Sunday, January 15, 2012

What is Yanvalou? (Part 1 of a three part series)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part series of posts on Yanvalou. Part I provides selected quotes about the Yanvalou dance.

Part II features videos of Yanvalou dances. Click for Part II of this series.

Part III features songs and instrumental music about Yanvalou. Click for Part 3 of this series.

These posts are presented for their historical, folkloric, educational, and aesthetic values.

My thanks to those whose websites I have reposted and comments I have quoted.

(The numbers assigned to these quotes have no ranking order or order of preference).

Quote #1 from
A ritual dance originated in Benin*. It honors all the spirits of the rada nation. Yanvalou represents the undulation of the waves as they rise and fall and also the movement of spirit Dambalah, represented by a serpent. Dambalah is the source of energy and life. White is the color of the very pure rada spirits."
*Benin, West Africa was formerly known as Dahomey.

Quote #2 from

A favorite Voudoun dance; the name means "supplication." The dance is characterized by the hands being placed on knees or thighs, and has several main variations: Yanvalou debut (upright), Yanvalou dos bas (crouching), Yanvalou z'epaules (a "shoulder dance"), etc."

Quote #3 from
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Alfred Métraux - Voodoo In Haiti (pt. 3) "Le Vaudou Haitien" (published in 1958, before "Les Larmes d'Éros"), Métraux would debunk the presentation of Voodoo as a Dionysian cult:
"Too often people imagine that a crowd exalted by mystic enthusiasm is the usual setting for Voodoo possession. In fact those who attend ceremonies as spectators only cast an occasional absent-minded glance at the goings-on. They gossip on the edges of the peristyle, smoke cigarettes, or nibble at tablettes (pralines). At no time is the crowd subject to a collective delirium, or even to a degree of excitement propitious to ecstasy. The traditional dances of Voodoo - yanvalou, doba, Dahomey, petro - all carried out with great seriousness, a subtle sense of rhythm and admirable suppleness - are far from being Dionysian. Only at certain ceremonial moments does the degree of excitement reach enthusiasm"."

Question #4 from
Dance Magazine / August, 1994
"Haiti dances to a different drummer: a country in turmoil turns to ancient folk religion, with rich results for dance - includes article on dancer Katherine Dunham's continuing dance and political activities by Elizabeth Barad

...[Katherine] Dunham has incorporated the inspirational ritual dance steps used in voudon ceremonies into her technique and choreography. One of the movements that Dunham says she uses is the yanvalou, the dance "sacrifice" performed to invoke the spirits. "It involves all of the body, and it produces a state of ecstasy in a ceremony," Dunham said.

The first time I saw this step was at a twenty-four-hour ceremony of the Three Kings, held annually in January. I entered a large, open, concrete structure in the slums of Port-au-Prince, crowded with initiates, drummers, and a congregation of some fifty people. The initiates--dressed in white, heads wrapped in white kerchiefs--were moving like white waves: Their knees were bent, their hands on their knees, their backs constantly undulating, and their shoulders rhythmically rising and rolling away from their bodies. They moved to the beat of the drums, which started slowly and burst into a feverish pitch.

Nobody, not even the most skeptical, could resist the energy of the movements and the beat of the drums. After first checking that it wasn't disrespectful, I tried to imitate the yanvalou with the priest who officiated at the ceremony. Our bodies were so low to the ground that we were constantly squatting while swaying our backs and quickly moving our feet. My untrained quadriceps should have hurt, but I felt no pain as I danced on and on. It made me wonder whether it might not be a divine force that gave me such extraordinary stamina.

The yanvalou, the dance to the spirits, can go on from sundown to dawn. It did, in fact, in a three-day ceremony I attended in a small mud peristyle (part of a temple) off a dirt road outside the capital. As the congregation crowded into the teeming, thatched-roof temple, the drums pounded over and over, more and more intensely. Suddenly there was a break in the music. A man in front of me fell backward in a jerking motion, trampling on my foot.

The drums continued in a syncopated rhythm, and the man spun around the peristyle out of control. Then all the congregants were silent and the man stood still, eyes glazed. This was a sign that the loa (spirit) had arrived and possessed his body…
Max Beauvoir explained possession in the voudon faith. "By dancing as well as you can," he said, "you give God a present and therefore receive a fragment of God, one of the loas." The spirits are physical representations of particular godlike principles--power, love, death--and each spirit has a distinctive dance."

Quote #5 from
"This dance is called Yanvalou. It begins each of the Haitian Vodun ceremonies....


i've been having a conversation with the ancestors. Grann fèk ap di m, i’m her fragile soul. She's always on the periphery. Sending me information. This Yanvalou movement brings Danbala Wèdo. My spine undulates slowly, rising like out of some cosmic sea, arching towards Dessaline's sunlight...

When the European got to West Africa and saw our 15th century West African ancestors worshiping what they thought was a snake, they actually thought we were worshiping that. What our 15th century African ancestor was really talking about, because Haitians think in parables, is the breath. The Yanvalou movement, it exemplifies the undulations of the Great Serpent. The Great Serpent, it's your breath. What gives life.

You see, all the undulations starting from the base of the spine moving up - it's like the Hindu Kundalini. The Great Danbala serpent is our lifeforce, a metaphor of our source of movement, energy and life. It's not a Victorian body-fearing or nature-fearing metaphor and it's not even a sexist metaphor. Danbala, He's always entwined with Ayida Wèdo, his female aspect. Male/female together always. There's no dichotomist dualism in the serpentine path."

Quote #6 from "Haitian Vodou Ritual Dance And Its Secularization" by Henry Frank in Caribbean Dance from Abakua To Zouk: How Movement Shapes Identity edited by Susanna Sloat (University Press of Florid, 2002), pp 109-111

“Vodou is a “danced religion,” to paraphrase Alfred Metraux (1959), the wll –known French anthroplologist. Most of the deities of the Vodou pantheon have their specific dances along with specific rhythm of the drums and songs by which they are attracted during a ceremony. The dance, ordinarily, takes place in the peristyle of the hounfor(Vodou temple). The peristyle is the front oart of the temple where public ceremonies are held...

Some of the most common ritual dances
The Yanvalou is a dance of supplication in honor of Agwe, the deity of the sea and Damballah, the snake god of fertility. In the excecution of this dance the worshippers try to mime the undulating movments of a snake and the waves of the sea by moving gracefully, forward and back, their shoulders and the upper parts of their body. The participants are often dressed in white during ceremonies honoring Agwe and Damballah. There are two types of Yanvalou: Yanvalou Doba (back bending) where the dancers bend forward and the Yanvalou Debout (straight) where the dancers perform upright. The latter is in honor of all the deities of the Rada rite."

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  1. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

    1. You're welcome, Unknown.

      However, it's not my wisdom, but the wisdom and creativity of Benin, West Africa and people like Katherine Dunham who passed Yanvalou on to the rest of the world.