During the opening reception for the 21st St Kitts Music Festival, the St Kitts Masquerade dance troupe gave an energetic performance which brought a massive smile to my face as it reminded me of the Montserrat Masquerade Troupes who play a significant role in the annual Montserrat Festival held between Christmas and New Year.
Traditionally, the Montserrat Masquerade troupes would first make an appearance around Guy Fawkes Night early November and continue through the Christmas season. Each Montserrat Masquerade troupe would have six to nine dancers and a captain that would go from house to house in their village accepting cash and drinks for their energetic and festive performance.
Beyond the village house to house dancing, Montserrat Masquerade troupes would also perform at events throughout the Christmas season as well as compete for cash and village bragging rights at a dance show-down on St John’s Day (27th December). Today, the Montserrat Masqueraders perform at cultural festivals throughout the year as well as during the Christmas season though post-eruption of Soufrière Hills Volcano, there isn’t a village competition as there is only large troupe.
Masquerade Dance in the Caribbean
Now in that the early European settlers on Montserrat came from St Kitts and brought with them African slaves, I wasn’t surprised to see Masquerade dancers in St Kitts. Also to learn that they too primarily perform during their annual St Kitts & Nevis Sugar Mas Carnival held between Christmas and New Year. These festival/carnival events held at the end of the year were initially less about celebrating the birth of Christ and more about letting off steam during the three-day break granted to African slaves in the Caribbean by the European plantation owners.
So what exactly is the Masquerade dance? Well, it is a Caribbean cultural treasure created over 300+ years ago and performed on Caribbean islands like Montserrat, St Kitts & Nevis, Guadeloupe, and Bermuda. The Masquerade dance performed on these islands is related to Jamaican Jonkonnu and Bahamian Junkanoo and combines steps from European ballroom with folk dance initially performed in sub-Saharan Africa.
The European elements were believed to be included to make it acceptable to the slave owners who often suppressed African language, religion, and culture. The African dance movements are thought to be from the Yoruba people and are ritual dance symbols of war, guardianship, and fertility.
Masquerade Dance Costumes
Members of the Masquerade troupe wear a colorful mostly red and yellow costume decorated with ribbons, tassels, bells, and mirrors. On their face, the Masqueraders wear a decorated seethrough mesh mask, sometimes have a handkerchief tied around the neck, and on their head, they wear a colorful tall crown that has peacock feathers, well at least the Masqueraders in St Kitts.
The Masquerade dance is performed to the combined beats of a bass drum, kettle drum, and a fife or fiddle. The captain often uses a cart whip that is lashed to the ground to discipline the dancers and make way amongst the crowd. It is also thought to ward off evil spirits and symbolically beat the European slave plantation owners. The Masquerade dancers in St Kitts also use a faux tomahawk during some of the dances.
St Kitts Masquerade Dances
There are primarily six dances performed by the St Kitts Masqueraders including the Quadrille, Fine, Jig, Wild Mas, Waltz, and Boillola.
1.) Quadrille – This masquerade dance is thought to originate in 17th-century France and is meant to be performed by an even number of couples at a very slow pace.
2.) Fine – The pace of this Masquerade dance is faster than the Quadrille, and troupe members are evenly divided and lined up opposite each other. The captain and vice-captain at opposite ends dance towards each other on one foot in a diagonal line. When they meet they match each others movement to become one, then turn and return to each other’s corners. This diagonal pair dance is repeated by other members of the Masquerade troupe until they have all switched sides.
3) Wild Mas – This is one of the more elaborate and crowd-pleasing Masquerade dances with an African-style call and response between the captain and members of the troupe. It starts with the captain calling out, “Tear the Indians” and troupe members responding, ‘Tear the cap!” The captain then instructs the musicians to start playing by saying “Bram back a teddy music.” He then instructs the dancers by shouting out “Take your hawks and go wild Indians.” The dancers then form a large circle pushing the crowd back and dancing with hands in the air. The captain then shouts, “Una man paisa” which means to pass down the money. Here onlookers then throw money, mostly coins in the middle of the circle. The Masquerade dancers then move to the center and couch down limbo-style and pick up the coins. It concludes with the dancers huddling close together with heads down to form a gigantic plume and throw their tomahawks into the air.
4) Jig – This Masquerade dance showcases the right foot being hooked behind the left calf and includes some fancy showmanship with the tomahawk.
5) Waltz – For this Masquerade dance, the troupe members would pair off into couples and perform an elementary ballroom dance in moderately fast triple meter during which the dancers revolve around the circles. This dance was said to mock the plantation owners who during their celebrations performed a simple 1-2-3-4 dance step.
6) Boillola – With this Masquerade dance, troupe members jump and clap to the music, moving east to west with their knees together. The captain then shouts out a command, and the dancers hook their right foot behind their left calf, all the time jumping, pushing forward and twisting all over. With legs locked, they lean backward their hands pointing to the sky ready for applause from heaven as the dance concludes.
Masqueraders from Montserrat perform many of these dances, but I know there are others such as the heel and toe polka. These I hope to see again first hand again on my next trip to Montserrat for the 2018 St Patrick’s Day Festival. It will be the 250th anniversary of the failed slave rebellion on St Patrick’s Day 1768 and descendants of African slaves will continue to dance the Masquerade as recognition of the turbulent past and a celebration of their freedom.