Meanings underpinning Quadrille dancing by enslaved Africans

I started my search for significant, sinister and justifiable reasons for quadrille dancing by posing a similar question to that asked by some of our critics regarding JANUKA’s effort to keep quadrille dancing alive.

The question state:

What did quadrille dancing really mean to our ancestors?

Although I believe our ancestors defiantly danced the quadrille, after long working hours on sugar and tobacco plantations, for enjoyment and relaxation to keep their spirits high, the question above stimulated my thinking that there is more to their actions and reactions than meet the eye.

JANUKA quadrille dancersSearching for hidden meanings

The search for these hidden meanings, although exciting, was long and tedious. The difficulty compounded by the lack of reliable documentary evidence that would illuminate our ancestors’ true rationale for dancing the quadrille, its transformation and transfiguration.

The literature available from a European – Colonialist perspective was considered unreliable as it may not have truly reflected our ancestors’ views and experiences of dancing.

However with knowledge and hindsight of our culture’s “oral tradition” in which our history and culture are transmitted through the mediums of story telling, proverbs, images, art, music and dance, I embarked on my challenging journey of discovery.

I began by re-examining literature and photographs of Africans transported to the Caribbean during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and visited “slave museums” to re-awaken my senses;

I engaged in dialogue about the trans-Atlantic slave trade with African people, especially from Western and Central Africa; discussed memories of family members dancing the quadrille back home with Caribbean elders in our local communities, and with quadrille dancers.

I read comments cited in our performance diary by spectators who willing shared with us their memories that our dancing and its accompanying music have evoked.

I analysed and synthesised this wealth of sensitive information obtained from these sources, to decipher answers to my question.

During the process of reflection, I consciously transported myself to a time and place in history to enable contemplation through the eyes of our ancestors.

The results of the research

The resulting effect was increased wisdom, understanding, and spiritual enlightenment that have enabled me to creatively summarise some of our ancestors’ thought processes and behaviours.

The conclusion drawn is that quadrille dancing by our ancestors was a more morally complex and multifaceted phenomenon than originally thought.

I now believe our ancestors wisely used the quadrille dance to ensure cultural preservation. Through this medium I believe they transmitted coded messages about their socio -cultural and spiritual values and beliefs, and communicated information about past, current and future events affecting their lives during enslavement.

I will now use creative licence to surmise my enhanced understanding of coded messages that our ancestors could have cleverly transmitted through the medium of the quadrille dance.

The sixteen messages (16) identified and explored in this Post 2, and continued in Posts 3 and 4, have provided the foundation for our basic existence and influence our determination to keep quadrille dancing alive.

Message 1:
Music, singing and dancing can liberate your mind, body and soul.

Africans are renowned for their love of music, singing and dancing. They use these mediums to communicate with the universe; to ritualistically express their socio–cultural and spiritual values and beliefs; and to communicate past, present and future events in their communities.

I surmise that such strong values, beliefs and ritualistic practices continued during the process of quadrille dancing.

Message 2:
Develop a strong sense of self identity– Know who you are.

When the Africans arrived in Jamaica, the colonialists attempted to assert their false sense of socio-cultural superiority, power and control. The Africans were therefore forbidden to dance, sing, play music or speak in their different languages.

If caught, they would be severely punished. However they created a new language, and adapted a new and more outwardly acceptable dance form, to keep their culture alive.

I surmise that the Africans believed that enforced socio-cultural degeneration is immoral and should not be condoned. They had a strong sense of self that is innate in their souls. Their natural form of expression could not be contained, diminished, destroyed or controlled by enslavement.

Message 3:
Be proud of your socio- cultural knowledge and practices.

The colonialists lacked knowledge and understanding of the Africans way of life. They overtly denounced the Africans cultural expressions and ways of life as abhorrent, inferior and uncivilized.

There was total disrespect for the Africans who out-numbered them.

Unwillingness to learn and understand the African ways of life was a deliberate strategy to maintain social distance, white supremacy, power and control. However this attitude fostered uncertainty, discomfort and fear in the minds of the colonialists, who then subjected the Africans to constant surveillance.

I surmise that the colonialists’ lack of knowledge and understanding of African cultural practices proved empowering to the enslaved. It enabled them, in their large numbers, to subversively keep their culture alive, and to plot their revolt.

Message 4:
Have a strong sense of purpose and set achievable goals

The colonialists exploited the Africans superior knowledge and experience in agriculture and farming. Because their priority was to maximise profit, they subjected them to long hours of hard labour in sweltering conditions.

In return they outlawed the enslaved from doing what comes naturally in their social settings, i.e. dancing and singing, to enforce the daily maximum period of rest they were allowed.

I surmise that our ancestors felt deprived and a reduced sense of self worth and self determination. In defiance they became non-conformists and rejected these restrictive and humiliating instructions.

They were driven to find an alternative medium that would facilitate their socio- cultural practices with pride and dignity. This “new medium”, would appear less Afro-centric, therefore more acceptable to the colonialists.

The medium should meet the following criteria. It should:

  1. facilitate regular socio-cultural and spiritual exchange.
  2. provide opportunity to assert and share their experiences of plantation life
  3. enable them to develop and maintain comradeships and help build cohesive plantation communities.
  4. empower and support them in their struggle to maintain human dignity and respect.
  5. help them to temporarily escape the barbarism/ inhumane treatment they experienced daily.
  6. enable them to experience some enjoyment and happiness in living.
  7. help to liberate their minds, bodies and souls.
  8. facilitate communication of their plans for emancipation.

Message 5:
Be prepared to accept the consequences of your actions

It is well documented that the enslaved, individually and in groups, used every opportunity to express their abhorrence of slavery. Their methods included arson, poison, ambush and rebellions.

They would disobey instructions; repeatedly go on strikes, and attempt escaping. Some slave women controlled their reproduction, to spare their unborn offspring the humiliation, exploitation and degradation of slavery.

Our ancestors were brave. They were not afraid to fight for freedom, equality and rights to self-determination. Because they viewed life and death as a continuum, they willingly accepted the consequences of their actions, i.e. harsh punishment or hanging.

Message 6.
Non-violent strategies can be used for peaceful resolution of conflict.

There are at least two more non-violent strategies they could have been employed for conflict resolution and pride restoration.

The first strategy would be to patiently wait for divine intervention.

The second strategy would be to use their creative abilities to develop new forms of recreational activities, including dancing and singing that would be more socially acceptable by the colonialist as a sign of obedience and assimilation.

Regarding the first strategy, I surmise our ancestors were predominantly God-fearing people, and through faith, their strongly held belief dictated that it was never their God’s desire that His people be treated inhumanely, or live in bondage or fear.

I surmise that going to Church on Sundays, authorised by their enslavers, as a mean of spiritual and religious control, was a welcome opportunity for the enslaved to socialise, to inter- communicate their hopes and fears and to keep their religious practices alive.

It gave them the opportunity for covert ancestral worship, to reaffirm their faith and pray together to their chosen Gods in humming and chanting. They would have prayed incessantly to their African Gods for mercy and patiently wait for peace, justice and freedom.

Message 7.
Be open and receptive to messages of Devine intervention

The European Christian missionaries, recognising their vulnerability and were proactive in converting some enslaved Africans to Christianity. Although many African were cautious and suspicious of their motives, many surrendered to persuasion.

The Christian doctrine gave them hope and reassurance that they were valued in the sight of God, that God was on the side of the oppressed, that their soul was more precious than material wealth. That my praising him and praying to him, their prayers would be answered, justice would prevail, and one day they would be set free.

They distributed and taught them to write, read the English Bible and sing English derived devotional songs. They even encouraged them to wear white clothing at church events as a symbol of devotion and piety.

Non-conformist missionaries instilled in the enslaved the respect, dignity and equal human status that they yearned for, much to the annoyance of the enslavers.

Message 8.
Select and carefully interpret information to achieve your goals

Once able to read and understand the Bible, the enslaved would select and interpret specific texts and songs, likely to sustain their cultural beliefs, those that were spiritually empowering and those that gave them courage and guidance regarding non-violent strategies to resolve their depraving situation.

In the next Blog…

In the next Blog (3), I will continue the search for significant meanings underpinning quadrille dancing by our ancestors. I will creatively surmise how they successfully adopted the European quadrille dance as their second strategy for the non-violent achievement of their goals, and how they continued to use the dance to send coded messages about survival strategies

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