Jo’burg’s diggin’ the dancing queens

Dressed in tight, ripped black denims and a matching tank top, Double D’s moniker clearly has nothing to do with her cup size. Borrowed from Dee Dee, a character from the cartoon series Dexter’s Lab, her handle is most probably a reference to her feline features.

"I had a hip-hop crew," she says, sitting in the empty stands at Bassline, the Johannesburg live music venue situated in the heart of Newtown. "They gave me that name."

In about six hours, Double D, a 19-year-old University of Johannesburg (UJ) marketing student from Klerksdorp, will compete with 11 other contestants for the crown of African Storm Dancehall Queen. The annual contest is hosted by selector Admiral (Andy Kasrils, son of former ANC MP Ronnie Kasrils) and vocalist and hype man Jahseed (Anesu Mupemhi) of African Storm Sound System, which runs a dancehall session at Bassline every Thursday.

Admiral says the idea to stage a dancing competition emanated from the session’s Horror Café days, when dancers with names like Teacher and Audrey first appeared on the small stage platforms next to the DJ booth.

"When we moved to Carfax in 2008, the stage got a bit bigger and attracted a few more dancers," he says.

"Now at Bassline, the stage is like an 18-yard penalty area, so the dancing culture just exploded. It’s become our biggest show of the year, even bigger than when we bring Jamaican artists in."

This year’s first prize is a whopping R15 000 in cash and a Samsung smartphone.

Dancehall, which refers to both the music and the context in which it is purveyed, is reggae’s upstart, wayward spawn, which ditched the drum kit for the Casio MT-40 home keyboard in 1985. In both its contemporary, electronic form (also known as ragga) and in the sometimes gruff vocal delivery of the artists, it has never been shy about leaving its imprint on other musical forms.

In the 1990s, many early kwaito acts featured a Shabba Ranks or a Buju Banton impersonator and the provocative dance moves seen in the likes of Boom Shaka were approximations of dancehall queen flamboyance.

Today, though, Jamaica’s cultural dominance needs no fancy referencing to underpin it, as it can be felt in aspects of Nigeria’s naija (contemporary Nigerian pop) and even Britain’s headlong experiments in bass culture.

As for the dancers, there are dancehall queens being crowned from Toronto to Sydney.

But even as crossover artists such as rapper Kanye West turn to dancehall stars to add a dark edge to their songs, the culture has always resisted moving uptown. At Bassline, for instance, the R100 entrance fee notwithstanding, Africa’s hustlers, its underclass and those who got away all rub hips to the same riddims weekly.

Even in the face of the genre’s all-encompassing sweep, the dancing contest is still, in a sense, a world within a world. YouTube clips of previous instalments suggest that the standard of the local competition continues to improve.

Although it’s her first time competing, Double D can already draw on the institutional memory of her sister Tokyo (who won the contest in 2011) and her friend Palesa Shortz, the 2012 winner. The participants asked that we use their stage names rather than their own, perhaps to shield them from parental collateral damage.

A former high school gymnast, Double D – probably no taller than 1.6m – looks nimble enough to escape through prison bars. She wears her hair in pencil braids with the sides and the back shaved off.

"Palesa and my sister introduced me to the whole [dancehall] thing," she says.

A few metres away, inside the auditorium, huge columns of speaker boxes are set up against either corner of the stage in preparation for one of Newtown’s busiest nights of the year.

Double D describes dancehall-style dancing as less restrictive than hip-hop, with no set routines, "so I can just dance and go crazy. That’s what I like about it."

Palesa, a popular feature at African Storm’s weekly Thursday sessions (also known as Ragga Nights), says the style involves certain patented steps such as the gully creepa (inspired by the zombie scenes in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video), daggering (exaggerated, simulated sex), the willie bounce (which involves stepping from side to side while cocking the opposite elbow), lots of splits and a little bit of twerking.

"But we’re not twerkers," she emphasises. "We are dancers."

In the Jamaican context, dancers are often as popular as the musicians and are just as susceptible to the deadly feuds that engulf the scene from time to time.

In 2005, Bogle, the inventor of the willie bounce, died in a petrol station shooting believed to be a dance-related incident. In 2008, Ice, the creator of the gully creepa, died in a hail of bullets outside a bar in an apparent robbery.

Back in Johannesburg, Palesa (a piece of dynamite in thick stubs of pitch-black dreadlocks) and Tokyo ("because of my eyes") have been coaching Double D in how to approach the competition, having slowly introduced her to Bassline audiences over the past few weeks.

Physically, the 23-year-old Palesa is the smallest of the trio, yet she dominates the conversation.

She mentions that she considers herself a professional dancer; she earns a salary from African Storm for dancing at their weekly function and also dances for Bongo Maffin, whose members include Jahseed.

"It’s not enough to buy a car or a house but I do whatever I want, for now," she says. "I have fun while working because nobody tells me when to come on stage. I’m basically getting paid to show up."

"We do what we want, out of our own free will," she says, alluding to the sexually charged atmosphere of the dancehall.

"Nobody is allowed to touch you [on stage] unless you allow it."

Tokyo, who is also 23, is a former gymnast who is involved in a capoeira group at UJ, where she is a third-year accounting student. She earns extra cash doing commercial promotions and has also recently started dancing for Bongo Maffin.

Turning to Double D, I ask her what her strategy is for the night. She says she will be relying on her flexibility as a former gymnast as well as on some "stunts … I’m just gonna put them all together and put on a great show."

Backstage at the Bassline’s rehearsal studios, about two hours before the contest, the participants trickle in. Tight West African rhythms seep through from the rehearsal next door.

Tokyo, who is not competing but is performing an opening routine with Palesa, arrives in a cropped turquoise tank top, grey sweatpants and a black baseball cap. Her cohort arrives in stripped-down Matrix chic, dressed in a sleeveless, studded black leather jacket, black hot pants and matching wedges.

Minutes later, Soweto’s Fire Lady walks in briskly, offering greetings to all in the room "in the name of the most high". Her energy is possibly overcompensation for her nerves. It is her second time competing since placing fourth last year.

"I must win," she says to a question about why she is competing again. "The people who can’t compete again are the people who have won. I must retire – win once and move on to open more doors."

From dancing at the club, which she has done regularly since last year’s loss, Fire Lady hopes to attract bookings from clubs and artists.

"When you perform [or compete], it’s like a modelling opportunity because the body says it all …"

Confident about her chances this time around, she says her secret weapons are that she is "a strong bubbler [dancer] and strong winer [hip winder]".

True to the contradictory nature of dancehall, Fire Lady styles herself as a streetwise Rasta queen. She explains that she got her stage name from her Rasta friends "because they say I heat up the stage."

Many of the other contestants are former hip-hop dancers who have recently discovered dancehall or, in some cases, aspirant dancers who made it through the auditions.

Admiral and Jahseed come into the change room to greet the contestants and explain the rules of the competition. There are five rounds to the final. In the first two rounds, two groups of six dance off, leaving six contestants for the third round. Three are eliminated in round three, so that three remain for the penultimate round, in which one more contestant will be eliminated before the final dance-off.

Easing their nerves and alluding to the prize money, Admiral tells the participants there are "15 000 reasons" not to be nervous. "The crowd is on your side; if it doesn’t go good, in one minute it will be over." As the principal selector for the night, he seems to have prearranged most of the contestants’ preferred music.

Jahseed chips in: "Try to keep it to 45 to a minute; the quicker the better. The more you leave them hanging, the better. Try to leave a memory for each round."

Out front, in the main auditorium, it is already past midnight. Bassline is heaving and packed to the rafters. The front row, possibly for reasons related to height, is filled with mostly women, some nursing ice buckets filled with drinks.

Bobo T Kal and Archangel warm up the decks for Admiral and Jahseed by pulling up Agent Sasco’s Island Lover a few times.

Soon the young contestants, in an assortment of hot pants, short skirts and tank tops, line up on the stage.

Before the competition gets going, Palesa and Tokyo – the two previous winners – start things off with a choreographed routine to Watch Out for Dis by Major Lazer and Busy Signal.

It’s high-energy, with the women showing off their flexibility and mastery of classic, exhibitionist dancehall moves.

Facing each other, they do simultaneous Arab springs (a kind of running cartwheel), crossing each other and settling into the splits. There’s a bit of 6.30ing, a move that looks like twerking but with straight legs, bottoms up and hands on the floor. Some wining is included, as are handstand leg movements with heads plastered to the floor, and upside-down wining, with legs secured against the headboard where the sound is set up.

The pair sets down the template and the standard for the night.

When Fire Lady takes the stage, she emerges as the early crowd favourite. With the elongated, toned quads of a high-jump athlete framed by blue hot pants, she does some mean bouncing spits and lots of handstand movements. She breezes through her first round, the crowd obviously backing her.

In the other group of six, Double D, in brown hot pants and matching leopard-print crop top, also starts strongly. Incorporating her sister’s moves, she flips into the splits, heads into some wining, headstands and floor-bound dutty wining (a rhythmic, circular wining of the hair). The competitors are halved.

In between rounds of the competition, an assortment of male and female dancers take to the stage, line dancing to dancehall classics. This eases the tension on the competitors and keeps the crowd visually stimulated, while also allowing for the contestants’ frequent costume changes.

Teacher – ceremoniously dressed in brown pants, a tucked-in white shirt and a matching tie – leads

a contingent in loosely choreographed moves. The moves vary in complexity, but are mostly hand and feet combinations tailored for crowd participation.

As each round progresses, Jahseed works hard to maintain democratic consensus, which measures success in decibels.

This is generally easy to pull off, but in the penultimate round there is the curious case of a mystgery contestant named Lerato dressed in what looks like layers of girdles and body shapers who, no matter how limited her repertoire of hip movements is, is too pesky to shake off.

Somehow, thanks to her psychedelically elastic posterior, she has managed to survive the culling being steadily administered by Fire Lady and Double D.

Fire Lady is the first to make it to the final round. Her spectacular array of technically proficient, high-energy acrobatics and head-top leg claps, not to mention her "secret weapon" (the steady stream of wining), have secured her a place in the run-off.

Double D, meanwhile, has also been pulling out magic tricks. But to make it through to the final round she has to go into a dance-off with the pesky contestant, whom she finally shakes off with her own rendition of head-top moves, a variety of flips and her dependable bouncing splits.

The final run is more or less academic. Double D, having suffered through an extra round, is reduced to mostly footwork-related moves.

A poised Fire Lady uses song selection and a sense of occasion to seal her victory.

Dressed in faded, paint-splattered denim hot pants, with "Fire Lady" emblazoned in bold lettering across her derriere, she enters the stage to an high-octane, evergreen dancehall classic: Elephant Man’s Willie Bounce.

The willie bounce is a deceptively simple, charismatic dance and Fire Lady executes the move in perfect time as the eponymous refrain hits. It’s a picture-perfect victory.

Soon after the song is cut, Fire Lady is handed her chalice-shaped trophy, with red, gold and green ribbons on either handle.

When it’s all said and done, the dance has somehow redeemed itself.

My preconceived notions of questionable sexual politics – of women handing themselves over to be objectified – are not absent. They just feel like pretentious, misplaced analysis.

Fire Lady’s performance is no mere carnal act, but a political move towards claiming her dreams.

Even after the competition ends, when the dancing ramps up in energy and the daggering starts in earnest, it seems like innocuous, exaggerated, adult fun.

I walk away feeling as though I’ve been inducted into the context of the dancehall. And in dance, context is everything.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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