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MAY-POLE Dance in Grenada

Editor's note:

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 Canada.


Caldwell Taylor

" 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 abundance.

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 counterpart.

Trees were at the centre of the spiritual imagination of the Celts.

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 of life.

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 not totter".

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". 12:2

Arboreal references are also commonplace in the holy books of Judaism and of Islam.

The Buddha attained enlightenment while sitting under a bodhi tree.

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 subconscious.


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 choreography.

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 original continent".

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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