|MAY-POLE Dance in Grenada
The following is the text of Caldwell Taylor's
introduction to a May-pole dance, which was performed at
the Grenada Association's (Toronto) Independence Dinner
of February 9. The dancers were led by Jenny Burke and
Renwick Herry, leading exponents of Grenadian culture in
THE MAY-POLE DANCE IN GRENADA
" It will be needless to illustrate at length the
custom, which has prevailed in various parts of Europe,
such as England, France and Germany, of setting up a
village May -tree or May-pole on May Day.
-J.G Frazer, The Golden Bough
Ah could remember when
Ah five years old
Ah used to love to see
How they dancin' round the May-pole
- Black Wizard, "Gone are the Days"
The May-pole dance has its origins in pagan Europe. It
is a drama of imitative magic, which means that it is
based on the idea that "like produces like".
In systems of imitative magic it is believed, for
instance, that you can cause pain to someone by sticking
needles in an effigy of that someone. Similarly, it is
believed that a special offering to one tree could
induce all other trees to bring forth fruits in
Imitative magic operates on principles of reciprocity.
Indeed, this explains the reason why the Grenadian pours
a libation to the ancestral gods before taking a shot
from a new bottle of rum. To put all of this in very
Grenadian terms, imitative magic requires you "to give
in order to get".
In keeping with the ancient principles of
imitative magic, the May -pole drama originated in
ceremonies aimed at propitiating Mother Nature so she
would reciprocate with a bountiful harvest. The May-pole
was erected on the first day of May (May Day) and the
entire village went out to dance around it.
The May-pole or May-tree is said to be a phallic symbol.
In the mythological and symbolic systems of Europe and
elsewhere in the world, including Africa- the phallus is
a bringer of fertility. In Grenada, the Jab Jab
"wine" is a almost certainly a fertility act. And so too
were the bongo and pique(peekay), which were once
performed at wakes and other ceremonies for the dead
throughout Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique.
It bears stating that trees are at the heart of
mythological and symbolic systems all over the world.
According to Frazer, the the worship of the oak tree
appeared to have been widespread among "all branches of
the Aryan stock in Europe". The oak was sacred to
the Roman god Jupiter and to Zeus, his Greek
Trees were at the centre of the spiritual imagination of
In the Christian Bible, the Book of Genesis tells us
that the Lord Himself planted the tree of life and the
tree of knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the
Garden of Eden. And following the Fall the Lord posted
an armed sentry to keep watch over the path to the tree
The author of the Book of Jeremiah tells us that trees
could be made into objects of worship:
"For the customs of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman
shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and
gold; they fasten it with a hammer and nails so it will
The God of the Book of Deuteronomy commanded His people
to smash the tree temples of their enemies:
"Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains
and on the hills and under every spreading tree where
the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods".
Arboreal references are also commonplace in the holy
books of Judaism and of Islam.
The Buddha attained enlightenment while sitting under a
A kiss under a mistletoe tree brings good luck.
In Eastern Caribbean folklore Papa Bois presides over
the woods (forest).
In Grenada, we bury the child's nabel (navel) string
(placenta) and over it we plant a fruit tree.
The silk cotton tree is the abode of great spirits.
Trees, trees, trees: A veritable forest grows in our
HOW THE MAYPOLE CAME TO GRENADA
The May-pole could have been brought to Grenada by
French, the first European colonisers of the island.
That said, it is far more likely that the English, who
took over from the French in 1763, were the ones who
brought the May-pole dance to the island. We say
this in view of the great popularity of the May-pole in
England up to the pre-modern period.
Brought to Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique, the
May-pole dance was once the exclusive property of the
Europeans. But the dance appealed to the islands'
African population, who readily plugged into the power
of the May-pole's imitative magic.
The May-pole dance is a circle dance, a familiar and
very important organizing principle in the dance forms
of African-Grenadians: circle (ring) dance is performed
in Shango, Big Drum, and all traditional dance in
Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique. African circle
dances move in a counterclockwise manner. Talking about
African circle dance, the American historian of art
Robert Farris Thompson tells us that circular procession
is one of the key principles of a spiritual geometry
brought to the Americas from Africa. Ritual circling is
said to bring good luck.
The May-pole came from Europe, and after many years it
was adopted and adapted in Grenada and elsewhere in the
so-called New World. In the Dominican Republic the
May-pole has morphed into what Dominicans call Baile de
las Cintras (Ribbon Dance). The May-pole (Palo de Mayo)
is at the centre of cultural life in Bluefields,
heartland of Black Nicaragua. Cubans of Haitian descent
still dance the tajona, a May-pole dance that is richly
infused with unmistakable grammar of African
Such cultural mixings(syncretisms) have caused the
Jamaican-born British cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, to
conceive of culture as being less about roots and more
about routes: "Culture travels, culture moves, culture
develops, culture changes, culture migrates", said Hall.
Hall' s theory views Caribbean culture as a hybrid, a
callaloo. It is an idea that is echoed in Derek
Walcott's 1992 Nobel lecture. Walcott said:
"Break a vase, and the love that assembles the fragments
is stronger that the love took the symmetry for granted
when it was whole. It is such a love that reassembles
our African fragment and Asiatic fragments, the cracket
heirlooms' whose restoration shows white scars. The
gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the
Antilles. Antillean art I the restoration of our
shattered histories, our shards of vocabularies, our
archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off the
Ideas of Caribbean hyridity, metissage and mestizaje are
alive in the works of many Caribbean thinkers, including
Rene Depestre, Antonio Benitez-Rojo, Kamau Braithwaite,
Wilson Harris, Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau,
Raphael Confiant and Jean Bernabe.
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