Dancing Revolution in the Caribbean Basin: Expressive and Revolutionary Movement and Moments in the History of New Orleans

Age of Revolutions is happy to present its “Art of Revolution” series. You can read through the entire series here as they become available.

By Chris Smith

The great bend in the lower Misi-ziibi (Ojibwe), as it flows to the Gulf of Mexico, has been a center for cultural exchange since the first settlements of Mound Builders who farmed, hunted, and harvested shellfish in the third millennium BCE. But the more global reach of that exchange accelerated in the period after the first French colonial settlement of New Orleans in 1719. In the history of the city, successive waves of traders, travelers, merchants, sailors, freebooters, planters, and enslaved peoples, came or were brought, settled, worked, and traded vocabularies about movement’s meaning. This exchange accelerated and diversified still further in the period of the Spanish Cabildo (1762-1803), and then again, with the rapid transfer of New Orleans as part of the Louisiana Purchase from France to the young United States. In New Orleans, as in other Caribbean cities like Port Royal and Havana, participatory street movement—street dance—had the capacity to carry powerful and complexly contested social power. 

Though the city and particularly the old neighborhood called the Vieux Carré (French Quarter) are conventionally understood to have been shaped by French colonial aesthetics, the era of the late eighteenth-century Spanish Cabildo was significantly more influential both physically and sociologically. Spanish governors and traders erected buildings and developed plantations better suited to the climate and the growing season than had the French, borrowing from Alabama, Koasati, and Choctaw foodstuffs and folkways, and exploiting the labor of an expanding array of enslaved peoples. After two extensive fires in 1788 and 1794 burned much of the Quarter, the Andalusian- and Caribbean-inspired, newly rebuilt brick and iron work of the Saint Louis Cathedral, the Presbytère, and the Cabildo established the city’s more familiar architectural identity. 

After the Continental victory in the American Revolution, the 1789 inauguration of President George Washington, and the overthrow of Louis XVI in Paris in 1792, enslavers and military governors became ever more concerned that Jacobin sentiments might “infect” enslaved populations. In 1797-98, Toussaint Louverture’s rise to power in Saint-Domingue, and Dessalines’ subsequent defeat of French forces, yielded a panicked diaspora to Havana, Charleston, and New Orleans, while Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase brought to NOLA an “American” governing presence for the first time. In the new century’s polyglot context—within which French, Spanish, Indigenous, Afro-Caribbean (especially Haitian and Cuban), and finally English-speaking populations met and mingled—ballroom impresarios erected, loosened, or exploited traditional strictures; Virginia reels confronted French quadrilles, and music and dance were essential media for the performance of national identities. Both the streets and the “quadroon balls”—a particular amalgam of French and Spanish colonial perceptions about the performance of social class and identity in a theatricalized public space—became sites for the negotiation of various kinds of social power. 

Gens de couleur (free people of color) became the core population of a third legally-recognized ethnicity, in tandem with white and Black, whose enhanced access to education via their white fathers’ patronage in turn made mixed-race women desirable mistresses for those seeking upward mobility. Often settling in the historically polyglot boundary neighborhoods of Rampart Street, Tremé, and the Faubourg Marigny, Creole women of color developed special skills in catering to the society upon whose “left hand” they stood, often accumulating extensive real estate holdings, which they bequeathed to their children. These neighborhoods of boundary-crossing cultural exchange, like the better-known site of Place Congo or Congo Square, a weekly working-class market just north of the Quarter, became the zones in which a new syncretic culture arose.

In turn, the social economics of French Quarter white/Black/mixed-race economic and social interchange, sometimes formalized through marriage or other long-term liaisons, unfolded in the expressive culture of the Quarter and of its ballrooms. Social dance was an essential meeting ground for music and movement synthesis, with Black or mixed-race musicians developing a syncretic repertoire and approach to dance music, which transformed the body vocabularies of those who danced to their music. 

Though decried by President Jefferson’s foes as folly, the immediate impacts of his 1803 Louisiana Purchase upon New Orleans were social, linguistic, economic, and political. The Orleanais found themselves dealing with an influx of English-speaking “Americans” bringing new money, mercantile energy, and social and aesthetic models. Kentucky, for example, on the southwestern watershed of the Appalachians, was granted statehood in 1792, with a population by decade’s end that included Anglo-Scot immigrants who came through the Cumberland Gap, but also Indigenous, French, Spanish, and Melungeon (persons of African/Barbadian/Native American mixed-race identity) inhabitants. Settlers supplemented their farming income through export of wood via flatboats, which floated timber down the tributaries of the Ohio and thence down the Mississippi, “selling up” cargo and flatboat timbers at New Orleans. Kentuckians became notorious in New Orleans for their loudness, roughness, and drastically contrasting music and dance preferences. 

Dance carried identity, even as identity itself was contested. The English contradance versus the contredanse française, or quadrille, found themselves at odds, and Governor Pierre-Clément de Laussat (1756-1835), whose tenure lasted only a few months (March–December 1803), described an occasion upon which, after dancers tampered with the mandatory rotation of two rounds of French contredanse—one of English country dance, and one of the Spaniards’ preferred waltz—“a brawl broke out.” 

Throughout all eras of the Crescent City, what the Orleanais heard, how they sounded their environment, and the ways in which they moved through it, signaled the clash and synthesis of diverse historical moments and cultural identities, and those complex mixed-race identities played out in the streets as well as the ballrooms. The New Orleans social clubs called the Mardi Gras Indians are the literal living embodiment of traditions of music, dance, and masking which they themselves attribute to cultural exchange between Afro-Caribbeans and Native Americans across the porous boundaries of city versus countryside. Their costume, dance, Creole catchphrases, social hierarchies, and street tactics reflect African, Indigenous, and Anglo-French identity, including the influence of expatriate Haitian vodouistes, who masked for ritual battle through hostile neighborhoods passing to and from ceremonies. 

Period perceptions of these and related working-class fraternal groups as a threat to public order are confirmed by the long history of conflict between them and the policing representatives of the middle-class. As Helen A. Regis says of the impromptu dancers who follow the Indians, “Through the transformative experience of the parade, they become owners of the streets.” Regis likewise confirms the important social and communal work that the Second Line still performs in contemporary New Orleans: “Second lines musically alter the atmosphere of the neighborhoods through which they pass, creating a safe space for people from different neighborhoods and of different class, ethnic, and racial affiliations to come together in a celebration of conviviality and solidarity.” 

Particularly in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Ida, and the tremendous damage wrought by the post-storm diasporas of NOLA’s working class, the second lines, marching bands, and Indians, like the contredanseurs, flatfooters, and Storyville “hot” dancers before them, play an essential role in contesting, reclaiming, and reaffirming the city’s polyglot heritage—not only as symbols suitable for a twenty first-century tourist replication, but as actual tools for rebuilding community, reestablishing cultural histories and identities that had been present, at play, and at issue, since the settler French first arrived. Movement remains a tool for Black, Indigenous, and proudly mixed-race people to—once more—“take it to [and reclaim] the streets,” where New Orleans’s revolutionary movement and music cultures were born.


Chris Smith is Professor, Chair of Musicology, and director of the Vernacular Music Center at Texas Tech University. He composed the theatrical dance show Dancing at the Crossroads (2013), the “folk oratorio” Plunder! Battling for Democracy in the New World (2017), and the immersive site-specific theater piece Yonder (2020). His monographs are The Creolization of American Culture: William Sidney Mount and the Roots of Blackface Minstrelsy (2013) and Dancing Revolution: Bodies, Space, and Sound in American Cultural History (2019). His next book is a global history of the soundscapes of imperial encounter, co-authored with Thomas Irvine of the University of Southampton. Born into the white working class in Massachusetts, Chris concertizes on guitar, bouzouki, banjo, and diatonique accordion. He is showrunner for the podcasts SOUNDING HISTORY and VOICES FROM THE VERNACULAR MUSIC CENTER. He is also a former nightclub bouncer, line cook, carpenter, lobster fisherman, oil-rig roughneck, and a published poet. 

Title Image: Afro-Caribbean movement vocabularies in the Age of Revolutions: Abraham James, A Grand Jamaica Ball! Or the Creolean hop a la muftee (1802). Citation: Holland, William. A Grand Jamaica ball! or the Creolean hop a la muftee; as exhibeted in Spanish Town. Spanish Town, Jamaica, 1802. London: Published by William Holland No. 50 Oxford Street. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/94501549/

Further Reading:

Berry, Jason. “African Cultural Memory in New Orleans Music.” Black Music Research Journal 8, no. 1 (1988).

Clark, Emily. The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013. 

Ermus, Cindy. “Reduced to Ashes: The Good Friday Fire of 1788 in Spanish Colonial New Orleans.” Louisiana History LIV, no. 3 (2013): 292-331.

Johnson, Jessica Marie. Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2020. 

Lipsitz, George. “Mardi Gras Indians: Carnival and Counter-Narrative in Black New Orleans.” Cultural Critique 10, Popular Narrative, Popular Images (Autumn 1988): 99-121.

Regis, Helen A. “Second Lines, Minstrelsy, and the Contested Landscapes of New Orleans Afro-Creole Festivals.” Cultural Anthropology 14, no. 4 (November 1999): 472–504.

Roach, Joseph. “Carnival and the Law in New Orleans.” TDR The Drama Review (1988-) 37, no. 3 (Autumn 1993): 42–75.

Smith, Christopher J. Dancing Revolution: Bodies, Space, and Sound in American Cultural History, Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2019.

Smith, Michael P. “Behind the Lines: The Black Mardi Gras Indians and the New Orleans Second Line.” Black Music Research Journal 14, no. 1, Selected Papers from the 1993 National Conference on Black Music Research (Spring 1994): 43–73.

Sublette, Ned. The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square.  Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2008.

Turner, Richard Brent. “Mardi Gras Indians and Second Lines/Sequin Artists and Rara Bands: Street Festivals and Performances in New Orleans and Haiti.” Journal of Haitian Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 124-156.

Endnotes:

[1] Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (New York: Lawrence Hill, 2009), 242. A period description provides some sense of the embodied nationalism which such conflicts represented: “An unfortunate potential for trouble broke out between the French and Anglo-Americans at the regular public ball. Two quadrilles, one French, the other English, formed at the same time. An American, taking offense at something, raised his walking stick at one of the fiddlers. Bedlam ensued.”Pierre Clément de Laussat, Memoires of my life to my Son During the Years 1803 and after, trans. Sister Agnes-Josephine Pastwa, ed. Robert D. Bush (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1978), 92-93.

[2] See Richard Brent Turner, “Mardi Gras Indians and Second Lines/Sequin Artists and Rara Bands: Street Festivals and Performances in New Orleans and Haiti,” Journal of Haitian Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 133-36. 

[3] Helen A. Regis, “Second Lines, Minstrelsy, and the Contested Landscapes of New Orleans Afro-Creole Festivals,” Cultural Anthropology 14, no. 4 (November 1999): 478. See also Rachel Breunlin and Helen A. Regis, “Putting the Ninth Ward on the Map: Race, Place, and Transformation in Desire, New Orleans,” American Anthropologist New Series 108, no. 4 (December 2006): 754.

[4] Regis, 484.

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