Haitian Dance: Movement Rooted in Ritual and Tradition
Excerpts from an article written by Ellen Bleier
Woven into the rich and passionate history of the Haitian people is the expressive and healing experience of Haitian Vodou dance. “What does Haitian dance look like?” is a question I’m frequently asked. Many people are already familiar with the West African forms of dance accompanied by the ‘djembe’ drum. To answer this question knowing something of Haitian history will create a context for understanding.
Haitian dance is unique in its melding of diverse African styles and cultural traditions. Many different African ethnic groups crossed paths on the island of Hispanola (known now as Haiti and the Dominican Republic) when brought there as slaves by the French centuries ago. Old traditions, songs and dances (mostly of Congo and Dahomey origin) evolved and mixed with elements of Arawak (indigenous Haitian Indian) and French culture to form a new, uniquely Haitian dance expression. The creation of Vodou cosmology is a factor influencing Haitian movement. The dances and ritual arose as an attempt to preserve sacred and social art forms, customs and beliefs, in response to surviving the oppressive and arduous conditions of slavery.
The gods and goddesses (or L’wa) that are part of Haitian Vodou spirit possession and myth, influenced and created dance movements. Theatrical in nature, Haitian dance can be feminine, masculine, proud, mischievous, sensual, and aggressive. It has been said that Haitian dance is full of opposites; it can be subtle and dynamic, as well as graceful and rugged. Dances that originated in the French upper classes influenced Haitian movement and combined with the vigorous torso, pelvis and leg movements and African rhythmic sensibility.
All of this rich variety of movement is facilitated, amplified and inspired by the drum. The drum alone is a healing vehicle, its vibrating tones and rhythms creating calm, balance, focus, sensuality, passion and excitement. It is the guide and regulator, supporting the dancers’ movements and inspiring and influencing them emotionally. This is why Haitian dance is such a powerful music and movement experience. (The original ‘trance dance’, if you will).
Every movement in the dances is intimately linked to the drums’ rhythms, and the true experience of the dance occurs when you allow your body to relax into the song of the drum and let it carry you. Each dance has a different flavor and energy, and is composed of specific movements. These movements are rooted in centuries-old ritual and cultural traditions, providing an extremely satisfying, exhilarating core experience. The incredible variety of Haitian dance movements facilitates the opening of the body’s armoring and release of emotions. It also provides a strong movement foundation for the body so that the mind becomes secure and the spirit is set free to be in the experience of dancing.
This ‘freedom through structure’ aspect of Haitian dance becomes, for me, the most nourishing part of the dance, besides the sheer joy of dancing to the drum. Within this Haitian dance framework one has the basis from which to fly, enriched by the roots of traditional culture. This type of cultural dance experience is similar to that of Cuban Santeria and Brazilian Condomble.