Erin MacLeod

Erin MacLeod has a PhD in communications from McGill University, has taught at the University of the West Indies and presently teaches Caribbean Literature at Vanier College in Montreal, Canada. Her research interests lie in intercultural relationships that connect culture and geography. She has written about music and popular culture for the Rolling Stone, the Guardian and Pitchfork, among others.

"'Them things wasn’t normal': White Gyals, Dancehall and Jamaica"
The title of this paper comes from a story “The White Gyal with the Camera” by Jamaican author Kei Miller, in which he describes how “a white gyal trying to shake her flat batty to Vybz Kartel or Beenie Man: them things wasn’t normal; them things couldn’t ever look right.” But right or not, white gyals from Europe, the US, the UK and Canada flock to Jamaica’s capital of Kingston to learn dancehall dancing and experience dancehall culture. Many of these women have taken dancehall classes in their home countries and travel to Kingston to expand their knowledge, but also get a taste of the so-called “real thing”. This allows them to return home and share their knowledge, often by teaching courses to other prospective dancehall dancers.

There is an infrastructure to support this type of travel, which H. Patten has related to “wellness tourism” in general--there are dance classes and hostels that advertise to dancers. Foreign dancehall dancers can attend any of the daily soundsystem parties that occur in empty lots, shopping plazas and other outdoor spaces in the late evenings--buses and taxis are organized and dancehall tours are available. But while these dancers are primarily white women, the type and style of dancing that is most popular is that that is traditionally performed in the dancehall by male dancers. Thus, in addition to being white in a Black space, they are also women performing men’s moves. Dancehall dance is stigmatized as overly lewd and “slack” within Jamaica, but this does not seem to be a part of the dancehall experience in what the Jameikan language refers to as “foreign”.

From speaking to these dancers, it becomes evident that, to them, a number of elements of dancehall culture end up being surprising on first encounter through what might be called dance tourism, from the gendered nature of the movements to the popularity of deeply homophobic dancehall music and attitudes to the reality of the poverty from which dancehall culture has grown. By discussing the experiences of a range of “white gyal” dancers as well as analyzing the discourse surrounding dance in the dancehall, such as the work of Donna Hope, Sonjah Stanley Niaah and Carla Moore, this paper aims to look at what makes the white gyal dancehall dancer not “normal” and how this shapes the way that dancehall is viewed both backayard and in foreign arenas.