Speech 214: The Rhetoric of Reggae Music
Actress Audrey Reid does just that as the character Marcia in the Jamaican film “Dancehall Queen.” Reid plays a street vendor and single mother of two daughters struggling to give her family a better life. Poverty stricken, Marcia is forced to rely on her sugar daddy “Larry,” to feed her family and put her daughters through school. Unfortunately the price to pay is her fifteen-year-old daughter’s virginity. Appalled at how low they must stoop just to get by, Marcia decides to transform herself into a seductive dancehall girl in hopes of finding an alternative way to provide for her family. The new Marcia makes quite an impression on the men of the Kingston nightclub. When she is disguised in her dancehall costume Larry falls in love with her and showers her with expensive gifts. She is also invited to compete in a profitable dance-off against the reigning Dancehall Queen. The film ends with Marcia’s triumph, and she is awarded a large sum of money.
Although this film is a highly romanticized story of a single mother rising to the title of “Dancehall Queen,” it gives an accurate portrait of the atmosphere of a Jamaican dancehall, as well as capturing the independent, strong spirit of Jamaican women. “Too many young girls in Jamaica feel trapped by dirty old men who convince them that life offers no alternatives but a future in bed with them,” explains the film’s writer and editor Suzanne Fenn. “The sub-plot in “Dancehall Queen” might be unpalatable but it’s based on a prevalent reality.”
Although the film has endured some criticism, the film’s after-after party at Kingston’s Club Mirage proved that Dancehall Queen isn’t “the invention of a perverted production team in search of celluloid satisfaction. Real-life dancehall queens stroked their crotches, winded their hips and rubbed their well-oiled buttocks” (St. Hill).
“Although the dancehall scene is a male dominated one, it is the female, like a queen, who reigns supreme” (www.ppreggae.com) Covering reggae history, respectively, “Reggae Songbirds” and “Dancehall Queens” offer a fairly comprehensive overview of the contributions of women in reggae. The dancehall has become a form of a message center for Jamaican people, no matter where they are within the social structure of the island. The latest styles, political news, economic stories and core concerns of the society are aired on massive sound systems. “Dancehall music is present day Jamaican Reggae, voicing the young (and the not so young) population’s concerns, conflicts, fantasies and frustrations, while offering escapist, humerous [sic] observations of oppressive situations.” (www.dancehallqueen.com/dancehall.html)
The Dancehall is an erotic sanctuary for dirty dancing and exhibition dressing. The decorated women of the dancehall are celebrating womanhood with each sexually charged movement, walking and vibrating. They simulate sex objects by rubbing up and down male bodies, concentrating mostly on the thrusting of the pelvis and rear.
The sexual atmosphere of the dancehall is promoted by the DJs. They taunt and toast, provoking the audience to move their bodies. The majority of DJs are men, but some women like Lady Saw, Patra, Lady G, Lady Apache, Worl-A-Girl, and Shelly Thunder are matching the men in their boastful crowd taunting. A female DJ alters the whole structure of call and response from the audience. The men are generally speechless, while the women are vocally engaged.
The concept of slackness, or the objectifying of the female body has been called under some criticism. The atmosphere of a Jamaican dancehall is a lot more sexually explicit than we are used to here in the United States. Our culture finds slackness to be wrong, or a problem, but we must understand that this is not necessarily the situation in all cultural contexts. In order to understand the role of slackness in the dancehalls, we must step outside of our own culture, thus freeing ourselves of the cultural lenses that we are looking through.
The average Jamaican woman is not interested in the level of sophistication that American or European women are concerned with. Jamaican women have little hope of breaking free from male domination. These women come from the ghetto and have next to nothing. All that they truly own that is considered valuable in their society is their sexuality. These women are merely celebrating what their creator has given them, and the desire that men have for them. DJs like Lady Saw are slack with the best of them, because those are the kind of things that her audiences want to hear.
Although the dancehall is an erotic sanctuary, not all forms of sexual exchange are welcome here. Homosexuality is definitely not welcome in the dancehall, or throughout the island for that matter.
The most provocative and elaborate element of the dancehall is the outfits worn by the women. Style is essential in the dancehall. If a woman is not up to date with the styles of the dancehall, she could be mocked excessively. She might even be laughed out of the club. Style equals power and respect, and if you don’t have it, then you won’t get it. I think that we can see remnants of this idea in our society as well. Some businessmen have a “power tie” that they wear for special occasions like business meetings or presentations. Men and women in our society are occasionally mocked for wearing outdated styles. Clothing is used as a means of classification. Clothing as a sign of power is not a new idea to our culture.
Individuality plays a major role in dancehall fashion. The more creative one is, the lesser the chance that they will resemble another woman in the dancehall. It is all about standing out and getting noticed in a culture where women of African decent are often overlooked.
The style one chooses is based on dancing ability. A woman who is able to dance well usually will choose skimpy, skin revealing clothing. “That way they can really move dem body.” Unique styles, and exposure to the erotic parts are the two main attention getters in the dancehall. Although less isn’t necessarily more, one male dancehall enthusiast said, “We consider these girls hot, not for the skin they show, but because: they have attitude, they’re not fearful of lights and cameras, they will say ‘HI’ of you say ‘HI,’ They love there culture, they are very determined, they are very competitive, they are very charismatic and may be great political of business leaders.” (ppreggae.com)
“Somewhat formal and classy. The whole package just matches uniformly. It’s styled like a mermaid fin and surely displays the curves on the ass. A style that doesn’t determine that you have to be a skillful dancer. One that would attract the suave shotta!”
There is another motive for decorative dress. If a woman lacks dancing skills she can make up for it with fashion. An elaborate dress that restricts movement such as this mermaid outfit would be a good choice. In a costume like this a woman is still able to attract men and demonstrate originality, attitude, and charisma, without having to prove her skills on the dance floor.
There are also conservative women at the dancehall who do not dress as flamboyantly, and tend to blend into the crowd. These women are the “wannabees.” They are described as “the conservative observer who just wanna hang and hope to catch the latest dance and dress style and den bruk out one day.” Even in our own culture we get our ideas from clothes we see on other people. This is the reason why designers pay models huge sums of money to wear their clothes. We see tall, thin, sexy women wearing an outfit and we want to duplicate that look. Our own culture also produces massive amounts of fashion magazines for this purpose as well.
The majority of the clothing seen in the dancehalls is available from the average department stores. Some styles are purchased at exclusive high priced stores, usually by a “sugar daddy.” But some women prefer only to make their own clothing, that way they are guaranteed to be the only one in that outfit. Making one’s own clothing is often a cheaper alternative as well.
Wigs are extremely popular amongst the women of the dancehall. Some women choose to style their hair, which is typically coarse and kinky, with natural looking hair extensions or wigs. Others are not concerned with looking natural. They choose pastel colored wigs or glittery wigs to conceal their wooly heads. These multiple colors and styles are a celebration of diversity which provides for a sea of color for the performers on stage.
The most popular style of shoe is a high heeled, leather boot. Some women opt for “pleather” or patent leather because they are a cheaper alternative. There are two trendy choices when it comes to boots: the knee-high or the thigh-high. The thigh-high is the more erotic choice of the two, because it draws more attention to the thigh and crotch region of the body. These boots are usually black or sometimes red, but range according to the styles of the individual. They can be laced up, as seen on the woman in the pink in the photo above. They can also have a long, hidden zipper, like the boots that the other women in the photo are wearing. I have seen certain American women rocking the big black boots as well. These boots will always be considered sexy and in style, because they draw the attention of the admirer.
High-heeled shoes with a lot of straps are also popular. Large heels make it harder to dance, and the strap style shoe is not very supportive or sturdy, so a woman must really have skills in order to wear them. This choice of high-heeled footwear accentuates the legs of the women, by toning the muscles of the legs, especially the calves. Will high-heeled shoes ever go out of style? At five foot eleven, I hope so! I just can’t rock this style because I am too tall. But this would not be a concern of a Jamaican woman. It is all about being noticed, and it is hard for one to be overlooked at six feet.
Hats are popular accessories in the dancehall. Styles range from cowboy hats, to berets, to tiaras. Again the styles range according to the tastes of the individual. Hair pins are used to secure headwear, so these accessories do not fall off during dance moves. For elaborate, athletic moves such as headstands or flips, the headwear would certainly be removed, or left at home. Hats are nice, because the woman would not necessarily need a wig if she wore one. It is a nice way to change up your style from time to time.
Jewelry is another stylish accessory in dancehall fashion. Oversized costume jewelry is what the women choose to wear. Most women cannot afford expensive jewels, so cheap, gaudy jewelry shines from their fingers, ears, and necks. Most women do not have piercings, so they opt for clip on styles of earrings and nose rings. Jewelry is generally worn as a display of femininity and wealth. Many different styles are flaunted. Chain jewelry is very popular. They are worn around the bare waists of women or as a connecter from ear to nose. Chains around the body tend to have erotic connotations, and can convey the message of a dominant or submissive sexual partner.
Make-up is also a must when preparing for a night in the dancehall. Cosmetics serve as a mask, a disguising agent, transforming every day women into their own interpretations of goddesses. Bright shades of color are applied to the eyelids, cheeks and lips. Fake eyelashes may be worn to draw more attention to the sensuality of the eyes. Glitter is also applied to the face, which will shimmer in the lights of the dancehall. Millions of women all over the world wear make-up to hide signs of aging, blemishes, and to give the overall appearance of beauty.
When it comes to the actual clothing that is worn in the dancehall, the common themes are spandex and skin. Skirts, pantsuits, and dresses are worn extremely tight and show a lot of skin. It is not uncommon that the seat of the pants be completely removed. “Daisy Duke” style shorts are popular in the dancehall because they allow a dancer the freedom to move about, show off her legs, and keep cool in the heat of the dancehall.
Halter-tops and bra tops are also popular. They accentuate cleavage and also give women bust support, which is needed for athletic dancing. Bright colors and sexy sheer that leaves nothing to the imagination are worn to capture the eyes of admirers. Animal prints are also popular, like the snake, zebra, and leopard prints that are pictured on the women in the photos below. (www.ppreggae.com)
Flexibility is always in fashion at the dancehall. It is the way a women moves her body on the dancehall that is truly alluring. These women possess extreme athletic ability. They do leg lifts, splits, and even sometimes flips in their performances. Some of these moves take practice, but for others, one must possess natural talent in order to perform. The men like these moves because it flexes the muscles of the women’s bodies and shows the potential agility of these women in bed.
According to psychologists, body language speaks louder than words, and I would say that this holds true in the dancehall. “You may think that shaking your ass to the latest Beenie Man tune is the most natural thing in the world but according to one psychologists, it can reveal more than you would care to let on about your innermost personality traits, as well as your sensual, mental and physical health” (The Journal). This study has uncovered some interesting theories about the ways people choose to express themselves on the dance floor. “On her travels, Dawson found that reggae dance moves indicate that a person is totally chilled and unhurried, takes great pleasure in teasing others, is game for trying anything once and often thrives on roller coaster relationships filled with wild abandon” (The Journal).
At the dancehall, women are comfortable with ever aspect of their bodies, including cellulite and bulging guts.
Far from vulnerable male objects of desire, women of the dancehall are powerful, totally in control of their bodies, their sexuality and their destinies. Sticking two bum cheeks up to the conventional images of beauty that we’re bombarded with every day, these women love themselves warts and all (St. Hill).
The ideal body image of Jamaica is quite different than that of the United States. In Jamaica big is beautiful, and the women are not afraid to flaunt their bodies. If a person is fat they are considered wealthy, because it is a sign that they can afford to feed themselves. The women transform themselves from mothers and housewives into sexpots by adorning in outrageously unnatural styles. “The lascivious female skettel, gussied up in batty riders, poompoom shorts, and punny printers that showcased the buttocks, and sporting the kind of shiny, synthetic club outfits and multicolored hair extensions that won some dancehall queens the term “chemical duppies” (Ross). This look is a far cry from the images that we are accustomed to seeing on the cover of Cosmo or Vogue.
Women do not dress like this every day. They put on outfits like this only when they are going out for a night at the dancehall. The dancehall gives women an exciting escape from their mundane daily lives. “In the dancehall the woman can be who she wants to be,” says dancehall disciple Gloria Bonner. Carolyn Cooper, a lecturer in English at the University of the West Indies, hypes the dancehalls, saying that it is the “liberating forum for ghetto women.”
"Sexual or gender inequality represents as essential and integral feature of social relations and culture construction in Jamaica, where for the past four hundred years colonial and imperialist exploitation has governed the development of economic, political, and socio-cultural patterns and structures"(Harrison 12). In Jamaican culture women are the traditional providers for their families. According to Ross’s 1998 study, in Jamaica, up to a third of all households are headed by women. Women also constitute 45% of the employed labor force (Ross). Even women who are employed usually work as housekeepers or maids. Women also take the primary role in raising their own children as well, clothing them and feeding them. A typical Jamaican woman will receive little to no assistance from her mate, who shows up only when he is hungry. Thus the life of a typical Jamaican woman consists of scouring pots and pans, cooking and cleaning, for her own family, and for the family of her employer.
This is why the dancehall is so popular among Jamaican women. It is a chance for escape from the life of poverty that the majority of Jamaicans live in. The dancehall provides a more receptive social space for Jamaican women. “Using dance and their outrageous provocative costumes as a catharsis from the pain of their reality, they laugh to themselves while their salivating male audience act like their puppies on very long strings” (St. Hill).
In the dancehall an ambitious hopeful with an ability to rhyme on the mic, a talent for the turntables, or a provocatively original fashion sense can transcend impoverished ghetto conditions and rise to a better living. Although this is a dream of many, it is a reality of only few. For the majority, the dancehall provides an entertaining evening of pleasure and escape. It serves as an evening that boosts egos, and makes an individual to feel admired and beautiful. “We love watching the reactions of men when we get on stage,” explains Debbie from the Ouch Crew, a dance group that performed in the movie “Dancehall Queen.”
A 2001 Dancehall Queen competition was held in Montego Bay, Jamaica, which attracted contestants and audience from all parts of the world. This particular event was started by Pure Playazz Entertainment and Big Head Entertainment in 1997 and has been continued ever since, due to the popularity it has gained amongst the tourists and locals alike. The show has been hosted by DJs such as Big ‘A’ from IRIE FM in Ocho Rios and Jerry D of RJR.
The 2001 show commenced at about 10pm with a dancehall fashion show featuring clothing from exclusive stores and personal tailors. The fashion show was followed by a dance show performed by the island’s best female dancers. “The finest bodies displayed in glamorous outfits that cause one to twitch in their seat.” (www.ppreggae.com)
Around 1AM the main event takes place. The challenge is to win the crowd’s love by exhibiting skillful and creative dancehall moves and having the best dancehall styled clothing. The competitors, which number about fifteen, each hit the stage individually and perform a short dance routine. Then the announcer lines the women up and “does a whole bunch of tings.” Next there is a freestyle show performed by each competitor. The judging is done primarily by the audience. The ranking is determined by the audible praise each competitor receives. Finally a winner and a runner up are selected around 4am.
The winnings were as follows:
1st Prize: a large trophy, a one year supply of SLAM condoms and JA $35,000
2nd Prize: a trophy and JA $20,000
3rd Prize: a trophy and JA $12,000
Other recent dancehall contests such as the “sashing of Miss Anchovy Dancehall Queen 2002,” in a club in Anchovy, Jamaica have drawn a crowd. Girls from all over the island ventured their luck at the prize money of JA $10,000. There were thirteen contestants, including “Fatty,” an exceptionally large woman who had the crowd going wild.
The contest was structured similarly to that of the Montego Bay contest. Each woman was individually introduced. Fatty had to lose her pants button for free rotation of the waistline during her introductory dance. After the introduction five contestants would be eliminated and than three. Some of the women did not make it with their dance skills, but others “endangered themselves on the cold concrete.” The women were judged by their dancing, their outfits, and their response to the question: “How would you describe yourself against Dance hall Queen Carlene?” who was last year’s reigning queen.
Fatty really worked her body, and was crowned first runner up. She also won a trophy for being the most congenial contestant. But it was another woman, Althea Goldfinger, who won the title “Miss Anchovy Dancehall Queen 2002.” Miss Goldfinger separated herself from the rest of the women “as she shook and rotated her round ass from all different positions to Lady Saw’s ‘Backshot.’” (reggaediary.com)
As you can see, it is only a small percentage of women who gain financially from the dancehall. As Professor Martin Thaler of the UVM Theater department explained, there are many different social and psychological factors, which contribute to the need for fashion. Psychologist Elizabeth Hurlock breaks down the individual’s basic need for fashion, which can be applied to the dress and behavior of the Jamaican dancehalls.
Hurlock believes that there is a universal desire for approval. “To stand out from the rest of the group in a way that will win its attention and approval is a desire which is almost universally found” (Hurlock 26). To be like everyone else is to be unnoticed. There is evidence for this claim even at the biological level. According to Darwin, peacocks display their beautiful feathers for all species to admire.
Proving that you are fashionable is a way of gaining approval within the dancehall. Fashion may get an individual introduced to the “in crowd,” or to people of power or wealth. Women strut around the dancehall, behaving like peacocks.
As Hurlock notes, dress is a way of self-advertisement. “Many who lack any ability and could not hope to rise above the “average” on their merits alone, find a satisfactory outlet for this desire for recognition through the medium of dress” (Hurlock 28). Jamaican women do not receive the respect and praise that they would like during their every day routines, so they dress to impress in the dancehall, and achieve their intended goals.
According to sociologist Ingrid Brenninkmeyer, “The clothing habits of an individual are the result of group life” (Brenninkmeyer 48). Brenninkmeyer pinpoints two major factors of an individual’s outlook on clothing. The first is the primary group into which one is born. This group includes parents, relatives, and neighbors. Most Jamaican women are born in the ghetto, where their families and neighbors live a lifestyle of poverty. Fashion is not of much importance. One is clothed in whatever garments are available. Most family garments are “hand-me-downs” from older relatives or neighbors. No emphasis is placed on what you are wearing, just the fact that you are not naked.
The secondary group that Brenninkmeyer discusses is made up of social groups such as associations, clubs, or any other aspect of the social strata. The influence, which these groups possess over an individual usually outweighs the influence of the primary group as the individual ages. The level of influence is determined by the role the individual wishes to play within group life.
It must also be taken into consideration that often a person is a member of more than one social group. As Brenninkmeyer writes, “Social function calls for an appropriate manner of dress” (48). The character Marcia from the film Dancehall Queen is an example of this idea. When she plays her role as a mother and a street vendor she dresses in comfortable work clothes, which are inexpensive. But when Marcia is fulfilling her role as a dancehall girl, she must wear seductive, stylish clothes in order to be accepted and praised by the other members of the dancehall social scene. Wearing her street vendor clothes into the dancehall would be enough to have her immediately removed from the club. Consequently wearing her dancehall clothes as a street vendor or a mother would not be accepted either.
Throughout history colors were used as a means of distinguishing the members of different social groups. Generally, the lower classes were limited to the dull colors such as brown and gray, while the members of the higher classes wore brighter colors. The reason for this distinction was that dye was expensive. Dancehall girls love color. Black never goes out of style, but why go unnoticed? The bright colors of the dancehall garments look great in contrast with the women’s dark skin.
Another psychologist writes, “there can be little doubt that the ultimate and essential cause of fashion lies in competition” (Flugel 138). Flugel identifies this competition as social and sexual. If we were not in competition with each other, we would all wear the same outfits everyday. There would be no need to estrange ourselves from one another. What we wear is indicative of the person who we are.
Flugel’s concept of competition is the essence of a dancehall queen competition, as well as the general dancehall atmosphere. The contest competes at a social level, by determining who can win over the crowd. The contestant communicates to the audience, and it is the audience’s response to her that is factored into the judging. There are individual contests breaking down among the other women in the dancehall as well, and they are being judged by the same factors.
The competition is also sexual. The most enticing woman is declared the winner. It is a fundamental biologic force that attracts members of the opposite sex to one another, as a way of reproducing. This force is amplified in members of both sexes by the dancehall. The contestant struts her stuff, showing how sexually provocative she is. If the audience is turned on by the contestant’s looks and her style, she advances in the judging.
There are also psychological reasons why the “wannabees” hang out at the dancehall, learning the styles and moves of the dancehall queens. “It is a fundamental human trait to imitate those who are admired or envied” (Flugel 138). Dancehall girls are the only Jamaican women who are admired and praised by men. In order to be a woman who is praised, most women feel that they have to conform to this image of a dancehall queen. Again I will use the example of supermodels to illustrate this point. Our society tells us that supermodels are attractive, therefore some women try to conform to that image. The character Marcia is another example of this. She observes women benefiting from the dancehall scene, so decides to join it.
Thorndike challenges this idea by stating, “The primitive sex display is now a minor cause; women obviously dress for other women’s eyes” (Hurlock 42). Although we must take into consideration that what is true of one individual may not be true of other, I think that Thorndike’s idea may have some validity. I think that the women get dressed up for the men at the dancehall as well as the other women. I don’t think that the men of the dancehall care if a woman is wearing a pink wig, or natural brown one. At the risk of making a huge generalization, I think that most men are concerned with checking out a woman’s body. I think that fashionable accessories such as jewelry and shoes are symbols aimed towards other women. Women want to send the message to other women in the dancehall that they are the supreme, and that other women should not consider challenging them.
Overall I find the Jamaican dancehall scene to be fascinating. I have undergone a dress up phase myself. I was really into strange, loud clothing. Although my style was not a sexual as the women of the dancehall, I still had the outrageous theme working. We can dissect dancehall as much as we would like, but the bottom line in my opinion is that it is fun, and that is why people are in to it.
Brenninkmeyer, Ingrid. Sociology of Fashion. Paris: Librairie du Recueil Sirey, 1963.
Flugel, J.C., The Psychology of Clothing. London: Hogarth Press Limited, 1950.
Hurlock, Elizabeth. The Psychology of Dress. New York: Benjamin Blom, Inc. 1971.
Diversity Folio. Mind Your Language, The Journal, September 18, 1998. N. 102 p. 19
Harrison, Faye, Women in Jamaica's Urban Informal Economy, URL:
Officer, Debbie, A. “Reggae Island,” a Worthy Read and Collectible. New York: Amsterdam News, January 20, 1999.
Ross, Andrew. Mr. Reggae DJ, Meet the International Montetary Fund. Black Renaissance Noire, July 31, 1998. V.1; N.3 p208.
St. Hill, Dione. The Original Dirty Dancers. The Voice, September 15, 1997. N.722 p.18.