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.”