What is Dancehall and how has it evolved until today?

It is a musical current that finds its origin in Jamaican popular culture. It is like a version of reggae with many more "spaces". The name of this genre refers to the dance halls of Jamaica where popular music was played. Dancehall occupies an "in-between" position where, although it represents an indigenous Jamaican culture, it's also a contemporary art form.

This genre is also called ragga. Over the years it has changed and evolved, as is the case with almost all musical genres. Thus, it is possible to notice a beginning marked by those "spaces" contained in the music. Then, a notorious change in the instrumentation that fills it with rhythms and fast beats.

Finally, another evolution takes place, where Dancehall connects and mimics the Rastafari religion and culture. This is what is known today as conscious ragga. These changes have been marked by specific events that originated them, and that fill this genre with nuances.

dancehall dance history

The Origins

The origins of dancehall music can be traced back to Jamaica in the late 1970s, most specifically, in the heart of Kingston (but it is worth noting that the old Spanish Town City has produced its fair deal of dancehall musicians). During this time, the popular music scene underwent a significant transformation, moving away from reggae and embracing a fresh, daring, and modern dancehall sound that showcased a unique cultural expression. This marked the beginning of a musical phenomenon that would eventually gain global recognition.

Following the passing of Bob Marley in 1981, dancehall music underwent further evolution. The lyrics began to adopt a new sense of identity, with themes of sexuality, violence, and dance taking the forefront. Influential DJs like Yellowman and Shabba Ranks showcased their physical appearance and skills, representing a form of personal advancement for the humble Jamaican masses.

Advancements in DJing technology played a crucial role in the development of dancehall. The introduction of faster digital beats and the creation of the iconic Sleng Teng beat in 1985 allowed for the fusion of digital rhythms with various vocal styles. The distinctive 'talk-over' style of dancehall became more accessible and widespread. Consequently, dancehall as a genre continued to grow and prosper.

One significant figure in dancehall history was DJ Yellowman, who emerged in the early 1980s and symbolized the transition from mainstream reggae to dancehall music within Jamaican nightclubs. Alongside politically charged lyrics prevalent in the early 1980s, Yellowman incorporated sexually suggestive verses into his repertoire, which became widely known as 'slackness.'

During the vibrant era of the 1980s and 1990s, dancehall music experienced a groundbreaking transformation with the introduction of computer-generated beats. This technological innovation revolutionized the genre, infusing it with a mechanized and high-tempo sound that propelled the energy to new heights.

It was during this time that remarkable DJs emerged as icons of the dancehall scene, leaving an indelible mark with their exceptional lyrical skills and captivating performances.

Dancehall Today

Today, the vast majority of young people unknowingly or consciously consume dancehall music. In pop music, Rihanna's 'Work' was the first dancehall song to reach the top of the charts since Sean Paul's 'Temperature' in 2006.

Drake's 'Controlla' covered Beenie Man's 'Tear off Mi Garment' to praise. Sean Paul and Beenie Man's music is dancehall history and was heard in every dancehall club in the 1990s. There are festivals like Clarks and Dancehall Science filled with artists who started in Jamaica and made it to the top.

In 2015, Justin Bieber released 'Sorry', an album and music video that became very controversial due to its obvious dancehall-inspired production and choreography. However, many people praised Bieber for bringing dancehall back into fashion for the general public.

In Spain, the Catalan Bad Gyal is dancehall history and we can say that she is the biggest representative of national dancehall. The singer has crossed our borders, has made collaborations with other artists and Jamaican musical culture is increasingly present in all her songs.

Dancehall has sometimes been branded as sexist and homophobic because of the content of some of its lyrics. Hit songs like Buju Banton's 'Boom Bye Bye' contributed to that impression. However, women have begun to gain prominence in dancehall in a country, Jamaica, where it was previously lacking. There are female dancehall DJs such as Lady G, Lady Saw and Sister Nancy, and singers who became stars, such as Diana King, influenced by this musical style.


Dancehall, key aspects of this dance

It is a very sensual dance with Caribbean and African references. One of the most striking aspects of this type of dance is that it represents in many of its steps everyday actions of any person in their daily lives or household chores, such as dancehall steps inspired by sweeping.

It develops a lot of its own style by letting itself be carried away by the music. It can be danced individually or in pairs, and there are different moves for boys and girls. In dancehall battles, the women's dancehall is called Dancehall Queen Contest and the men's Dancehall King Contest.

When dancing dancehall it is important to keep in mind that the movements must be exaggerated. In the case of women the protagonism is for the lower part of the body, although they move the whole body when dancing dancehall. They can perform masculine movements while dancing, but they should not perform feminine movements. Men focus more attention on the trunk.

Characteristic dancehall steps

  • Wine. It is a circular hip movement very characteristic of dancehall for girls. It is one of the most sensual dance moves of this dance style
  • Butterfly. Probably the most famous of the dancehall dance steps. It consists of bending the legs opening and closing them accompanied by a slight movement of the arms and creating that "butterfly effect".
  • Thunder Clap. Another of the most famous and you've probably seen in more than one video clip. To do it you have to extend the left hand and bring the right hand closer trying to give a rhythmic clap.

Of course, there are many more, as these three are far from being the entire the pinnacle on the dancehall space.

dancehall dance style

Themes in Dancehall

Dancehall dances are entertaining, but their topics are deeper. This dance is also oriented around particular themes that predominantly present themselves in the lives of dancehall men.

This is where, in particular working class men discuss what is problematic, celebrate what is considered important and identify their desires through music, the six Gs are included, among others - Gun (gun, weapon), Gyal (girls, women), Ghetto (Ghetto, barrio, favela), Gays (homosexuality), Ganja (Marijuana), God (God).

In general, the themes run the gamut as follows: Gun: violence, war; Gyal: sex / sexuality; Ghetto: the neighborhood / poverty; Gays: Homophobia; Ganja: weed / marijuana / bush; God: Jah / Jesus / Selassie; as well as competition / clash / rivalries, and money / jewelry / materialism. The dancehall culture has arrived to all the corners of the world thanks to the African diaspora, and it has challenged the music industry and music production by changing paradigms.

Popular dancehall songs

  1. "Under Mi Sleng Teng" by Wayne Smith
  2. "Who Am I" by Beenie Man
  3. "Murder She Wrote" by Chaka Demus
  4. "Dem Bow" by Shabba Ranks
  5. "Get Busy" by Sean Paul
  6. "Work" by Rihanna
  7. "Champion" by Buju Banton
  8. "Romping Shop" by Vybz Kartel ft. Spice
  9. "One Dance" by Drake
  10. "Heads High" by Mr. Vegas

Popular dancehall artists

Like all other genres, this one has its particular arrangement of popular artists that standout from many others and are known for representing this dancestyle, making unforgettable sounds, vocal styles and tracks, to the point of becoming key elements for this dance.

  1. Beenie Man
  2. Bounty Killer
  3. Buju Banton
  4. Lady Saw
  5. Mavado
  6. Popcaan
  7. Sean Paul
  8. Shatta Wale
  9. Spice
  10. Vybz Kartel

Dancehall and Other Genres

Hip-hop has undeniably made a significant impact on dancehall, creating a harmonious exchange of ideas, beats, and lyrical styles between Jamaican dancehall and American hip-hop. This cultural connection has paved the way for remarkable collaborations and the infusion of dancehall elements into hip-hop tracks, showcasing the immense influence of Jamaican music on the global stage.

But dancehall, in its vibrant journey, has also embraced the influence of other genres. Its infectious rhythmic patterns and captivating melodies have effortlessly permeated the realm of mainstream pop music, resulting in chart-topping hits infused with dancehall flavors.

Artists across diverse genres like pop, R&B, and electronic music have recognized the appeal and versatility of dancehall, incorporating its distinctive elements into their own songs.Furthermore, dancehall's impact has reached even deeper, giving rise to sub-genres within its own realm.

The emergence of "dancehall-pop" and "dancehall-EDM" sub-genres showcases the genre's ability to blend its unique sound with elements from pop and electronic music. This fusion not only expands dancehall's reach but also appeals to a diverse array of audiences, embracing their varied musical preferences.

The intersections between dancehall and other genres have sparked artistic evolution, cultural exchanges, and the continuous transformation of music. As dancehall influences and is influenced by different music styles, its global impact continues to grow, leaving an indelible mark on the musical landscape.

How to dancehall dance?

  1. Start by establishing a rhythm with your body. This means moving to the music, swaying your body and moving your arms and legs. This will make your body feel comfortable as you dance.
  2. After you have established the rhythm with your body, it is time to add some dance steps. These steps can be anything from a simple variation to a complex figure. You can use steps such as kicks, reggae steps, claps, turns, etc.
  3. Once you have mastered the steps, it's time to add some hand movements. These moves will help you give your dance a professional touch. You can use these moves to add some pizzazz to your dance.
  4. The last step is to add your personality. This means that you should feel comfortable with your moves and express your own creativity. Feel free to improvise, have fun and relax, and then go have more fun at the dancehall spaces!

Some final words

About dancehall, there is still much more to say. It is an incredible genre that has influenced current pop and Latin music like reggaeton. Artists like Rihanna or Drake have not escaped its magic and influence.