In Trinidad and Tobago dance, just like our food and music, is influenced heavily by our African, Indian and European roots. Here you can find professional dancers in Folk, Latin, Ballet, Indian Classical, Modern dance, African, Ballroom and a range of fusion styles in between.
The African influence on Dance
The African influence can be seen in several of the folk dances of Trinidad and Tobago. Dances such as the Bongo, Kalinda, Shango and Limbo owe their roots to Africa.
The Bongo is performed at the house of the deceased on the night of the wake (the night before the funeral). The dance depicts the passing of a person from one world to the next. No costume is worn. Enclosed by a circle of people, the dancers move in the center while five or six qua-qua players are stationed at one side. The qua-qua is the musical accompaniment for the dance and is simply two pieces of bamboo struck or clapped together rhythmically by the players. The flat sound is struck in the tempo tack-tata-tack-tack, tack-tata-tack-tack.
Usually one dancer performs at a time, but several might compete by dancing together. The basic movement consists of dropping one foot behind the other which is kicked quickly, slightly forward, twice. The arms are outstretched or held slightly forward and upward. Both shake naturally as the hops and kicks are made. There are several variations on this dance.
Limbo has its origins in West Africa where it was danced to train young initiates of the tribe in physical fitness. It was brought to Trinidad by slaves who practiced it at wakes during the Bong session.
Limbo is a competitive dance. Two men hold a stick horizontally while a third shuffles under it, moving forward towards the stick with the body thrown backwards. Participants compete with each other to see who could pass under the stick without touching it. Initially the bar is positioned at waist height but is lowered progressively after every set of competitors gets a turn at going under it. As the stick is lowered it becomes more difficult to get under. The victor is the person who moves under the stick at its lowest point without touching it. This is a test of strength and competitors must have supple waist lines and strong backs. Good dancers can pass under a bar as low as seven inches from the ground.
Traditionally, Limbo was found in fishing villages such as Carenage, Blanchisseuse, Mayaro, Toco and Cumana, but it became popular in the night clubs of Port of Spain during the mid-1940s, spread to other Caribbean islands and then to North America and Europe. In 1948 Limbo was taken out of the countryside and into the ballroom by Charles Espinet, Sub-editor of the Trinidad Guardian. The Youth Council of Trinidad and Tobago presented the “Little Carib Company of Dancers in Limbo” at the Overseas Forces Club in April 1948. That was the first time Limbo was presented theatrically, and since then other dance groups have included Limbo on their programmes, both at home and abroad.
The Chinese Influence on Dance
The Dragon Dance originated in China during the Han Dynasty (180-230AD) as part of the farming culture and spread throughout China. The dance symbolises the bringing of good luck and prosperity to human beings on earth in the year to come. Green is the main colour of the dragon and symbolises great harvest. Other colours are yellow which symbolises prosperity, red which symbolises excitement, and silver which represents the scales and tail of the dragon. These glitter constantly and create a feeling of joy.
The Chinese Lion Dance goes back some one thousand years. The first record of the performance of an early form of the Lion Dance dates to the early Ch’in and Han Dynasties (Third Century B.C.). The lions express joy and happiness. From the fourth day to the fifteenth of the New Year, lion dance groups would tour from village to village in traditional China.
The Lion Dance also plays an important role in the consecration of temples and other buildings, at business openings, planting and harvest times, official celebrations, and religious rites.
During the Tang dynasty, the emperor once dreamed of a palace where he was surrounded by beautiful dancing fairies in colorful flowing robes. This dream turned into a command for a dance with spectacular displays of long silk ribbons to make his dream come alive. The traditional Chinese ribbon dance, once performed only for royalty, is now popular among all walks of life for its grace and beauty.
The Indian Influence on Dance
When the East Indian Indentured labourers came to Trinidad and Tobago they brought with them their culture and traditions, among which was their dance.
In fact dancing was part of their religious ritual and was used as a means of phrasing and worshipping their gods.
Over the years, this art form was expanded to embrace changes in music and cultural influences from our multi-ethnic society. Indeed the art form changed somewhat from the religious rituals to include ceremonial, social and recreational aspects of the society.
The influence of Indian films on the Indian community in Trinidad and Tobago has also caused a shift in towards themes of merriment and gaiety. This influence may have been the catalyst for what is regarded now as Chutney Dancing which is the more suggestive form of Indian dance.