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PHOTO ESSAY

Origins of Popular Dance

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The Limbo fad takes off

Album cover for Let's Limbo! (1963), recorded by John Greenwood & the Islanders. Courtesy of Jan Tonnesen.

Though the limbo is most often associated with beach parties, American wedding celebrations, and other raucous occasions, its history is much less festive. The precise origins of the enduring fad dance remain somewhat in dispute, but all seem to relate back to bondage. Among the theories: the limbo was a simulation of the descent into a slave ship's hull—the further along one got, the more difficult it was to get out; limbo-like movements were forced upon transiting slaves in order to "exercise" them onboard, as healthy slaves would fetch higher prices at auction; its contorted performance reconciles the story of Anansi, a plotting, trickster spider common in West African folklore, with the horrors of slavery; and, lastly, the dance is a variation on a Vodou folk dance from the Dahomey Kingdom (modern-day Benin). Regardless of its beginnings, in the Western Hemisphere, limbo—which is also a West Indian slang term for "limber"—is believed to have been first observed at funerals in Trinidad. While apocryphal accounts date white interest in the dance to the time of the Bahamian plantation system, where watching slaves perform was "a popular diversion for the masters" (Craton and Saunders), tourist visits to 1950s Jamaica are a more likely explanation of its export to the United States. What is certain, however, is that the ritual's historical significance—described by scholar Jan Carew as "a profound symbolic expression of the long struggle of the Afro-Caribbean peoples against slavery, the plantation system, a stultifying colonial rule, and a demonstration of how the African identity established itself in the Caribbean"—lies in stark contrast to its modern status.

Craton, Michael and Gail Saunders. Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People. Volume 2, From the Ending of Slavery to the Twenty-First Century. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

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