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A bélé is a folk song and dance from Dominica, performed most commonly during full moon evenings, or sometimes during funeral wakes (Antillean Creole: lavèyé). It may be the oldest Creole dance from Dominica, and strongly reflects influences from African fertility dances. The dance is also popular in Saint Lucia.
The bélé dance formed from a combination of traditional African moves and a Caribbean traits due to the changed landscape, musical instruments, and tumultuous lifestyle.
In Africa, the bélé dance had origins in festivals associated with mating and fertility. A male and female (in Creole, the "Cavalier" and the "Dam") show off their dance skills to the other dancer, hinting at their sexuality in chants led by a "chantuelle" meaning singer and the refrain or "lavway" given by a chorus of spectators. The kavalyé and danm take turns dancing. The kavalyé first demonstrates his prowess, then the danm reacts. The kavalyé again courts with the danm, and the both dance in the wildest part of the bélé.
In the West Indies, the dance incorporated into work and periods of festivity and lamenting. Because the bélé dance ranged through so many diverse events and life-events, the dance and music continued to evolved over time from slavery into freedom. The French named the dance "Belaire," or good air, which shortened to bélé.
All bélé are accompanied by an eponymous drum, the tanbou bélé (also called tambour bélé or bélé drum), along with the tingting (triangle) and chakchak (maracas). The drum is a membranophone that is played by hand and is made of a hallowed tree trunk covered at one mouth by goat skin, stretched with rope and pegs. The drum rhythm follows the steps of the single dancer who performs in a circle of spectators who form the chorus or chantuelle. In all pieces dancing is directed towards the tambour bélé. The dance bélé is noted for the profound booming drum and vigorous body movement and steps.
Bélés start with a lead vocalist (chantwèl), who is followed by the responsorial chorus (lavwa), then a drummer and dancers. Traditional dances revolve around stylized courtship between a male and female dancer, known as the kavalyé (cavalier) and danm (dam) respectively. The bélé song-dances include the bélé soté, bélé priòrité, bélé djouba, bélé contredanse, bélé rickety and bélé pitjé.
On modern Dominica, the nature isle of the Caribbean, bélé are primarily performed for holidays and other celebrations, such as Easter, Independence Day, Christmas, Jounen Kwéyòl and patron saint festivals held annually in the Parishes of Dominica, especially in the Fèt St.-Pierre and the Fèt St.-Isidore for fishermen and workers respectively.
The Martinique bèlè is a legacy of the slave music tradition danced with several forms: dance DANMIE control; BELE dous' Pitje, biguine bèlé belya, gran bèlé (5 rhythms and dances, only two, are ternary: belya and gran bèlé), quadrille dances (eight dancers who form two squares 4) tHE LINE dANCE KLE: mabelo, woule mango, kanigwè (deathwatch) vénèzouel, kalenda, ting bang karèsèyo: group dances except kalenda, the LADJA. The bèlè is characterized, in its rhythm, by "tibwa" (two wooden sticks) that give the basic tempo and the drum comes to mark the highlights and introduce percussion improvisations. The tambour is subject to a double drum, by "tibwa" on its shaft by the drummer and the skin.
It is organized in a certain way, the first entry of the singer ( lavwa ) and choir ( lavwa Deye or "answer"). Then the "Bwatè" (player ti bwa) sets the pace, followed by bèlè drum. Finally, the dancers take the stage. A dialogue is created between the dancers and the "tanbouyè" (drummer). The "answer" play opposite the singer, the audience can also participate. As a family, together singers, dancers, musicians and audiences are lured by its mesmerizing rhythms. The bèlé song-dances include, bèlé dous, bèlé pitjè, biguine bèlé, bèlé belya, and gran bèlé
Saint Lucia bèlè
The bèlè tradition of St. Lucia is a form of Creole song and couple dance, performed one couple with a leader and chorus. They are performed in several contexts, most notably in funeral wakes. Bélè include the bélè anlè, bélè matjé, bélè anlawis and the bélè atè. The bélè anlawis is the only form which is not responsorial.
The name bélé may derive from the French belle aire', or the old French aire (meaning threshing platform), or it may derive from an African word.