I was almost relieved to be thus reprimanded. But the mood of the dance had already changed, and to a far livelier rhythm.
Two men were hopping about in the circle, mimicking two cocks in the thick of a fight. They switched their middles, bobbed their heads, wrinkled their faces and stuck their necks far out, crowing a challenge. The audience, tense a moment before, is now in a hysteria of laughter. One picks his foot high and hops around in a circle, the other following at a gallop, hands thrust in coat pocket and flapping wildly for wings. Finally one is vanquished and with a feeble squawk rolls over sadly in the air. The other struts over to him, looks disdainfully around and flaps his wings in victory as he trots around in a circle.
I plead with Ba’ Weeyums for a Koromantee war dance, and he finally consents. In this I join, along with Simon Rowe and others who have watched so far. The few young people who are here, however, do not join in these traditional dances. They are ashamed, and I am sure that I shock them greatly; on the other hand, I feel that they watch us rather wistfully, wishing that they had the courage to give themselves for a moment to their traditions and forget that there is a market at Maggotty and cricket games on the outside, and store-bought shoes.
The war dances are danced by both men and women. The introduction seemed to be a disjointed walking around in a loose circle, much like the warming up of an athlete. Then Henry Rowe and I are facing each other doing a step which could easily be compared to an Irish reel. Hands on hips, we hop from one foot to the other, feet turned out at right angles to the body, or well “turned out” in ballet vernacular. This hopping brings us nearer to each other, and I must closely watch the rest to keep up with Henry. We turn our back and walk away, then turn suddenly again and hop together. The songs are in lusty Koromantyn, and from somewhere a woman has procured a rattle and shakes this in accompaniment to Ba’ Weeyums. Some of the men wave sticks in the air, and the women tear off their handkerchiefs and wave them on high as they dance. Henry and I grab each other around the waist and run circles around each other, first one way and then the other.
A few of these turns, and we are separated in a melee of leaping, shouting warriors; a moment later we are “bush fightin’,” crouching down and advancing in line to attack an imaginary enemy with many feints, swerves, and much pantomime. At one stage of the dance Mis Ma’y and I are face to face, she no longer a duppy but a Maroon woman of the old days, working the men up to a pitch where they will descend into the cockpit and exterminate one of his majesty’s red-coated platoons. She grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me violently, then we are again hopping around each other with knees high in the air, headkerchiefs and skirts flying.
When this is over we are all exhausted. The Maroons have not been accustomed to this sort of thing for a long time; nor am I, who until now have known only the conventional techniques and the far less strenuous “set” dances. We disperse and I am in possession of the goombay. Ba’ Teddy and Ba’ Weeyums and I labor up the mountainside, and behind us shutters close and candles are extinguished
Katherine Dunham was a dancer, choreographer, author, educator, and activist who was instrumental in opening the way for African-American entertainers on Broadway. She died earlier this year (2006).
From “Thesis Turned Broadway,” California Arts and Architecture (August 1941). Copyright © 1941 by Katherine Dunham. “Goombay,” originally published in Mademoiselle (November 1945). Copyright © 1945 by Street & Smith Publications, Inc..