How low can you go? We are talking “limbo.” Is this a dance? A competition? A workout? An historical artifact? Any and all of the above?

An essay written by the late French scholar Genevieve Fabre about the limbo recently crossed our radar. We were well aware through research that during the Middle Passage voyage a routine of daily exercise was established by slave traders for captive Africans. Movement, primarily accompanied by music, was deemed vital to maintaining the health of the transported human cargo. Africans on board the ships spent most of their time cramped and confined in the ship’s hold, in no more space than would allow a person to lie down or sit up, not stand, for more than twenty hours each day for weeks and months on end. Often in small numbers, these captives were brought on deck, usually shackled, and required to move or dance. This exercise, frequently put to music, was also designed to amuse the crew or ship’s guests as they waited on the African coast for additional captives or supplies. Still coffled, Africans danced to drumming, or to whatever wind or string instruments or devices fellow captives or the crew had available.

According to Professor Fabre, among cultures in West and Central Africa, dance is a communal activity. At times it was the means of forming connections with ancestors or spirits, and it was a process to maintain solidarity and identity. This scholar also noted that the quality of an individual’s performance was a uniformly acknowledged measure of prowess and skill. In comprehending the importance of dance, Fabre challenges the reader to consider how dance would be translated and transformed once a person was on board a ship, chained and stiff. The Africans were among strangers, homesick, captured, force-fed, and removed from all that was familiar. They shared this experience and the cultural references to dance, and so with or without a percussive beat and a stick, a dance was designed and performed that served a variety of purposes.

We in the West have two references to the word “limbo.” If derived from limber, it could mean flexible; its spiritual connotation is the state between heaven and hell. Both these definitions are appropriate when applied to the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade. The dance as an exercise was intended to ease the stiffness that resulted from enforced sitting or lying. By requiring participants to bend backwards and flex their legs outwards, it was believed that they could regain suppleness as the stick was gradually lowered and the physical complexity of movement was increased. The spiritual and psychological limbo can be seen as a state of mind and being. Africans on the ocean were neither on the African continent nor in the Americas. They were in a non-place. This dance activity conforms perfectly to limited space (on ship’s deck), restricted movement (ankle shackles) and minor equipment investment (a stick).

What resulted from these strictures was a dance, an art performed by Africans which provided them the ability to express themselves and compete against each other in a familiar format within the demands of the slave traders’ interests. Today, this dance is known as “the limbo.” Incorrectly it was identified as originating in Trinidad and Tobago, and routinely performed at wakes and funerals beginning around the 19th century. There are references to it in Jamaica in the 1950’s as well. This dance, now a part of festivals, tourist entertainment and carnivals in many parts of the West Indies and the Americas, has an even older and more poignant past. Professor Fabre described this particular dance as a vestige of the slave ships’ physical fitness routine.

What an almost unbelievable revelation! Why are we not surprised? Yet we walk around, unaware of this history. What more do we need to re-discover?

Source Document: “The Slave Ship Dance” by Genevieve Fabre, Black Imagination and the Middle Passage, edited by Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Carl Pedersen (1999).