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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 2

Sarah Barbour
David Howard
Thomas Lacroix
et al.

Bodies in Motion

Moving Maps: African-Caribbean Dance as Embodied Mapping

Pat Noxolo


The African-Caribbean diasporic body is often understood as displaced and de-territorialised, rather than as productive of place. This essay is a critical interrogation of this tension between black mobile bodies and emplacement, suggestively re-imagining African-Caribbean diasporic dance as a form of embodied mapping (rather than as a spatial practice to be mapped). As an example, the essay presents a detailed analysis of a dance performance piece choreographed and performed by ‘H’ Patten in the early 1990s. ‘H’ Patten is a leading UK-based transnational practitioner in African and Caribbean dance, with almost three decades of performance, choreography and dance-for-camera experience, both independently and with major dance ensembles such as Adzido in the UK, Stella Maris in Jamaica, and Noyam in Ghana. The analysis has three parts, each of which explores an aspect of the dance as embodied mapping: first there is an analysis of bodily movements from a recording of a performance of ‘Ina di Wildanis’, a solo dance performance piece (the dance as spatial representation); second there are in-depth interviews with the choreographer/performer about the symbolic and representational meanings of the dance in relation to African-Caribbean diaspora and mobility (the choreographer as cartographer); and third there is an auto-ethnography of the effects of the writer being in the audience for the live performance (the audience as map-user). The essay ultimately pushes towards developing an understanding of dance as a critical form of embodied cartography, one that might better represent the complex emplacements of African-Caribbean diasporic mobilities.

Texte intégral

1In recent years, it has become established understanding in cultural geography that bodies do not just move to, from and through pre-existing locations, but that places and spaces are produced through human activity (Massey 2005), including their mobility. In other words, bodies are productive of place and space. However, despite this, black bodies are often conjured in popular discourse as out of place in the European landscape, their blackness produced always in and by other places, their bodies emptied of the agency to produce European space. This article asks what moves can be made to establish the productive capacity of black bodies in Europe, and proposes that one such move could be to re-imagine African-Caribbean dance as a form of mapping.

2Although set in a Caribbean context and not in Europe, the Creole character Xuela, created by Jamaica Kincaid, powerfully expresses the disconnection and despair that can be engendered by postcolonial racialised displacement:

What makes the world turn? Who would need an answer to such a question? A man proud of the pale hue of his skin cherishes it especially because it is not a fulfilment of any aspiration, it is not his through any effort at all on his part; he was just born that way and it gives him a special privilege in the hierarchy of everything... What makes the world turn is a question he asks when all that he can see is securely in his grasp... And what do I ask? What is the question I can ask? I own nothing, I am not a man. I ask, What makes the world turn against me and all who look like me? I own nothing... When I ask this question my voice is filled with despair. (Kincaid 1996: 131)

  • 1 Of course this is not to say that black people are not capable of investigating space and spatialit (...)

3Although she is not talking about black bodies in Europe, Kincaid points acutely here to the core of the question of deterritorialisation of the black body in a postcolonial world—it is much more than a question of owning or not owning land in Europe or in the Caribbean, or even of citizenship/legalised belonging. The (white) racialised embodiment described by Kincaid is an unassailable connection between person and place, a certainty that your body is so strongly connected with the world (it is so securely in your grasp) that you can comprehend and involve yourself with the workings of the world. Xuela suggests that to be racialised as inhabiting a deterritorialised body, one that merely slides across the surface of the world, is to feel the world slipping away from your body, spinning away from your grasp, and to only despair at ever finding the answer to the question ‘What makes the world turn against me?’1

4This article fundamentally arises from the need to ask a more hopeful spatial question in relation to the black body in Europe. Work that traces longer and more complex histories of black embodiment in European spaces (Fryer 1984, Jackson 1989), as well as work that focuses on the contemporary production of black European spaces, not just deconstructing discourses of exclusion but also recognising practices of inclusion, are important signposts to this (Gilroy 1993, Noxolo and Preziuso 2013). However, aiming for a sharper focus on black bodies actively producing place and space, this paper starts from the insight that maps are powerful instruments in the production of place and space, and that maps and mapping can be reconnected much more directly with the black body through a reimagining of African-Caribbean dance as a form of embodied mapping.

  • 2 To clarify, ‘H’ is the actual name of this dancer choreographer, not a pseudonym or stage name.
  • 3 Unfortunately this is not a commercially-available DVD.

5Throughout the African-Caribbean diaspora, dance carries a range of meanings, a large number of which have travelled transnationally with the bodies of African-Caribbean people (Stanley-Niaah 2008). This wide repertoire of dances, though distinctive in their forms and cultural meanings (Sloat 2002), has retained some remarkably consistent elements of form, movement and spirituality (Gottschild 2003). In the UK for example, practitioners of African-Caribbean dance are explicitly working with traditional dance movements to choreograph a widening range of creative dance performance pieces that engage with the historical and contemporary experiences of African-Caribbean communities (Ramdhanie 2005). ‘H’ Patten2 is one such choreographer. ‘H’ is a leading UK-based transnational practitioner in African and Caribbean dance, with almost three decades of performance, choreography and dance-for-camera experience, both independently and with major dance ensembles such as Adzido in the UK, Stella Maris in Jamaica, and Noyam in Ghana. Ina di Wildanis toured the UK in 1992, and it was his first solo production after ‘H’ left Adzido dance company. ‘H’ is also my brother, so there is a personal connection for me with this production, which I went to see back in 1992, not long before I began my PhD and subsequent academic career, and at a time when African-Caribbean dance was experiencing its heyday in the UK. I do not mention this as a form of ‘special pleading’ for this paper’s ‘authenticity’—I do not believe the argument here requires this. My own presence is part of the understanding of mapping being elaborated here, which is heavily reliant on functionality—maps appear not only in their production but also in their use. I therefore introduce myself here as a map user, as a black European, as a black body, in search of orientation. I have been able to re-experience the performance repeatedly since then, including re-watching the DVD3 to prepare this article, and I offer myself as a map-using black body, not representing any other map-users but co-constituting the map through my use of it. This article’s empirical content focuses on ‘Ina di Wildanis’ as embodied mapping, comparing it with indigenous African and Caribbean cartographies, studies of which suggest three routes into the study of this embodied form of mapping. First the article will offer an analysis of the dance performance itself as a series of movements, using a loosely Geertz-inspired methodology of ‘thick description’ (Geertz 1973) of the dance performance as it appears on a highly-edited DVD version. The aim here will be to consider the dance as a series of formal features that constitute a map within a broadened definition of cartography that draws on indigenous multimodal forms of mapping. It is worth emphasising here that this first approach will not draw on systems of dance notation, such as Labanotation (Johnson-Jones 1999): the performance is not being analysed so much in terms of dance, as in terms of cartography. Second the article will offer a re-imagining of the choreographer as cartographer through analysis of a recent interview with ‘H’ and drawing on analyses of the performativity of indigenous maps. Finally, the article will use a long-term retrospective auto-ethnography, informed by archival research into the history of African-Caribbean dance in the UK, to understand the audience as map user.

6These three approaches are inspired as much by persistent critiques of the power and exclusions of European cartography as by a parallel revalidation of African, Caribbean and other indigenous forms of cartography. Postcolonial critiques of European mapping have linked the mapping project very closely with the will to power (Crampton, and Krygier 2006, Dodge et al. 2009), with exploration for exploitation, and with the production of place as possession (Harley 1989, Sparke 1998), each of which has played pivotal historical and contemporary roles in spatial expansion and dispossession. Kitchin, Perkins and Dodge have described maps as ‘truth documents’ providing powerful representations and functioning to consolidate and structure regimes of power (2009: 5). Bassett (1994) traces the ways in which colonial maps of Africa, even if based on incomplete rumours or containing large blank spaces, offered authority to colonial land claims. One example of the fascinatingly mystical basis of this authority has been traced elsewhere by Bassett and Porter who show that a colossal mountain range called the Mountains of Kong—around which gathered stories of gold that made them ‘the El Dorado of West Africa’ — appeared repeatedly on European maps and, even more curiously, on explorers’ accounts of West Africa throughout much of the 19th century, even though these mountains have since been shown to have never existed (1991: 385). The sum of these critiques is not only that European cartography is not neutral, but that it is culturally-situated and produces place in ‘partial and interested’ ways (Propen 2009: 127). In sum, European maps are powerful place-making mechanisms, but there is space for other cartographies.

7A persistent feature of postcolonial and anti-colonial struggles globally has been indigenous ‘cartographic resistance’ (Turnbull 1998), often in relation to struggles over land (Johnson et al. 2005, Rundstrom 1990, Sparke 1998). This has fuelled a revalidation of indigenous cartography (Turnbull 2005), much of which has previously been undervalued and under-recognised, not least due to racist attitudes and colonial impulses that have even prevented recognition of the substantial contributions of indigenous informants to the collection of the territorial detail that underpins European cartography (Bassett 1998). Beyond this however, indigenous cartography has often been literally unrecognised by Europeans, because it can vary enormously in form—for example, although Rundstrom (1990) has noted that Inuit pictorial maps are very accurate by European standards (perhaps linked to cultural practices of imitating the environment in a number of ways, for example using their bodies to imitate the shapes and movements of animals for hunting), others have noted that many indigenous maps are often performative rather than pictorial, enabling ‘way-finding’ and navigation through ‘embodied experience’ (Perkins 2009a: 4). Indeed, even where Europeans have historically asked indigenous people to produce pictorial maps, it can be the embodied act of imitation that is valued—the paper artefact or drawing produced in the sand is not meant to be of lasting value and is often discarded by its producers (Pandya 1990).

8Recognition of the multimodality of indigenous maps necessitates a looser definition of cartography, which focuses on cartographic function rather than particular pictorial forms. In their explorations of histories of indigenous mapping in Africa and the Caribbean, contributors to the History of Cartography agreed that ‘all indigenous maps share a crucial role in representing and codifying the spatial knowledge of their various cultures’ (Woodward, and Lewis 1998b). Within this broad definition of spatial representation, the authors have identified widespread aspects of form that are present across a wide range of modes of expression, such as rock art (Maggs 1998), building design, body art, as well as maps that Europeans might recognise because they are pictures or diagrams (Whitehead 1998). The multiple modes of mapping are connected through recurring formal features that relate to spatial relationships, such as circles and lines. Understanding of spatial relationships often extends beyond the physical to the spiritual: maps have strong recognition of the sacred and/or the cosmological, so that the movement of star systems is linked not only with territorial features, but also with spiritual realms and what can be a large number of deities and spirits (Whitehead 1998). Circles are especially important in depicting these essential unities across spiritual and physical realms and appear at a range of scales, often emphasising the centrality of the human body in space (Woodward and Lewis 1998a: 538–9). Lines marking cardinal directions also indicate the lines of travel of celestial bodies, such as the sun, and can be linked with the life journey of human beings (Bassett 1998); thus lines are often linked with movement or trajectory, rather than with borders or distances (which have tended to be conceived in terms of time/effort rather than spatial measurements, Woodward and Lewis 1998: 538). This last point may not be exclusive to indigenous maps, but this use of circles and lines is distinctive in its overwhelming importance to the form.

9As well as these multi-modal formal features (circles that emphasise centrality and lines that highlight direction and movement), indigenous African and Caribbean maps are often performative. In common with European maps, indigenous cartographers are highly cognisant of the symbolic or fetishistic importance of maps in relation to earthly power (Propen 2009: 118): the possession and presence of maps can be in itself a performance of earthly authority (Whitehead 1998). Beyond this, however, the cartographer’s presence as performer of the map—often singing or dancing the map into being—gives a very direct connection between the cartographer’s body, skills and knowledge. Through the cartographer as performer, the maps are embodied. Interestingly, European cartography is beginning to rediscover this performative element of cartography through digital mapping techniques (Gartner 2009), the relative democratisation of which has focused attention away from the specialist trained cartographer’s skills in producing an enduring finished product, and towards the minute and constantly-renewed interactions between diverse user-producers, adding their own data to produce unpredictable but often ephemeral products (albeit within the confines of the pre-existing architecture provided by cartographic software) (Perkins 2009b).

10Finally, the function of maps, the purpose of spatial representation in indigenous Caribbean and African cartography, is often to connect the earthly with the spiritual, to make visible the links that are not evident, and the sine qua non of this is the connection of body with landscape. Maps can of course lend a spiritual weight to earthly authority: for example young people’s initiation into society can involve standing on maps as a symbol of their strong relationship with place (Bassett 1998: 28), whilst map-making can be critically interpreted as part of the role of ‘the priest-shamans in constructing the moral order by manipulating the cosmological order’ (Whitehead 1998: 301). At the same time, the everyday use of maps that are the design of village, house or fabric, for example (Whitehead 1998), becomes intrinsic to the patterns of everyday living, which makes maps function as banal tools of orientation, enabling the user to participate through everyday practice in a range of spiritual and physical relationships (Bassett 1998: 26, Woodward and Lewis 1998a: 540).

11The set of multimodal formal features, the performativity, and the connective and orientating functions of indigenous African and Caribbean cartography all resonate strongly with a reading of African-Caribbean dance in the UK as embodied mapping, particularly as illustrated by the dance performance piece ‘Ina di Wildanis’. This dance performance can be understood as a narrative, telling a story of African-Caribbean dance and spirituality, traced from a foundation in Africa, through slavery to the Caribbean and then through migration to the UK: the piece is subtitled on the DVD ‘Spiritual ritual and the mask from Africa through the Caribbean to Britain’. The dancer/choreographer’s changes of clothing during the performance broadly signal the journey in the title—from a variety of traditional African costumes, some with masks and in which the entire body is covered, to more western costumes: flowing church robes, vest and track suit bottoms, or shirt and trousers (stills 1 to 3). As such it would be difficult to say that the dancer takes on different characters—the performance is ambiguous about whether it should be seen as a series of individual characters or as a single journey of a people. Instead, costumes signal changing place and time, but not necessarily changing character or even a different set of events: there are dances and there are stories, but the only narrative in the dance is the journey. It is precisely this lack of narrative incident, and the lack of boundary between individual and collective, that make the body of the dancer available as a map that can be used by its audience (see below): the performance expresses continuity, between places, between people and ultimately between performer and audience.

12Moments of dramatic storytelling (traditional stories from Africa and from the Caribbean, as well as the performance of a fictional letter from the early years of Caribbean migration to the UK) underline the theme of journeying. The setting and musicians, however, are relatively unchanging—in a blacked-out studio space with a spotlight on the performance space, the only ornamentation is a colourful backdrop made from African fabrics. In the DVD, the cameras are placed high, mimicking the view perhaps of the back row of a tiered audience, but there are close-ups of the dancer’s face and feet and occasionally panning shots, which are edited together. There are three drummers to one side, dressed in long robes and trousers of a soft cream fabric and playing a range of African drums: they become mobile at times, getting up to dance alongside ‘H’. Mainly however, their presence is constituted through the polyrhymic sound of the drumming that fills the space: despite the fact that their bodies are located at the side of the stage, their music is by no means marginal to the performance. Occasionally the musicians also sing in harmony with the dancer as lead singer, and there is antiphony—a call and response format that plays a particular role of community-building in black musical traditions (see for example Gilroy 1993)—between dancer and drummers, who act as chorus or take on the voices of off-stage characters in storytelling. ‘H’ describes their role in this extract from his interview with me:

P: It’s an interesting twist to the one man show, there’s a certain role for community... there was a role for musicians, the musicians were not simply accompanying?
H: I don’t see them as accompanying, otherwise I could just tape them, and have a tape recorder with recorded music, but I do see them as part of the live interaction, and the whole idea of community, that is important, but also to have physically the other bodies to bounce off, because with the musicians the way it works, you send something and the musician answers back, and you answer back to them, and it builds and builds, because the energy of what you send off feeds them, then they send off something that feeds you, then it takes you to a higher level than when it’s just you alone.

Figure 1 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, masked African costume (Still 1).

Figure 2 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, flowing church robes, filling with air in circular spin (Still 2).

Figure 3 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, vest and track suit bottoms, dramatic storytelling (Still 3).

13This communal soundscape gives a context for the surprise finale to the piece, in which the colourful backdrop is transformed into a giant carnival costume that ‘H’ dances around the room (still 4).

Figure 4 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, backdrop becomes carnival costume (Still 4).

14This is a highly inventive and satisfying ending, drawing audible gasps of delight and applause from the audience. It is also an intriguing intermixing of place and body, in which the setting becomes a body, (a huge stick figure with a colourful cape) that is precisely mirrored and controlled by the movements of a dancer whose black body has inhabited so many costumes and has taken the audience on a journey through so many places and experiences during the performance.

15Having introduced the performance in terms of its evident focus and functionality in relation to the black body in place, more detail on the movement of the body through the performance space illustrates the formal features that suggest broad continuities with African and Caribbean indigenous cartographies. As with indigenous mapping, circles are important in the dance, with the body often forming several different sets of circles simultaneously, each of which may be moving to a different beat, so that the wrists, pelvis and chest rotate in a polycentric movement. Again the whole body can spin on its own axis, and the body can travel in small circles and larger ones. Lines are also important, whether straight or twisted. Sometimes the dancer jumps in one straight line, then back again and off again in a different direction, only to come back again and jump in the other direction. When there is more than one dancer, i. e. where the drummers join in, these multi-directional lines cross over and bring a range of unpredictable meetings and interactions (still 5).

Figure 5 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, drummers dancing, intersecting lines of movement (Still 5).

16Unlike indigenous mapping, the lines and circles of which are often related to space in and through their precise location, for example where Southern African rock art is engraved on the walls of stone settlements (Maggs 1998), this dance was performed in the rarefied performance space of the studio and is accessible now only in the dislocated form of a DVD. It is therefore not possible to say for example how lines are oriented in relation to cardinal directions, though the dancer makes frequent use of the corners of the stage, running to each of the four corners and back to the centre, suggesting four directions. What it loses in location however, dance as a mode of cartographic expression provides by emphasising both the dynamism and the solid materiality of the body as it makes contact with and moves through space.

17In terms of dynamism, the dancer’s interaction with music introduces temporality into lines and circles. Movements can be both smooth and staccato, so that polycentrism in the body can offer a mesmeric flowing between different bodily centres, head, hands and hips taking up the patterning in turn; or there can be a jarring set of shifts between circles of the hands, hips, chest, head. Equally, the head, chest or hips can describe continuous circles or side-to-side oscillations, often emphasised with the continuous polyrhythm of palms on drum skins; or there can be a series of staccato ruptures, sometimes highlighted with the harsher sound of a stick on the wooden sides of the drums. This temporal patterning is crucially dialogic with the complex rhythms in the drumming. Polycentric circling repeats on different beats, for example, so that the dancer’s body at different times picks out the rhythms of different drummers in the group of three. Repetitions of movements can be on sets of three beats or sets of four, with changes in rhythm signalled by sometimes subtle changes in movements. It is not always clear who signals these changes in rhythm and form: there is a master drummer, but the dancer both conducts and responds through voice or movement, marking or engendering changes.

Figure 6 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, African costume made of ribbons that fly outwards with dancer’s movement (Still 6).

18In terms of materiality, dance postures make the body into a wide range of different shapes in space. Limbs can be straight, but often knees and elbows are bent, making the body appear more solid, massive, occupying space, emphasising its fleshy density. Soles of the feet often maintain contact to the floor, producing movement that involves shuffling or shifting the body’s weight minutely between toe, ball and heel, so that the body seems to slide across the floor without relinquishing contact. Jumps, though often athletically high, seem to re-affirm that contact, coming down on toe, ball and heel simultaneously, the dancer often stamping to emphasise the re-establishment of contact rather than the time spent in the air. The moment of reconnection with the ground is often further highlighted through the percussive sound of bells or shells tied around the dancer’s lower legs. Nonetheless the air is also important: costumes are often full-skirted, designed to fill with air (still 2), or are constructed of ribbons or attachments that fly outwards as the dancer spins or jumps (still 6). The body does not break free from the elements in this dance: it partakes in them. Its materiality is not only emphasised, but is multiplied, as flesh interacts with soil and air (Noxolo and Preziuso 2012).

19The cartographic mode of African-Caribbean dance thus maintains the formal features of indigenous African-Caribbean dance, using circles and lines in its depiction of the historical journeying of black bodies. The shift from the locatedness of many indigenous maps within the relative stability of indigenous settlements to the relative dislocatedness of the dancing black body on stage, throws significatory weight onto the space of the body itself (its materiality and its dynamism), as well as onto the body’s connections with and in space (with the music that fills the space, and with the ground, objects and air that comprise the space). As a form of mapping, African-Caribbean dance can be said to represent the spatial relationships of the black body in its contemporary experience both of dislocation and of reconnection with space.

20The performativity of this form of mapping highlights the roles of the performer/choreographer as cartographer. In an interview with me, ‘H’ is very aware of the power of performance in representing what Scafi calls ‘macrospaces’, i. e. mapping material spaces in relation to spiritual spaces, a broader cosmological space than that which can always be seen (1999: 55). ‘H’ describes a later solo performance, ‘The Cotton Tree Passage’, as bringing out even more clearly his understanding of this relationship between the physical and the spiritual:

‘H’: ... I wanted this idea of the cotton tree, but for me the cotton tree is a gateway to the spiritual world, and the notion that as a gateway to the spiritual world it manifests itself through the movement and through dance, so if it’s through movement and dance it’s effectively through people, through bodies, I could have easily filmed the cotton tree but I wanted the bodies, so that when it collapsed down and melts down, those bodies disperse, and it’s almost like the spirit has dispersed itself through the ground and through the people so it’s even in what you’re eating, the food is prepared through local things, it’s like the spiritual aspect is in what we eat, it’s in every aspect of what you’re doing, it’s in the ground you’re performing on, the instruments that we’re playing have been cut from trees, so it’s that all-encompassing thing that I tried to bring to life within the cotton tree passage.

21As a performer, ‘H’ is aware of his own body as a material form, and that the spiritual is attained via this materiality (not in spite or instead of it). In the interview he discussed the use of masks in particular, a prominent feature of Ina di Wildanis, as powerful routes through to the spiritual, in conjunction with their related dances. In particular, ‘H’ described an event where he introduced a masked dance to another performer who, though he at first did not understand its power, nonetheless became possessed in the process of performing the masked dance, and only ‘H’ was able to bring him back from that possession. ‘H’ attributes this to a spiritual power that can be described as ‘collective memory’ (Buckland 2001):

‘H’: ... I think there is a collective memory that we tap into, obviously there is something that came out of his line, his people, and that’s what his brother was trying to reach in what he was doing, to take out the spirit, but then there must have been something that tapped into my cultural memory, although I have never, I never grew up in any of those traditions, somewhere along the line I’ve gained the knowledge that enables me to tap into it and know at that point how to deal with it.

22This anecdote points to the immediacy of performativity: dance is a cartographic mode that not only orients and directs its audience but in the same moment and in the same space also orients and directs its performer. In consequence, the authority of the performer in relation to the embodied dance is contingent: the dance can escape the control of its performer, whether it be within this understanding of spirit possession or collective memory, or whether it be within an understanding of performance as event, whereby the coming together of audience and performer produces a transcendent experience of which neither is fully in control. Dance performance is an embodied experience that both represents and connects to the spiritual, but this does not make its embodiment any less material: as Arun Saldanha points out in his study of western tourists dancing to trance music in Goa, when dance is experienced as transcendent, ‘bodies matter more than ever’ (712).

23The other part of ‘H’s role, that of choreographer, is also performative: it is the creative agency of bringing dance moves, music and space together into a spectacle for an audience. It is worth here spending a moment interrogating the concept of cartographer as it is constructed in European traditions of cartography, because it has clear resonances with the role of the choreographer. Christian Jacob (1999) traces the role of the cartographer in the European tradition back to the Alexandrian Library in Ancient Greece, where what it was to be a cartographer began to shift from the explorer who draws and writes about the terrain s/he can see, to the stationary cartographer who begins to put a range of explorers’ accounts together and to devise rules for testing one against another (1999). It is at this time, Jacob argues, that the cartographer begins to be defined as the one who tests the validity of different accounts as s/he brings them together, carrying out an ‘abstract synthesizing operation’, involving a number of skilled ‘operations’: ‘comparing data, resolving inconsistences, finding modern equivalents for ancient place names, translating textual and descriptive information into locations, distances and orientations’, and forming a ‘visual cohesiveness’ in the map as finished product (36–7).

24In the interview, ‘H’ relates his dances through his travels in Africa and the Caribbean. In each of the places he visits (Zambia, Malawi, Jamaica for example), ‘H’ carries out research, interviewing and working with practitioners and those who know the dances. When he came to devise ‘Ina di Wildanis’, ‘H’ therefore brought an awareness of location within the selection and remixing of the dances, maintaining a sense of what is ‘true’ to the dance in its original location. ‘H’ likens this process of what might be thought of as ‘bricolage’ to making a seasoned rice:

‘H’: I think when (the dances) sit together they begin to speak a similar language. That’s the difference between making mush and making a seasoned rice... someone who does know what they’re doing will take the oily fish and know that you have to fry that first, you know how to bring in the other ingredients towards that, before you then add the water, to then put in the rice, so that there’s a texture about each different thing that still retains the nature of that thing. And that’s what you have to do with the dance, when you bring them together you need to know which dances come together and work together, the meaning of the individual dances...
P: So you can feel when you’re working against the dance, when you’re clashing?
‘H’: Yes, and it’s not just feeling, I know the dances, I don’t just use any movement that I don’t know where it come from, I make it a duty to know the dance and know the background and know where it comes from, so that I can then bring the movements together.

25Of interest here is ‘H’s insistence that this is not just a ‘feeling’ or intuition on his part, but is an outcome of research, of experiencing and learning about the dances in their home locations. The resonance with the cartographer in the Alexandrian Library (see above) is in ‘H’s clear understanding of the skills required in retaining that particularity whilst also choreographing the dances together. Bob Ramdhanie’s (2005) study of African dance in the UK makes a distinction between those who practise Traditional African Dance, in which they display traditional dances in set pieces focusing on maintaining authenticity, and those (Ramdhanie explicitly offers ‘H’ as an example) who practise Contemporary African Dance, in which they maintain the foundations of the spirituality and the repertoire of movements from African dance, but work creatively to bring them into relationship with dynamic contemporary diasporic moves. (Both are in contradistinction to Contemporary African People’s Dance, which is the huge range of dances practised in the African Diaspora, many of which do not explicitly reference traditional African dances). These dances are choreographed together with a clear spatial awareness, in terms of both material and spiritual space.

26In bringing the dances together however, ‘H’ is not simply constructing an atlas of African dance that could be fitted onto pictorial maps of the continent. This choreographer has a sense of a spatial arrangement that he wishes to construct, of a ‘wildanis’ that relates more directly to the experience of black embodiment in Europe. ‘H’ describes the search for ‘home’, for acceptance, as ‘not having the full set of keys’ to Africa, the Caribbean or the UK, and yet feeling connected to Africa and the Caribbean in particular as ‘homelands’:

‘H’: Yes, yes, it’s almost like ideologically I create a place or space where I can exist and can own something for myself... when I’m in the Caribbean I focus on the African because that’s what they don’t know so much, that’s what I’m giving them, and this is part of who we are, and when I’m in Africa I teach the Caribbean side to show this is what you’ve become, and this is what they love, they love the dancehall and the reggae, but I always feel like if I’m in Jamaica and an African came they could say no that’s not it, he’s a fraud, and if I’m in Africa a Jamaican could say no that’s not it, so I always feel as if I’m vulnerable at any time, although I’m a Jamaican and an African... so I combine them all, so that the dancehall moves I’m doing are unique because they don’t exist apart from out of my body and the dancers I’m working with, so it means I can’t be challenged on those ones and that’s the only stability that I have, but in the whole bowl full of movement there’s only small amounts that is just mine, that I can’t be challenged on, the rest of it makes you feel unstable at all times, because you feel anybody can challenge you at any time, and you will have to defend yourself.

27It is important to be clear that this performer does not seek to create landscapes from pure imagination; he does not respond to the need for emplacement by building utopian or heterotopian imaginaries (Foucault 1984). These are landscapes created out of the materiality of the body, reconnecting through shared embodied performance with a range of locations in which the dances originally materialised. So the dance is a grounded map, synthesising and materialising. It uses formal features that connect it to indigenous maps (circles and lines that are present in the traditional dances), but it is also a creative cartography, because through its performance and as a performance it engages very directly with the contemporary problematic of black embodiment in the world.

28This article finishes with the third approach, the function of the performance as a map for the audience, understood here as map-users. The audience is heard but not seen on the DVD version of the performance: their laughter and applause are not pictured, but they fill the auditorium and extend the community formed by dancers and musicians, responding to and galvanising the performers. For the time of the performance, the audience is as engaged with this danced map as it would have been with the indigenous maps that were present in village designs, but each particular mode of expression is active in shaping its reception. Unlike the iterative everyday engagement with village design, a performance piece is enjoyed in the moment and then taken away with the audience. The performer can shape the impact of the initial moment, providing a performance that stimulates the ear and excites the eye, literally stage-managing laughs, gasps and applause within the conventions of the theatre. Even so, the results are not completely predictable. Moreover, the performer has little or no control over the long-term use or impact of the performance: the audience takes meaning away and deploys it in unpredictable ways—as ‘H’ puts it, giving a Jamaican proverb in its original language: ‘yu trow yu carn, yu no call no fowl’ (i. e. you throw the corn, you don’t call the fowl).

29I was an audience member back in 1992, and I was and remain as unpredictable as any. I had a limited grounding in African-Caribbean dance, having attended dance workshops alongside ‘H’ in Birmingham and even performed with an amateur troupe called ‘Danse de l’Afrique’ in Birmingham in the late 1970s, when we were both teenagers and when many young black people in inner city areas of the UK were taking part in African dance. We were a post-migrant generation that was finding many creative ways to be embodied as black people in Europe. Whilst ‘H’ continued into professional dance and choreography, I (always a better drummer than a dancer, truth be told) gave it up to focus on A levels, a degree and a teaching career, before returning to academic study after my experience in Ghana (see above). Through the long lens of a retrospective auto-ethnography, I can see that this performance twenty years ago had a more profound impact upon me than ones I had seen previously. There was of course a particular intimacy for me due to the fact that the performer is my brother, which was enhanced by the fact that ‘H’ used on stage the actual suitcase that my father had used when he came to the UK from Jamaica in 1960. Intellectually, the title and themes of the dance made some very explicit spatial linkages, between Africa, the Caribbean and the UK, which resonated with themes that were on my own mind as I began to encounter a wider literature on race and ethnicity in the African-Caribbean diaspora. Beyond this however, on the level of the body, I could see the movements of ‘H’s body filling the stage, I could hear and feel the music as it too filled the theatre space, and I understood at an affective level, at the level of the body, something of the spatial connections between Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and crucially my own black body. As I write this now, I remember experiencing the final moment, when the backdrop turned into a dancing carnival costume (see still 4) and understanding it as a spatial event, as a pulling together of place and black body. In 1992, I was studying part-time towards a master’s degree and just beginning to think about how I might fund a PhD. I had been in Ghana two years previously, one of a very few black British development volunteers at the time, and I was using my studies to process the many questions about race, identity and place that the experience had raised for me (Noxolo 2009). I began to see that dance could be instrumental in doing this.

30I cannot say in truth that ‘Ina di Wildanis’ made it possible for me to ask the question ‘What makes the world turn?’; nor even that it answered the questions that I still have about ‘What makes the world turn against me?’ However, I am aware now, when I watch the DVD as a black academic geographer, that this dance performance demonstrates the cartographic capacity of dance, its ability to point out the connections between the black body, the spaces through which it moves and the places that it produces.


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1 Of course this is not to say that black people are not capable of investigating space and spatiality, including all aspects of geography. The problem is one of discursive positioning, not of academic capacity.

2 To clarify, ‘H’ is the actual name of this dancer choreographer, not a pseudonym or stage name.

3 Unfortunately this is not a commercially-available DVD.

Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, masked African costume (Still 1).
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Légende Figure 2 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, flowing church robes, filling with air in circular spin (Still 2).
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Légende Figure 3 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, vest and track suit bottoms, dramatic storytelling (Still 3).
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Légende Figure 4 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, backdrop becomes carnival costume (Still 4).
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Légende Figure 5 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, drummers dancing, intersecting lines of movement (Still 5).
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Légende Figure 6 – ‘Ina di Wildanis’, African costume made of ribbons that fly outwards with dancer’s movement (Still 6).
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University of Birmingham
Is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Birmingham. She has twenty years’ experience lecturing and researching in higher education. Her research is at the confluence of international development, culture and in/security, and uses postcolonial, discursive and literary approaches to explore a range of Caribbean and British cultural practices. Recent work has focused on spatialities in the novels of Wilson Harris, Maryse Condé and Earl Lovelace; on Caribbean laughter and materialities; on African-Caribbean dance; on re-theorising postcolonial responsibility; and on securitisation in British development and immigration discourses.

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