In a recent documentary, Beenie Man did something that top dancehall reggae stars don't usually do. He said vocalists like him play a secondary role. "Dancing was before singing," he said. "Be honest."
You could see the proof last Friday night when hundreds of revelers converged on a grandly named place called Convention Hall: a big, dingy-carpeted room.
The event was called "Dancing Will Never Die," and it gave a hallful of Jamaican-Americans a chance to show off their moves, their clothes and -- thanks to some roving cameras -- their most videogenic sides. (Not, it seemed, their front sides.)
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Since the 1960s, reggae fans have been finding inventive ways to split the difference between a party and a performance. At concerts, audience members make sure they're not being taken for granted: If they're not dancing, they're singing along or heckling, or maybe even throwing things. And at parties, disc jockeys (known as selectors) make sure that partygoers can't take them for granted, either: They bark commands, they stop records midsong; at events known as soundclashes, they compete with one another.
Friday's program neatly split the difference between party and performance. The headliner was Ding Dong, a dancer and occasional vocalist who recently had a Jamaican hit called Badman Forward, Badman Pull Up. Wherever Ding Dong went, eyes followed, but he declined invitations to take the stage. Instead, he worked the crowd, nearly -- but never quite -- blending in with the hundreds of dancers who surrounded him.
Over the past few years, reggae's obsession with dancing has reached absurd new heights. Elephant Man, one of the genre's best-known stars, has made a series of big hits based on silly little dance moves. For Signal de Plane, you wave your arm over your head; Pon de River, Pon de Bank is a modified hokey-pokey.
A year ago, reggae dancing suffered a huge loss: Its leading dancer, a skinny and flamboyant veteran known as Bogle, was shot and killed. But his death only galvanized the reggae community, the way deaths often do. His funeral turned into -- what else? -- a dance party, and a year later his name is still invoked at just about every reggae concert. On Friday night, few records inspired a more furious reaction than All Dem Deh, on which Bogle moonlighted as a vocalist, taunting a rival dancer. It was released shortly before his death.
You can catch a few glimpses of Bogle on It's All About Dancing: A Jamaican Dance-u-mentary (Penalty/Rykodisc), a new DVD that loosely compiles street scenes, interviews with stars (that's where Beenie Man made his concession) and instructional segments. Ding Dong shows viewers how it's done. Many of the steps seem self-explanatory, once you've seen them. "Air Force One" is a nimble little step that ends with a look-at-my-sneakers flourish. And if you pull your jacket over your head, hunch your back and wave your arms from the shoulders, your fellow partygoers will know you're doing the "Gorilla Warfare."
It's All About Dancing clearly was made with outsiders and newcomers in mind. For a more immersive experience, check out one of the countless low-budget DVDs that document Jamaica's "Passa Passa" street party and other, similar events. The ubiquity of video cameras has further blurred the distinction between spectator and star. And you could see that at the Convention Hall: As they jockeyed for camera time, the dancers looked like moths, flying backward toward the spotlight.
With amateurs like this, how does a professional dancer stand out? Easy: by outdancing everyone. Ding Dong made his appearance around 3am, and although the DJ briefly summoned him over to the DJ booth, he could soon be found on the floor, efficiently showing up anyone who tried to upstage him, women in plastic sunglasses and young men in gang colors alike. Mainly, though, this was a group effort: When the selector played Voicemail's Get Crazy, based on a spring-loaded beat called Gangsta Rock, Ding Dong led the crowd in the leaning, twisting dance step.
As you can tell from the DVD, Ding Dong is a likable star, even though he'll probably never be a nimble lyricist. (In Badman Forward, Badman Pull Up, he mainly just chants the title.) But in America, where rapid-fire reggae lyrics are often considered an obstacle to success, that may mean he is more marketable than many established reggae stars; no doubt some record executive is hatching a plot now.
By 5am on Saturday morning, the fluorescent lights were on and people were starting to file out, clutching fistfuls of glossy fliers advertising the next party. One of them, scheduled for Sunday in East Orange, New Jersey, paid tribute to Ding Dong's hit while leaving him out of the loop entirely: It's called, Badgal Forward, Badgal Pull Up, and it's an amateur contest. No professionals required.
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