‘The Islands’ Offers Rare Look At Evolution of Caribbean Dance In One Performance

The Islands, a dance production filmed during the pandemic, tells the story of the evolution of Caribbean dance through the generations and across the Islands.

With styles rarely performed in one show, Rosy May draws on her creativity, historic research, and family heritage to create a collage of movement.Professional dancer, choreographer and activist, Rosy (23), received funding from Arts Council England in 2020 for a physical dance theatre performance and dance workshops, but when Covid hit she transformed the project into a filmed performance with community Caribbean dance workshops taught via Zoom.

Photo by Kezia Tan

Currently based in Ipswich, Suffolk, Rosy also spends a lot of time in her home county of Norfolk. The Islands sees Rosy team up with Zimbabwe-born performer, Anna Mudeka. Together they dance to music and West African drums: telling the story of the roots of Caribbean dance, stretching back to the 1400s and ending in a scene where both women prepare for modern-day Nottinghill Carnival. Rosy and Anna move playfully through a timeline of styles, making the film a fun watch and is ideal for audiences to dig deeper into the origins of African-Caribbean dance (there is more to it than soca!).

The stage is backdropped with flags of the countries Rosy and Anna ‘travel’ through, and the narrator guides viewers through the journey. Rosy’s choreography summarises the lesser-known moves which evolved in the Caribbean over hundreds of years, along with the diversity that exists among the islands.

The music and rhythms also progress from the ‘pre-slavery’ coast of Guinea, through the early stages of forced-blending with European cultures in the Caribbean islands, to the assimilation of Caribbean music into 20th century pop culture. The authenticity of this project was paramount for Rosy, she researched every single element of each dance and the history of the islands’ cultures.

Photo by Kezia Tan

During her research, Rosy noticed that different Caribbean dances are rarely performed in the same show in the UK; by creating The Islands Rosy exposes the diversity of dance in and from the region, and showcases them in a setting which is often closed to such performance. For example, dances from Martinque are seldom contrasted with Cuban rhythms and unlikely to be performed alongside 1950s rock n roll and traditional West African Kuku from hundreds of years ago.

“The Caribbean isn’t just one thing and one style, yet it’s often stereotypically perceived as such in the mainstream,” explains Rosy. “Each island culture contributes to such diversity, and I wanted to celebrate that, not only as for professional reasons but also to explore my own heritage. My goal was to weave a storyline telling us how the various elements fused over time, and how the Windrush generation brought their influence to the UK.”

Photo by Kezia Tan

The choreography and narration are shaped by Rosy’s own heritage. Her father, Barrington Mason, is part of the Windrush generation, moving from Jamaica to London as an 11-year-old in 1964. After meeting Rosy’s mother, Kate, the couple moved to Norfolk.

Rosy takes inspiration from her father’s experiences, explaining: “When my parents moved from London to Norfolk in the 2000s, the area was of course pretty much an all-white. Once, my father was asked by his church to tell them about Jamaica; my parents wrote up some notes about his life back home. I use these words in the narration for the Jamaica section of The Islands. I wanted his younger self to be revived – and to infuse his own experiences into my work.”

Photo by Kezia Tan

Also taking inspiration from her family’s own stories, Rosy performs a rock and roll routine with her father to highlight the huge influence that the musical style had in 1950s’ Jamaica.

“Its inclusion has surprised people”, says Rosy. “When I’ve told people that we dance rock and roll, they say ‘that’s not from the Caribbean!’ I explain how my aunt told me that she used to love dancing it in the ‘50s – it’s drawn on her lived experience.”

The piece touches on the Transatlantic Slave Trade – Rosy wanted the piece to be celebratory and feels this performance was not the right space for that discourse. However, The Islands does reference the racism experienced by the Windrush generation; the film briefly cuts away to images of posters from the ‘Your Country Needs You’ migration campaign, and racist signs in cafe windows. This part of the film reveals the hypocrisy of Britain at that time and highlights the huge impact and trauma that racism has had on our society.

Photo by Kezia Tan

Rosy worked with local specialists including her mother, Kate Mason, whose sustainable costumes are completely made from old clothing. The drums were loaned from Wooden Roots – the Rendlesham-based, West African drumming specialists who also supplied drums to Marvel Studio’s blockbuster film, Black Panther. DanceEast provided the film location free of charge.

The film is also part of the Aspire Black Suffolk programme. The Islands will premiere on YouTube on Windrush Day – Tuesday 22 June. It will be available to watch for free indefinitely. The full tracklist is on Spotify: https://spoti.fi/3iKNvbs

Film timeline

The Islands spans 500 years – the below timelines highlights the types of dances used for each point in history.

  • The film opens in a bedroom in Nottinghill, London, with two women getting ready for present day Nottinghill Carnival, dancing to Toast by Koffee.
  • The storyline moves back through time to Guinea, West Africa, circa 1400, where a woman dances Kuku, a traditional West African dance.
  • Following the gruelling journey across the Atlantic on a slave ship, the piece moves to Guadeloupe, where both women pick up the Gwo Ka dance and drum rhythm. They both dance the Belea.
  • The piece moves to Martinique in 1700 – they both dance the Bele, also to drums, which continues and transforms into the Orchestrated Biguine, which is a fusion of African dance and French ballroom brought by the colonialists.
  • On to 1800 and Dominican Republic – both women dance the Merengue.
  • Fast forward to the 1960s, and to the Dominican Bachata.
  • And then to present day to see the Sensual Bachata.
  • Rewind to the 1950s, which takes the piece to Cuba for the Mambo.
  • Over to Jamaica – Rosy and her dad, Barrington Mason, dance Rock ‘n’ Roll.
  • Late ‘40s/ ’50s in Tilbury Docks in London, where HMT Windrush docked with some of the first people moving from the Caribbean. Dancing to Lord Kitchener’s ‘London is the Place for me’, Anna dances reggae.
  • A swift journey through the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s to see Rosy, Anna and Barrington dancing to various reggae tracks.
  • Back to present-day London, when both women finish getting ready for carnival, dancing to Famalay by Skinny Fabulous. The dancers do a quick medley of all of the dances covered in the film. They leave for carnival.

Cast and crew

Anna Mudeka – Lead dancer

Rosy May – Lead dancer/ director/ producer/ choreographer/ writer

Akeem Hyman – Narrator

Barrington Mason – Supporting dancer

Holly Harrington – Drummer/ composer

Tom Leach – Drummer

byKatymac – Costume designer

Jo Salcombe – Script writer

Ed Ngai – Producer

Remi Morrison – Video director/ cinematographer/ editor

Harriet De Max – Cinematographer

Samuel Bignell – Cinematographer

Rebecca Hudson – Editor

Wooden Roots – Drum hire

DanceEast – Film location 

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