Quadrilles pic
Scherin Barlow Massay | 2019 - October to December | Caribbean
Scherin Barlow Massay on how the Caribbean made the favourite dance of C18th European aristocrats its own. Photograph by Scherin Barlow Massay

Most people’s first encounter with the Quadrille comes from Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s book, Alice in Wonderland. In the tenth chapter, readers are introduced to the Lobster Quadrille by means of a poem. What most people do not know is that Quadrilles can be found throughout the Greater and Lesser Antilles and Guyana. But what is a Quadrille, and how did it become part of Caribbean culture?

In the 19th century the Quadrille emerged from the court of Napoleon Bonaparte, and was brought to England by the Duchesse de Berry. Lady Jersey famously introduced the dance at Almack’s, a high-class social club for London’s aristocracy which opened in 1765, and by 1816 most members of the British elite could dance the fashionable Quadrille. From Britain the dance was carried to the West Indian colonies by wealthy members of the plantocracy.

However, because the British and French had different rules to govern enslaved people in the colonies, Quadrilles once again changed. Over time, a new hybrid of the Quadrille developed among Afrikans in Jamaica that incorporated traditional Afrikan dances like the Dinkimini and Kumina. Derived from the Congolese word ndingi, meaning lamentation or funeral song, Dinki was brought to Jamaica by the Bantu speaking people from the Congo-Angolan region of Afrika. Dinkimini and Kumina both originate from funerary dance customs and are associated with the celebration of death. Dinkimini’s movements focused on the pelvic region highlighting the power of reproduction - and how through reproduction, the dancers had power over death.  

Quadrilles (or kwadriles) developed quite differently in St. Lucia. Although the colony changed hands no less than fourteen times between the British and the French over centuries of colonial rule, French culture influenced their Quadrilles. In St Lucia there is much greater emphasis on courtship; for example, the Cotillion (or petticoat) element of the dance required the lifting and swishing of women’s petticoats, bringing to it an element of flirtatiousness reminiscent of the later and far more exaggerated Can-Can. Courtship was also implied when men  placed their hand behind their backs as a sign of chivalry towards their dance partners.

The Code Noir (Black Code) inadvertently played a role in defining how the St. Lucian Quadrille style of dress developed for women. The law, first introduced by Louis XIV in 1685, stipulated that as Catholicism was officially the religion of France, it should also become the official religion of the French colonies.  Not only were enslaved Afrikans baptized and instructed in the doctrines of Catholicism, but they were also permitted to marry. However, because of a general fear of uprisings and revolts, an enslaved person’s freedom of movement and speech were limited. As a result, enslaved women developed methods of non-verbal communication to announce whether or not they could be approached for courtship and marriage.

Traditionally, in the area of West Afrika we now know as Nigeria, the way women wore the Gele (head-tie) indicated their marital status. If the end of the Gele leaned to the right, it indicated that the woman was married; if it leaned to the left, those who understood the symbolism knew that the woman was single. This too became integral to dressing for the Quadrille in St Lucia. 

Under the rules of the Code Noir, enslaved people were also clothed twice a year or given a discretionary four yards of canvas material to make their own garments. By the late 19th century many former enslaved people had adopted Madras prints as their “Sunday best” influenced by the importation of cotton from British India. Creole women wore clothes in the style of Southern French peasants, which they adapted to suit their own cultural heritage. The Foulard, for instance, a plain triangular scarf, was worn on the left shoulder and may have been influenced by the Yoruba and Ghanaian tradition of wearing shawls or shoulder sashes.

Both men and women dressed up on Sundays and for feast days, which usually lasted from midnight to midnight. Women wore a jupe, or skirt, usually cut into a rectangular or handkerchief pattern, and normally shorter than their petticoats. Their long white petticoats had red ribbons threaded through the bottom holes, and were complemented by a white blouse with red ribbons running through its hem. Men wore white shirts, bow ties, black trousers and a cummerbund tied around the waist. Waistcoats made from the same fabric as the women’s skirts were also worn by both male and female dancers during Quadrilles.  

In Jamaica, the traditional Quadrille costume and the national costume is also made of Madras cotton but varies from the St Lucian version; here, the print used in these costumes consists of just three or four colours. The Jamaican costume is usually made into a long-tiered skirt, worn with or without a petticoat; the blouse is white with ruffled sleeves, or sleeveless with an off-the-shoulder neckline and frills; a bandanna or head-tie in the same pattern as the skirt is usually worn. Traditionally, men wore waistcoats and white shirts, dark-coloured trousers, and occasionally a cummerbund, a scarf originally worn around the waist by Indian men, and adopted by the British military stationed in India. However, because the British did not permit enslaved people to marry, non-verbal communication involving headwear did not evolve in Jamaica as it did in St. Lucia.

Music and dance have always been an important part of the Afrikan cultural psyche. Unlike European musical traditions, which are often based on the premise that it should be arranged and ordered, Afrikans viewed it as a part of daily life. Dance was a medium to communicate, to convey ideas, to express sorrow and joy, and to promote unity and, later courtship rituals under the slavery system.

Enslaved Afrikans were not allowed to openly celebrate those vital aspects of their cultural identities, so they danced in secret, incorporating European dance styles into their own, which enabled their own dance culture to survive. Just as the British and French once adapted and refined the Quadrille to suit their own sense of culture and creativity, so too did the people of the Caribbean. They fused elements of their own cultural practices which had its foundation in various Afrikan cultures with the dances of the European aristocracy, and in so doing they created a new fusion of Afrikan and European dance.