Temporary Sanity in the Dance

Came home after Canada’s loss to the US and checked my reader to get my mind off the devastation. I  found that both Seen and Mad Decent had posted links to Dan Bruun’s excellent Temporary Sanity: The Skeritt Bwoy Story. If you haven’t seen it, take a half hour and do so.

Last year at around this time, I was invited to speak about Dan’s film at the always fascinating International Ethnographic Film Festival of Quebec. This was before Major Lazer and “Pon Di Floor” brought Skeritt into households across America–households which, based on blog commentary, were amused and amazed by the man’s actions. There’s an element of sensationalism that’s evident.

At the festival, after the film, I wanted to try to move beyond this initial “oh my god” reaction and attempted to explain the interesting focus of the film, and by this I mean the issue of dancing (daggering or otherwise). It’s not usual that people look beyond the music to take a look at the role of dance in the dancehall. The increasing emphasis on dance is something that Ripley (a.k.a. Larisa Mann) noticed while doing research last year in Jamaica, and  Josh Chamberlain (whom Ripley mentions in her post on dance here) has been researching for the past couple of years. He’s due to make another presentation on the topic at this year’s EMP Pop Conference. Skeritt Bwoy is a dancer as well as a sound system selector, but what you see in the first minutes of Dan’s film is him competing in a dance competition. The dancing would seem to be more of a performance than strictly “dancing”: dressed as a Cannibal Lector-styled mental patient, Skeritt thrashes around, held back by “orderlies”. As Josh argues, like Ch Ching Ching, perhaps one of the most famous dancers in Jamaica, whose tip toe soft shoe moves are less impressive than his vocal tag line of “Ch Ching Ching Chiinnnnnnnnnng”, it’s much more about the spectacle than anything else.

I was, however, asked a whole ton of questions about what the audience saw as quite violent behaviour towards women in the film. Heck, given that Skeritt refers to his style as “Domestic Violence”, it’s hard not to see why the audience reacted in that manner. In a conversation before the screening, Dan did say to me that he felt the weakness of his film was a lack of female perspective. Without that perspective, a viewer is left wondering about the consensual nature of some of the scenes. I guess one could argue that intention is tough to get across visually, but I think that Skeritt’s self-reflexive comments provide insight into what’s actually going on in the scenes certain people might find shocking. He’s quite clear that it is theatre and that Skeritt Bwoy is a character. And, given how compelling Skeritt is as a central focus, I can understand why he remains front and centre through the full half-hour length of the film.

Granted, it’s not just the people in the audience at the screening who had a problem with Skeritt: on the Islandista blog, the writer complained about a typical Skeritt Bwoy performance, and Skeritt himself responded, arguing that what he does is entertainment. Dancehall, is, after all, entertainment; offensive to some and acceptable to others. Thing is, there’s more going on than pure sensation on the one hand and pure repulsion on the other. Dan’s film, and Skeritt Bwoy himself, raise many interesting questions about performance in dancehall…it’s nice to see reactions beyond the initial “oh my god daggering is so crazy”, even if it is certainly can seem that way.

And, while you’re at it, check out Dan’s piece on Brooklyn-based producer/soundman/all around reggae and dancehal booster Bobby Konders. Also fantastic.

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