Caribbean Dance History

By Pamela Ann Ludwig

The islands in the Caribbean are well known as vacation destinations due to their unique blend of cultures and the natural beauty of their tropical location. The residents of these islands are known for their love of dance and music. Many forms of dance are celebrated in the Caribbean, and various Caribbean dance forms are famous throughout the world.

World Influences

The culture of the Caribbean is a blend of African, indigenous and European influences. European colonization and the African slave trade influenced Caribbean music and dance forms. In certain islands the African influence is more prominent, while in others the European influence is more pronounced.

Types of Dances

The dances of the Caribbean nations mostly are comprised of social dances, performed at social functions and celebrations. Partner dances such as the salsa, mambo and rumba from Cuba feature moves and beats influenced by Spanish and African elements. The merengue from the Dominican Republic is also a mixture of Spanish and African influences. The former French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe dance to the rhythms of the zouk, similar to the Brazilian lambada. All dances are energetic and celebratory. Joyous occasions are an opportunity to dance in the Caribbean.

Katherine Dunham's Impact

Reknowned American dance scholar Katherine Dunham completed extensive research on African-based Caribbean dance forms. In addition to being a dance scholar, she was a performer and choreographer. She conducted anthropological research in the Caribbean islands, most prominently in Haiti and Jamaica. She returned to the United States and formed her own dance company, which recreated Caribbean folk dances and blended modern dance, Caribbean dance and classical ballet.

Caribbean Dances in Pop Culture

Iconic Caribbean dances such as the calypso from Trinidad are often referenced in pop culture. The film Beetlejuice features a comedic diversion where the guests at a dinner party become possessed and are compelled to perform a Calypso dance to Harry Belafonte's famous version of "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)." The sons of Jacob perform a Calypso in order to save their younger brother in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Biblical musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Caribbean forms such as these lend humor and levity to storylines and provide comic relief.

Foreign Dance Styles in the Caribbean

Though the Caribbean produces its own unique performance forms, different styles of dance from around the world are popular in the Caribbean as well. Classical ballet is quite popular in Cuba and Puerto Rico. While many ballet companies focus on recreations of classical ballet traditions, some companies fuse classical ballet with Caribbean forms.

About the Author

Pamela Ann Ludwig has lived, worked and studied on five continents. Her articles can be seen online at various websites. She holds a Master of Arts degree in history from San Francisco State University and has experience teaching different dance disciplines as well as English to speakers of other languages.