(The Conversation) – On May 22 each year, when the Eastern Caribbean island of Martinique observes Emancipation Day, the drums beat from sunrise until dawn the following day.
Participants in outdoor gatherings under the stars dance, sing, play drums and feast for ancestors who fought to break the chains of bondage. The uprising that eventually led to the abolition of slavery on the island in 1848 was sparked by the arrest of Romain, a slave who refused to comply with his master’s ban on beating drums.
Today, drums are still a symbol of rebellion and freedom. The traditional dances that cross the island every May 22, in performances called “swaré bèlè”, are filled with an electrifying aura of reverence and honour.
But bèlè is not just a genre of ancestral Afro-Caribbean drum dancing practices. Rather, it is a “mannyè viv:” a way of life and worldview through which many people find healing and empowerment for themselves and their communities.
My first encounter with the bèlè occurred when I was an anthropology undergraduate student, conducting field research in Martinique. As a former dancer, I was drawn to the way bèlè drummers, dancers and singers experience spiritual and cultural freedom. The performers tell me that their participation is transformative, sacred and otherworldly.
Martinique is an overseas region of France in the islands of the Lesser Antilles. Most of the 400,000 people who live there are descendants of Africans brought to the islands by the slave trade, whose traditions have deeply marked Martinican culture.
Centuries of history have given the bèlè a complex set of symbols, understood only by those who are deeply immersed in the practice.
Swaré bèlè gatherings usually start with a few games of “ladja/danmyé”, a martial art tradition between two fighters in the center of a circle, which heats up the energy of the space as the guests arrive.
The rest of the event consists of an improvised rotation of performers playing and dancing ensembles from the “bèlè linò” repertoire. These square dances use the quadrille configuration, with four pairs of female and male dancers. After the opening sequences, each pair takes turns dancing in a playful exchange in the center of the circle, then dancing towards the drummers to greet them.
Bèlè traditions use the “tanbou”, a conical goatskin drum. There is also the “tibwa”: two wooden sticks beaten on the side of the drum with a regular tempo.
The ensemble of dancers, drummers, and singers are normally surrounded by a crowd of onlookers who cheer, sway, and join in the chorus of the song.
All dancers master the basic repertoire. Yet the order and style of partner interactions are improvised, making it remarkable that the drummers can match their rhythm to the complex footwork of the dancers.
In the playful, flirtatious, and sometimes competitive game of certain bèlè styles, the woman is the object of her male partner’s pursuit, and she ultimately decides whether to welcome his affections. This aspect of bèlè performance, where women are admired and praised for their sensual dance prowess, brings a sense of affirmation to female performers.
Repressed, then embraced
Martinique has been under French control since 1635. Even in postcolonial times, many of Martinique’s black folk traditions faced repression as rulers imposed mainland French culture on the population. For example, bèlè practices were often denigrated as “bagay vyé nèg”, “bagay djab” and “bagay ki ja pasé”: primitive, indecent and outdated, in the Martinican Creole language. For many in the church, traditional drumming and dancing symbolized paganism. In a country where the vast majority of people belong to the church, it was difficult for devout Catholics to support bèlè.
Many practitioners see bèlè as an earth dance that strengthens human connections to the earth, divine spirits, and ideals of freedom. Presented as a fertility ritual for humans and the earth, the dance reflects sensuality between partners. Other symbols suggest sacred connections to the soil, vegetation, and water on which the enslaved ancestors of Martiniquans worked and survived. Many dance moves represent agricultural work.
During the 1980s, student activists and youth groups spearheaded initiatives to revive traditions that had nearly dissolved under French pressure to assimilate. Today, an ever-growing community has embraced the bèlè as they challenge the legacy of colonialism and racism in Martinique.
Bèlè performance is increasingly visible in the Catholic Church. “Bèlè legliz” or “church bèlè” merges the liturgy with references to the African and diaspora heritage of the Martinicans.
Some bèlè activists weave symbols of ancestor veneration and land stewardship, which are also found in Caribbean religious traditions such as Haitian voodoo, Cuban santería, Brazilian candomblé and quimbois, the Martinican folk healing tradition .
A growing number of practitioners claim that bèlè is a “secular spirituality”, seeing it as a form of social healing from subjugation. Many people I interviewed speak of bèlè as an “otherworldly” experience with a unique energy that helps them cope with the shadows of colonialism and slavery in their society, and the transition post colonial.
Solidarity and hope
The bèlè drum and its associated dances have become the rallying cry around which many bèlè cultural activists organize daily life, for example by giving lessons and participating in self-help projects.
Swaré bèlè gatherings are often associated with the community and have become key occasions for participants to express their cultural pride, political solidarity and hopes for change. These events often pay tribute to historical figures who contributed to the struggles for the liberation of black people, such as the poet and politician Aimé Césaire and the philosopher Frantz Fanon.
Over the past 13 years, my research has probed how traditional dance expresses resistance, emotions, spirituality, and even feelings of transcendence. I also explored how bèlè complicates black and white ideas of what is “sacred” versus what is “profane”.
Bèlè dances the line between the two, reflecting the complex legacy of colonialism that continues to shape life in the Caribbean.
(Camee Maddox-Wingfield, assistant professor of sociology, anthropology and public health, University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)