Bèlè, when Martinique dances!
Even if the etymology of the word is not clear, Bèlè encompasses a wide range of dances from the Island of Martinique. Product of West African patterns and European influences, on can say that Bèlè is part of the Creole aesthetic so unique and so typical of the Caribbean. Indeed, slaves used to dance and play drums for all the occasions of their lives. There was a rhythm to work, a rhythm to fight, a rhythm to worship, a rhythm to celebrate and of course a rhythm to seduce. Each step, and drum beat had a meaning, which is partially lost nowadays. Nevertheless, the spirit of fellowship still remains, making Bèlè relevant even in the 21st century.
If you are invited to a “Swaré Bèlè” (a Bèlè party) you will be able to see or join “la ronde Bèlè” (the Bèlè circle). In this circle, you have “La vwa” (the singer and the backup singers called “Le répondè”), lé tambouyé (2 drummers), “Le bwatè” (someone setting the rhythm, hitting the back of the drum with two sticks).
A basic “Bèlè ronde” is composed of 8 dancers, with 2 couples dancing simultaneously while the other couples wait their turn to join the dance. As we saw earlier, there are different dances for occasions:
Bèlè Douce (soft Bèlè): very sensual as the dancers do not hit the ground (fwappé) too hard.
Biguine Bèlè: a bit faster than Bèlè douce, yet very sensual as the term biguine is another dance that focuses very much on hips movements.
Bèlè Cho (hot Bèlè): faster, acrobatic, very much in the air, this Bèlè is very spectacular. The dancers usually show off their physical skills while remaining gracious.
Bèlè pitché (marked Bèlè): very beautiful, as the dancers have to stop whenever the drummer indicates.
Grand Bèlè (great Bèlè): different from the others, dancers look as though they are not stable on their feet. Grand Bèlè is said to have been used for worship, and was often seen at wakes.
Bèlè li Sid (Bèlè of the South): essentially danced in the South of Martinique, this dance I slower than the others. Dancers play a lot with their skirts and hats.
Belya: is the celebration dance! Usually danced at weddings, christenings, or any happy occasions. Very acrobatic as the dancers jump and hit the ground on the rhythm.
Bouwo: Bouwo looks like Belya, but less spectacular as the dancers focus on swinging and turn on time!
Venezwel (Venezuela): a dance where the dancers look like they are at work in the fields.
Kanigwé: A dance with commands, where the dancers will follow what the singer says.
Mabelo: a rather saucy dance where the dancer throw themselves at the other.
Kalinda: the only Bèlè that one dances alone. Both the drummers and the dancers’ skills can be evaluated on it.
Ting Bang: a very simple dance that requires a lot of stamina.
Roulé mango (roll mango): a dance that looks like a child game.
Ladja or Danmié: fighting dance, that the majô (or champion) of each village would dance to settle a dispute, or take revenge. It is said that a lot of people did obeah to win.
Bèlè is a way to express emotions, feelings, and ideas. It can be seen as an anancy way that slaves had found to exist as human beings in a hostile society. Even if it has long been out of favor and regarded as vulgar, Bèlè has recently regained of its popularity, thanks to associations like le CERMAC, La M4, “Boukan”, “Tambou Bô Kannal”, “la maison du Bèlè” in Martinique and in France. In London, with Bèlè, Gwo Ka and Kassé Kô, Ziloka is proud to present the various faces of the French Caribbean Culture.
Dr Nathalie Montlouis