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One of the quickest ways to get to know a community, or culture, with which one is unfamiliar, is to dance with them. In the case of Dominica Island’s vibrant cultural history, a great deal can be learned through dance.

Works of music, art, and dance, and the compositions, forms, and styles created by the peoples of Dominica are a tactile and experiential representation of the peoples that collided and melted together to create the island culture of today.

If you’re a tourist, don’t be confused. Dominica is not the Dominican Republic. Dominica Island lies between Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean Sea. This geographic information is important for understanding how Dominica Island’s artistic styles developed, and how this development influenced the dance coming out of the country in particular.

Photo of Dominica Quadrille dance

The location of Dominica Island made it an ideal location for settlement, which of course meant that just about every European nation attempted, or succeeded, in overrunning the indigenous community and colonizing it at some point between the early 1600s, and Dominica’s independence from the UK in 1978. Though this aspect of Dominica’s history is not particularly different from the history of other island communities, what sets Dominica apart is the fact that the indigenous population, the Carib Indians, were able to maintain there own identity and retain their cultural traditions. Their movement traditions, combined with the traditions brought by peoples stolen from Africa by the British and French for slave labor, and the movement traditions of the British and French themselves, created dance forms as mixed as the linguistic customs of the island.

There are a number of traditional dances whose mixed ethnic heritage is apparent in their sequences and rhythmic structure. Some hew more closely to a particular region’s dance traditions than others, but all are stamped with a distinctly Dominican flavor. The Mazook, is perhaps the most widely recognizable. As the population of Dominica has moved to other parts of the world, it is the dance most often performed, taught, and presented to the rest of the world. Based on the Polish Mazurka, which was adopted by the French and then passed on to the mixed population of the island, Mazooka utilizes a base step of glide, shuffle, glide, cross step return, in combination with many more complicated steps as dictated by the music. The Heel and Toe Mazooka is also a popular variation that has a similar feel to the polka

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The Quadrille and Lancers are two dance forms that share a similar structure. Both are square dances, though the former is rooted in the French tradition, and the latter in the British. The Quadrille is danced with four couples that dance as couples, and exchange partners throughout the dance. The sequence for exchanging partners is quite lengthy as each set is made up of five figures. Lancers is a British quadrille and is actually a combination of English country-dances and reels from Ireland and Scotland. The male part of the dance has a more military quality than its French counterpart. Both of these dances found their way to Dominica and were also absorbed and subtly adjusted to fit the music and the people of the island.

Bele is believed by many to be the oldest dance of the island movement traditions. It is the form most rooted in African movement structures, as opposed to European. The dance is very tied to the music that accompanies it, which is created entirely by the tambou drum. It is performed by a couple surrounded by a larger group and is a dance of courtship. It’s comprised of a sequence of “call-and-response” movements, in which the male half of the couple dances showing strength, and the female half responds by dancing her interest. The male half of the couple again dances to show his interest, and finally the two dance together. The movement is recognizable for being quite energetic, and the group surrounding the two dancers, sings.

For tourists seeking an opportunity to get off of that reclining sofa in the hotel and gain instruction in the traditional dances, the forms are performed at cultural events on the island throughout the year, including the Dominica Carnival, the World Creole Music Festival, Jazz n’ Creole, and Creole in the Park. More formal classes in the traditional dances can be found at the Health and Wellness Expo held each May, or by contacting academic institutions on the island, many of which offer strong performance programs to their students, as part of the regular academic schedule.

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