Get Down With Danmye

When you think of martial arts, the first things that come to mind may be powerful karate chops and kung fu kicks, but while fighting traditions can be aggressive and dangerous, most martial arts practices also rely on fluidity, movement and individual expression. Danmyé, a dance-combat ritual from the French island of Martinique, is no exception: At the climax of a colossal fight, it calls for sweeping arm and leg movements, constant waist twisting motions and intricate footwork.

Cousin of Capoeira
Like Brazil’s renowned capoeira Angola, danmyé can be traced as far back as the 18th century, when slaves on the island’s sugar plantations resisted oppression by developing forms of combat disguised as dance.

 

The similarities between capoeira and danmyé are striking: Both involve a ring of spectators gathered around two fighters, a pulsating musical framework and a dance ritual. There are also noticeable differences. While capoeira Angola as it is practiced today incorporates variations of kicks and crouching positions during combat, danmyé fighters may punch, kick and even grapple. Other noteworthy differences involve the musical accompaniment: Cocoyé drums and small sticks (rhythm-keepers that are beaten on the drum’s belly) govern the danmyé circle, instead of the berimbau (a bow tied tightly with a steel wire and hollow gourd), the atabaque (large drum) and the pandeiro (tambourine) that typically accompany capoeira. In both cases there is a primary singer with a chorus.

 

Dance and Ritual
Most people agree that the dance rituals typical to the martial arts of African origin began as survival tactics. Slaves set their practices to music and incorporated dance as a means of masking combat elements and, in some cases, preparations for group uprisings and revolt. Most slave owners mistook the stylized fighting and footwork as harmless dancing.

 

While danmyé is undeniably a martial art, dance is at the core of its identity, facilitating communion between drummer and fighter. Before the combat begins, the fighter may test the drummer, whose skill is determined by the way he or she rhythmically translates a fighter’s every move. By entering the danmyé ring and performing physical feats while “mounting,” or dancing toward the drum, each opponent draws in the energy of the drum and the crowd, at the same time trying to intimidate the challenger. This prelude can take between 15 and 30 minutes and is an opportunity for the dancers to warm up and set their bodies to the rhythm of the music.

 

Preliminary dance, or rhythm keeping, also allows opponents to observe one another’s style; by studying movement patterns, fighters can more effectively launch surprise attacks. For example, a fighter’s body language may fool an opponent into believing that he or she is going to attack with the left leg when, in fact, the intent is to launch a series of punches.

 

According to 78-year-old danmyé elder Georges “Yéyé” Oranger, movement is primarily used to build an efficient fighting strategy, but self-confidence, fair play, endurance, energy management and flexibility are the keys to becoming a strong danmyé practitioner. “In danmyé, one must not overthink his opponent but fight instinctively,” Oranger says. Victor Treffre, a 63-year-old elder from Martinique’s capital, Fort-de-France, adds that observation, concentration and humility are overarching must-haves for aspiring danmyétés, or danmyé fighters.

A New Generation
In its heyday, danmyé circles were a microcosm of larger rural society and represented a way of life for elders. Now, for younger fighters, it is an institutionalized and simulated combat sport. Today, yearly events are organized around danmyé to honor elders well into their 80s and 90s. The practice is also taught in public schools to children as young as 5 and has recently become part of a series of mandatory high school physical education exams in Martinique.

 

Although Asian martial art forms have sprung up all over the island, a nucleus of young people has delved into danmyé as a means of preserving their cultural heritage. For most young West Indians, danmyé and other grassroots dance and music traditions are important markers of their identity. According to 28-year-old danmyété David-Alexandre Fatna, “Danmyé is not just a martial arts form. It reflects a Martinican way of being.”

Latest Posts


Photo by Jayme Thornton

How Paloma Garcia-Lee Manifested Her Dream Role, in Steven Spielberg’s "West Side Story"

On a rainy day in November 2018, Paloma Garcia-Lee got a call from her agent that brought her to her knees outside her New York City apartment: She was going to play Graziella in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.

The call came after a lengthy audition process with Spielberg in the room, and the role, originated by Wilma Curley on Broadway in 1957 and later portrayed by Gina Trikonis in the 1961 film, was her biggest dream. In fact, it's something Garcia-Lee says she manifested from the day plans for the movie were announced in January 2018. "I wrote in my journal: 'I am playing Graziella in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.'"

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo by @mediabyZ

Am I Less Committed to Dance Because I Have Other Passions? (Spoiler Alert: NO!)

Let's face it—dance is HARD, and in order to achieve your goals, you need to be committed to your training. "Still, there's a fine line between being committed and being consumed." Dancers can, and should, have interests outside of the studio.

Not convinced? We talked with dance psychologist Dr. Lucie Clements and two multifaceted dancers, Kristen Harlow (a musical theater dancer pursuing a career in NYC and Kentucky) and Kallie Takahashi (a dancer in her final year at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts), and got the inside scoop on how having hobbies outside of dance can inform your artistry, expand your range and help prevent burnout.

Keep Reading SHOW LESS
Photo courtesy of Brittany Conigatti

Go Behind the Scenes of Annie Live! With Brittany Conigatti

Unwrap your candy canes, pour the hot chocolate and round up your fellow theater lovers: NBC is kicking off the Christmas season with its latest live-broadcast TV musical. Annie Live! premieres December 2 and features a star-studded cast, including Harry Connick Jr., Tituss Burgess, Megan Hilty and, as the title character, young phenom Celina Smith.

Luckily, people got a taste of what the special will entail when the cast kicked off the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with a performance last week. But since you’re never fully dressed without a Dance Spirit exclusive, we caught up with Brittany Conigatti, one of the young orphans and adult ensemble members in the show, to learn what it was like putting together a large-scale live production for the small screen.

The cast of Annie Live! poses for a group photo. The cast of Annie Live!Photo courtesy of Conigatti


Keep Reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks

contest
Enter the Cover Model Search