Thursday, April 2, 2015

African Sources Of Baton Twirling & Other Twirling Performances

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides six excerpts from book chapters or online articles about the influence of the Kongo (Central African) culture and/or West African cultures on baton twirling and other twirling performances.

Two videos of baton twirling in Haiti during Rara and two videos of baton twirling in the Caribbean and one video of rifle, flag, and drum major mace twirling by Chicago's South Shore Drill Team is also included in this post.

The Addendum to this post also includes videos of the closely related performance art of cane (kane) twirling by two historically Black Greek letter fraternities and one historically Black Greek letter sorority.

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, cultural, entertainment and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to all those who are featured in these videos and thanks to the publishers of these examples on YouTube.

These excerpts are presented in no particular order. The excerpts are numbered for referencing purposes only.

Excerpt #1
From Africanisms in American Culture edited by Dr. Joseph E. Halloway pp. 12-13
"Robert Farris Thompson's essay (chapter 10) contributes to our understanding of Africanisms found in African American aesthetics, revealing that the majority of African retentions in African American folk art are Bantu in origin. Thompson shows that the impact of the Kongo on African American culture contributed to the foundation of black American aesthetics and musical culture in the New World. The Kongo influence contributed to the rise of the national music of Brazil (the samba) and to one of the most sophisticated music forms in the United States (jazz).

Thompson demonstrates that Kongo influences are widespread.

...The African Haitian ritual dancing based on a dance form found in northern Kongo was adopted by the baton-twirling "major jonc" called rara. Its members twirl batons and strike a Kongo pose when confronting a rival group. it is hypothesized that in Mississippi. where many Kongo slaves resided, such groups had a major impact. Mississippi has become a world baton-twirling center".

Excerpt #2
From publisher Asar, 27 January 2012
"The book Africanisms in American Culture edited by Dr. Joseph E. Halloway documents some of the Africanisms that have survived in the Americas during and after the enslavement period. A good number of the surviving Africanisms that have survived are in the form of poses...

The most dramatic incursion of a Kongo gesture in Haiti is the reemergent biika mambu stance. This stance is frequently called telama lwimbanganga in Northern Kongo. This pose is identifiable as the left hand on the hip and the right hand forward. This became the drum majorette pose that gave way to baton twirling in the United States.

In Kongo, placing the left hand on the hip is believed to press down all evil, while the extended right hand acts to “vibrate” the future in a positive manner. Important women used this pose at dawn to “vibrate positively” the future of town warriors. Advocates used its power to block or end a lawsuit (Halloway 2005: 298). One will notice that this is the pose for the famous Supremes song, “Stop in the name of love.”

.... The telema stance has to do with power and mediating force (power grasped and evil contained).

Excerpt #3
From Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, Volume 2 , edited by Thomas A. Green, Joseph R. Svinth, pp 45-46
"On Haiti the Rara parade is a pre-Lenten (Carnival) event. It features competing groups of singers and musicians playing homemade instruments. The content is typical of Carnival in general and the Caribbean varieties in particular. Each Rara band is led by a major jonc, also major jonk, majo jonk. The major jonc carries a baton known as a jonc. The jonc is 100 to 137 centimeters (39 to 54 inches) in length and is brandished and twirled much as a drum major twirls his baton in a military or collegiate marching band.

Like the musical instruments carried by the bandsmen, the jonc is supernaturally strengthened. In Haiti, the practice of supernaturally strengthening fighting sticks (mayombo), thereby giving the owners both protection and ability to defeat opponents has been documented as early as the eighteenth century (Debien 1972). The major jonc’s skill at twirling is believed to be related to his magical and fighting skills. Thus he is that figure that folklorist Roger Abrahams (1983, xvi), labeled “the man of action, the physical adept one”. Major jonc are in fact accomplished stick- fighters. Practical use of this talent may be tested, too, because when one of the bands encounters another, the conversation can move from verbal or musical duels to actual fighting.

According to Haitian folk history, the baton work that is acquired by Africans from the indigenous Tainos who used the stick as both a weapon and a dance prop. Nonetheless, the most convincing contemporary analysis of baton twirling both by major joncs and baton –twirlers in North American athletic events traces it to northern Kongo sources. (Thompson 2005, 298-299)

In some parts of Haiti, village competitions of wrestling (pinge’) were also held in connection with Rara. (Courlander 1985, 108)

The Haitian expression of African spirituality is Vodun(also Vodu and Vodou), whence comes the English word voodoo . The word comes from the Fon vodu (“spirit”). Vodun incorporates religious traditions from West and Central Africa...

Like Lucumi, Vodun has a warrior deity derived from the Yoruba orisha Ogun, who in Haiti is known as Ogou. As elsewhere, Ogou fights with a machete or sword. The devotee who is “ridden” (possessed by) Ogou the lwa during a Vodun rite takes up the machete dedicated to Ogou and performs an aggressive dance filled with chopping and stabbing movements, as in Lucumi, and also punches, kicks, grunts, and growls. (Daniel, 2005, 163). "

Excerpt #4
"In Haiti, rara is a kind of marching band festivity open to the public and observed mostly during the Christian Easter season. It is connected to Nago Egougoun society practices and to Kongo military tradition. Among the Nago people, the word rara means eulogy. An essential part of rara involves a walk to the cemetery, mazi, or lakou to pay respect and to eulogize former members of the rara. After paying respect to the Ancestors, the rara is viewed as having been fortified (chaje).

Nago tradition runs deep in rara and can be seen in the manner that the rara members dress. They often cover their entire bodies just as it has traditionally been done in Egougoun celebrations. Men can wear dresses and skirts because in Nago Egougoun celebrations, women were not allowed to participate but they could be represented by men. ...the clothing and hip movements of the baton twirlers is reminiscent of female role play in Egougoun, called Gougoun in Haiti. Today in Pestel Haiti, there is a kind of rara in which its male members always dress in female clothing.

In raras, like in Egougoun celebrations, one member carries a whip to ceremonially maintain order in the rara. In Haiti the whip used is the fwèt kach, a slave whip. It is cracked repeatedly in the air where it is said to be whipping zombies, a reminder of the suffering of our fore-parents who were once enslaved on the island."...

Excerpt #5
From "Rara as a Form Of Carnival"; Analysis - image of Rara in New York
"Rara season overlaps with Carnival season, and so Rara activity begins on January 6th, known on the Christian calendar as Epiphany. Rara bands usually parade as small carnival bands, and then continue to parade after Carnival, during Lent, until Easter. The "tone," or "ambiance," of Rara parading is loud and carnivalesque, and if you don't know about the hidden, religious core of Rara, you'll think that Rara is simply a matter of young people exhibiting their talent at singing and dancing in a boisterous, rebellious atmosphere. As in Carnival, Rara is about moving through the streets, and about men establishing (masculine) reputation through public performance. Rara bands stop to perform for noteworthy people, to collect money. In return, the kings and queens dance and sing, and the baton majors juggle batons-and even machetes! Rara costumes are known for their delicate sequin work, which flash and sparkle as the batons twirl. There is a lesser-known costume, too, of colorful streaming cloth hung over knickers and hanging from hats.

The competitive music and dancing, the sequins, and the cloth strips are all echoes of festival arts in other parts of the Caribbean. In its orality, performative competition, and masculinity, Rara shares similar characteristics with other Black Atlantic performance traditions like Carnival, Junkanoo, Capoeria, Calypso, Blues, Jazz, New Orleans' second-line parades and Black Indians' parades, Reggae, Dance Hall, Hip-Hop and numerous other forms. Unlike many Afro-Creole masculinist forms, however, Rara is explicitly religious.

(Excerpted from chapter one of Elizabeth McAlister, Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance. University of California Press, 2002.)
This passage is reformatted by me to enhance its readability. Italics were added by me to highlight those words.

Example #6
Milwaukee Journal August 7, 1946
[description of a competition of 200 drum majors and drum majorettes from six states
featuring Major C. W. Boothe from Chicago]
“Boothe, a professional baton twirler and teacher for 55 years, has seen twirling grow from a minstrel show novelty to a natural enthusiasm shared by youth and adults...

Little Charlie Boothe was only 6 when he saw his first baton twirling. It was in Hannibal, Mo. A Negro performer in a minstrel show did the twirling and it so enchanted young Charlie that the boy followed him about town as long as the show stayed. When he left he began practicing the tricks in his back yard.

A year later he had mastered that performer’s comparatively simple routine and added many tricks of his own.

The lad practicing in his back yard didn’t know then-but his research has since taught him- that twirling began in Siam where spears where tossed and twirled in ceremonial dances. A recent news photograph showed natives of the Belgian Congo twirling small tree trunks. The familiar ball at the end of the baton was a bit of root. The baton familiar to American audiences was a British mace...”
The sentence that in one year a seven year old White boy surpassed a Black adult performer in the art and skill of baton twirling strikes me as a conclusion that was heavily influenced by racism. I believe the statement that "twirling began in Siam" also owes a lot to the position that credit for any accomplishment should be given to anyone but someone Black.


UPDATE: May 16, 2016- video of Owo State (Oma Lore songs & dances), Nigeria
Oma Lore 5.6

jensbraun Uploaded on Dec 23, 2008
In particular, notice the movements with the fly wisks the women carry.

Example #1: Rara de Leogane (extrait)
embedding disabled upon request

jfchalut, Published on Jan 5, 2011
This is an excerpt of 30 minute video Rara de Leogane [given as Example #2 below]. Like the longer video, the beginning scene shows a major jonc twirling a baton.

Example #2: Rara de Leogane

jfchalut, Published on Feb 22, 2013

© Productions Marassa et Mancuso. Chaque année durant la Semaine Sainte, Léogane en Haïti devient le théâtre d'une compétition pour déterminer le meilleur groupe de musique « rara » de la région. Ce film relate le parcours mystique des différents raras depuis le Vendredi Saint jusqu'au Lundi de Pâques (Sainte Colette). Le « houngan » (prêtre vaudou) Louisant Ferdinand nous explique la place du vaudou dans le rara, le rôle des participants et l'esprit de compétition qui les anime. Film diffusé à la télévision haïtienne. 1990"

Google Translate from French to English
"© Productions Marassa and Mancuso. Every year during Holy Week, in Leogane Haiti becomes the stage of a competition to determine the best music group "rara" of the region. This film tells the mystical path different raras since Friday to Easter Monday (St. Colette). The "houngan" (voodoo priest) Louisant Ferdinand explains the place of voodoo in the rara, the role of the participants and the competitive spirit that drives them. Film broadcast on Haitian television. 1990"

Example #3: Bermuda Day Parade, Majorettes 5-24-11

wennzone, Uploaded on May 24, 2011

Bermuda, Hamilton Town

Example #4: The Lovely St. Thomas Majorettes Give Visitors a Treat!

Chantel Hoheb, Uploaded on Feb 3, 2012

The St. Thomas Majorettes gave a wonderful performance at the VI Carnival Committee's Announcement of the 2012 V.I. Carnival Season. This is a snipet of their performance in Emancipation Garden on Wednesday, February 1, 2012.

Example #5: South Shore Drill Team - 2011 Bud Billiken Day Parade

South Shore Drill Team, Uploaded on Oct 6, 2011

South Shore Drill Team performing at the 2011 Bud Billiken Day Parade.


Example #1: Kappa Alpha Psi Centennial Kane work 2.wmv

freezezone1, Uploaded on Jul 14, 2011

One of my videos from the Kappa 100th Year Celebration. Congratulations and Indy Luv from this Soror.

Example #2: Phi Beta Sigma 2012 Atlanta Greek picnic step show

Atlanta Greek Picnic, Published on Jun 17, 2012

Phi Beta Sigma 2012 Atlanta Greek Picnic $10,000 step show sponsored by &
Stepping with canes begins at 4:34 in this video.

Notice that the brothers don't put one hand on their hip while twirling their cane. That move is considered feminine. Instead, they put one hand behind their back. Coincidentally or not, male and female ushers in African American churches also use that same "one hand behind their back" gesture when they usher people to their seats and when they pass the offering plate. I've read that that gesture is meant to demonstrate submission to God. Click for the pancocojams post "Marching For Jesus (Church Ushers & Nurses) Black Church Processions Part 3".

Example #3: Sigma Gamma Rho Step & use Canes--Theta Upsilon Chapter

apRHOL1922, Uploaded on Aug 22, 2011

University of South Florida SGRhos @ their Summer picnic and showcase
cane routine - 1:43-2:20
strolling: 2:21 to the remainder of the video

for a pancocojams post on "Stand Battle & The Changing Meaning of "majorettes" Among African Americans.

Click For Part I of this series, click for Part I of a three part series on Cane (Kane) Performances in Historically Black Greek Letter Organizations.

The links to the other posts in that series are given on that page.

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