimicking music lyrics or no dance sequence at all but merely a mishmash of whining up to the music. This is in front of the judges. On the rest of the route, I find myself all too often having to avert my eyes, as too much of what can be seen really belongs in a bedroom setting!

As a professional dancer/choreographer it distresses me that dance appears to have lost its integral position within the carnival mas presentation in Notting Hill.

No band would employ someone who just wants to make costumes but has no knowledge of how to do so. No one would get a DJ to play the music who has no professional experience. Or to play pan without proper training. Yet too often dance is a last-minute consideration that is given to the youngsters to do without even professional advice.

I believe that there is no reason why dance cannot have a significant place in mas presentations. I am convinced that the inclusion of dance as a true strand of the mas presentation on the road would contribute to presenting bands on the road in a more powerful way.

Dance should be allowed to assume its rightful place within the Notting Hill Carnival context, collaborating and intricately woven with the costume and music to challenge, delight and communicate what carnival is truly about.

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Soca News
February 2017

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