Tuesday, November 21, 2017

History & Videos Of The Limbo: Trinidad & Tobago's National Dance

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post presents information about the limbo dance and showcases two videos of limbo songs and five videos of limbo performances.

This post was previously published in 2012 with the title "Focus On Julia Edwards and The Traditional Limbo Dance"

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are featured in these videos and special thanks to the memory of Trinidadian Julia Edwards, who was an influential pioneer of the limbo dance. Thanks also to all those who are quoted in this post.

"Limbo is a traditional popular dance contest that was known to be originated on the island of Trinidad.
The dance originated as an event that took place at wakes in Trinidad and Tobago, and was popularized by dance pioneer Julia Edwards[1] (known as the First Lady of Limbo) and her company which appeared in several films, in particular Fire Down Below (1957), and toured widely in the Caribbean, Europe, North America, South America, Asia, and Africa in the 1960s and later. The film Julia and Joyce (2010) by Trinidadian/American dance researcher/choreographer Sonja Dumas features the evolution of the Limbo and the contribution of Julia Edwards to the explosion of its popularity.

A horizontal bar, known as the limbo bar, is placed atop two vertical bars. All contestants must attempt to go under the bar with their backs facing toward the floor. Whoever knocks the bar off or falls is eliminated from the contest. When passing under the bar, players must bend backwards. No part of their bodies is allowed to touch the bar and no part other than their feet may touch the ground. After everyone has completed their turns, the bar is lowered slightly and the contest continues. The contest ends when only one person can successfully "limbo" under the bar without penalty.

Traditionally, the limbo dance began at the lowest possible bar height and the bar was gradually raised, signifying an emergence from death into life. In its adaptation to the world of entertainment, troupes began reversing the traditional order. Julia Edwards added a number of features that are now considered standard, such as human 'bars' formed by the limbs of other dancers and the use of fire in the performance of limbo. Limbo dancers generally move and respond to a number of specific Afro-Caribbean drum patterns. As Limbo gained popularity as a tourist activity and a form of entertainment, pop music began using Caribbean rhythms to respond to the emerging craze in the United States. One major example is the song "Limbo Rock" (recorded by Chubby Checker), which became a number 2 charted hit on the Billboard Top 100, from which emerged the popular quote/chant that is associated with limbo which Checker also helped to popularize: "How low can you go?" Limbo was brought into the mainstream by Trinidadian Calypsonian Brigo (Samuel Abrahams) with his popular Soca song "Limbo Break"

Limbo is unofficially considered the national dance of Trinidad and Tobago,[citation needed] which refers to itself as the land of limbo, steelpan (steel drums), and calypso


As Limbo spread out of Trinidad and Tobago to the wider world and the big screen, in several other Caribbean islands, such as Barbados and Jamaica, limbo became a major part of the tourism package. Indeed, in Jamaica, the trendy limbo music of the 1950s was often based on a clave rhythm. It is also widely heard in Jamaican mento recorded in the 1950s, in songs such as "Limbo" by Lord Tickler and Calypsonians or "Limbo" by Denzil Laing & the Wrigglers, as well as many other songs not directly related to the limbo dance theme. Limbo is still practiced and presented by numerous dance troupes in the context of the Prime Minister's Best Village Competition and during the Carnival season in Trinidad and Tobago.

In touristic presentations, professional limbo dancers often invite spectators to participate after their presentation. The massive popularity of limbo emerges directly from this audience participation. In recent years, limbo dancing has been conducted as a social "icebreaker" game for tourists at Caribbean and other tropical resorts. The winning dancer often receives a prize.

The name comes directly from the Trinidad dialect of English; Merriam–Webster lists the etymology as "English of Trinidad & Barbados; akin to Jamaican English limba to bend, from English limber".[2]

The word 'limbo' dates back to the 1950s. It is conjectured that limbo is a West Indian English derivative of 'limber'. Limber is a sixteenth-century word used in the dialectical sense to refer to a cart shaft, alluding to its to and fro motion:
"Consistent with certain African beliefs, the dance reflects the whole cycle of life....The dancers move under a pole that is gradually lowered from chest level, and they emerge on the other side, as their heads clear the pole, as in the triumph of life over death".[3]

This dance is also used as a funeral dance and may be related to the African legba or legua dance.[4]
The limbo dates back to the mid to late 1800s in Trinidad. It achieved mainstream popularity during the 1950s. An alternative explanation of the name is suggested; that the version of the limbo performed in nineteenth century Trinidad was meant to symbolize slaves entering the galleys of a slave ship, or a spirit crossing over into the afterworld, or "limbo", but no literary reference is known to substantiate this postulated linkage."...

"Julia [Edwards] describes the Limbo as Trinidad and Tobago's only true national dance, originally performed at wakes. the limbo was done for nine nights, where some mourners said prayers and others danced the limbo. On the first night, the bar would be at its lowest and would be gradually raised each successive night. This symbolized the elevation of the soul of the dearly departed from its lowest levels on earth to the highest in heaven. When the bar was at it's highest, it was declared victory night, signifying life's triumph over death. On that victory night, the bongo was danced.

As a purely artistic endeavour, this did not sustain rapt attention because the climax came at the beginning, not at the end. Julia turned the dance on its head by using sticks to prop up the bar and the beginning at the highest point, while alluringly working her way down. Of course the costuming had to be more attractive than the mournful black and white, and consequently Helen Humphrey was brought in to do costuming that was more vibrant, and which is today being associated with the dance all over the world. Holly Betaudier, who was the first person to encourage her to dance professionally, came into the troupe to bring his tremendous organizational skills, and they introduced the signature song "I want somebody to Limbo like me". Julia further experimented, first introducing the flaming limbo and later the human limbo.

These Julia took to every corner of the globe, from Dakar to London, Japan to India and from North and South America to Europe. Julia and her troupe not only gave command performances to appreciative audiences, but in its wake brought HONOR and glory to the country's Dance by stamping Trinidad and Tobago as the "Land of Limbo"...
Unfortunately, I haven't found any film clips of Julia Edwards.

Example #1: Frankie Anderson - The Limbo Song

DrQuickbeam, Published on Oct 27, 2010
This song is also known as "Limbo Like Me".

Example #2: Chubby Checker - Limbo Rock (6 February 1963)

MattTheSaiyan, Published on Dec 5, 2016

Chubby Checker lip-syncs "Limbo Rock" and is awkwardly interviewed, in this clip from the Australian version of "Bandstand". A kinescope recording.

These videos are presented in chronological order based on their publishing date on YouTube with the oldest dated video given first.

Example #1: Princess Shemika Limbo Interview

Tropicalxplosion, Published on Nov 29, 2009
This interview features Shemika Charles, born in Trinidad and raised in Buffalo, New York. Note that the narrator for this video mentioned that the limbo was traditionally only danced by men. Female physiques create more challenges to getting under very low limbo bars.

Example #2: Exclusive & Exciting Live Limbo Dancing Video

Published on Jun 11, 2011

The art of Limbo dancing is a skill that requires fitness and a flair for excitement. MNI Alive captured some exclusive video of the real art of Limbo dancing performed by the Tassa Drummers & Dancers, at the 2011 Carassauga Festival of Cultures.

Example #3: Limbo Dance

Tashema Wallace, Published on Nov 12, 2011

ujamma dancers performing for Sesame Flyers


Karel Douglas, Published on Mar 18, 2015

BEST Village Trinidad Limbo

Example #5: North West Laventille Folk Performers

103FMTrinidad, Published on Jul 23, 2015

The North West Laventille Folk Performers rocked the NCC's VIP Lounge with their limbo performance last night at the launch of Carnival 2016.

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