An Ethnographic Comparison of Caribbean Quadrilles

By Daniel, Yvonne | Black Music Research Journal, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

An Ethnographic Comparison of Caribbean Quadrilles


Daniel, Yvonne, Black Music Research Journal


Research on Caribbean dance movement has revealed consistent, ongoing contredanse-related practices since the seventeenth century in the Spanish islands and since the eighteenth century in the French, British, Dutch, and former Danish islands. Despite variation within European influence that distinguishes one area of the Caribbean from another, Africans were generally prohibited from dancing the dances of their origins except on special occasions, like Dias de los reyes in the Spanish islands and at times, at Corpus Christi on other islands, but dancing within their own spaces was well-noticed by colonists and missionaries (e.g., Labat [1724] 1972, 401-404). At other times, "dancers of all colors," i.e., Europeans, Europeans born in the Americas or Creoles, (1) and mixed descent persons participated in dance lessons with dance masters, as in the case of Martinique that was observed in 1789 by Mederic Louis Elie Moreau de Saint Mery (40). Dance instruction was in preparation for bals de societe, for special performances after Mass (see Fray Francisco Padilla's 1691 account in Allende-Goitia 2006, 137-138), and for less formal social events on haciendas and plantations (e.g., Fray Inigo Abbad y Lasierra ([1782] 1969, 188-190; Moreau de Saint Mery [1789] 1803; Ledru [1797] 1957, 47; Bremer [1851] 1980, 37-39, 64-65, 72-74; Alonso [1882-1883] 200l, 100-l08).

With few opportunities to continue their own dances, some Africans and their descendants were able to observe the dance training and dance performance of colonial families. Over time, they replaced the African performance that was abhorred by Europeans with imitations, parodies, and creative extensions of the colonial performances that they could observe. At times, African imitations of European court imitations were used to entertain colonists and their guests; however, across the Caribbean, African descendants perfected their versions of European body orientation, dance steps, and dance sequences, stating nonverbally that they, too, could dance socially esteemed dances (Cyrille 1996, 2006; Danie12006). They took from the dominant group what the dominant group valued most: their elaborate dance practices. Just as European performers since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had attempted also through dance performance, African-descended performers signaled good manners and impressive social standing through a variety of contredanse-related performances. Over time, African descendants appropriated European contredanse-derived performance across the entire Caribbean region.

The Caribbean contredanse-derived forms that emerged do not stand together in an obvious manner because of diverse names for similar dance configurations and similar names for very different forms. The following discussion, based on comparative fieldwork and a survey of Caribbean dance practices, attempts to overcome some of these difficulties and to show pointedly that Africans and their descendants asserted their human dignity in the appropriation of certain dance practices, not solely in the French Caribbean but also under all European colonial regimes in the Caribbean. The thrust of this comparative analysis, therefore, is to confirm that "Caribbean quadrilles" by many names express the ongoing, but submerged, agency of African-descended performers and to suggest that an anthropological examination of dance movement can provide additional explanations: 2) for the history of African dance patterns in the Caribbean, 2) for Caribbean dance categorization, 3) for the royal pageantry that is associated with quadrille performance, and 4) for those African-descended women who performed in leadership positions within contredanse-related practices.

The focus of the analysis is different from other Caribbean performance inquiries because it is limited to dance performance primarily and does not include a full or parallel examination of the music performance that is so apparently attached. …

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