Best African Dance Ever

So, yeah. There’s rearing; and then there’s rearing

Slightly older kids, well enculturated & irrepressibly motivated, can tend to take things to the next level, bumping body parts with acrobatic abandon and lighting rooftops (and laptops) on fire —

Devotees of dancehall reggae and reggaeton will no doubt recognize elements of perreo and daggering in the “choque” (alt. “choke” or “shoke”) — named after the collisions so central to the dance. (One bump on each beat = 95 bumps per minute!) As one choque song goes, and there are many of them, the dance might be conceived as “perreo con toque.” Musically speaking, all the big choque songs (whether by La Combinacion, Son de AK, Element Black, Los de Tura, etc.) are basically reggaeton productions, if by reggaeton we mean Spanish-language, reggae-inflected rap over beats constructed piecemeal from mid-90s dancehall riddims — a stab of guitar from Murder She Wrote, a Fever Pitch hi-hat, kicks and snares resampled so many times they’ve taken on a new character, thick and crunchy, perfect for soundtracking the crashing of hips. In this way, we might appreciate an aesthetic symmetry between the ways the dance and the music both sample from as they explode well-worn forms.

Notably, however — and clearly departing from perreo and daggering in this way — the choque has a strong and, for many, surprising (or even subversive) “equal opportunity” character. As seen in the video above (and in many others), after doing some “leading” of their own, the men take turns being “led” (i.e., smashed on) by the women. Moreover, as I’ll discuss below, the choque also appears to lend itself to a fair amount of same-sex coupling — a rather rare sight in dancehall or reggaeton (especially male-to-male). But despite (or perhaps because of?) how clearly the choque is indebted to Caribbean forms — both musical and embodied — the video above has been received and recoded, again and again, as “African.”

When I first “stumbled upon” and reshared that video (via @culturedoctor, aka Sonjah Stanley Niaah), it wasn’t just called “Best Dance Ever. Watch it.” — it was called “Best African Dance Ever. Watch it.” And while I have no doubt that Africanists and Caribbeanists and scholars and enthusiasts of all stripes could hold an animated debate over what constitutes an “African” dance, whether here or there, and how much it hinges on aesthetics and history and politics — or, per Sonjah, whether “there is ground for analyzing inter-dependent genealogies” — I’m not so interested in hashing out that particular argument as I am in teasing out how ideologies of race and nation and sexuality, as routed through the charged site of Africa, play out in the public spheres gathered around YouTube and the myriad places, online and off, where a video like the one above can be discussed or re-embedded.

Comments on the various instantiations of the video reveal a remarkable resonance produced by the familiar movements and milieu. (It’s actually rather striking how little of the YouTube discourse around the song&dance mention the music at all.) This everyday but spirited rooftop jam clearly activates viewers’ social, global, and racial imaginations (to name a few). Some claim the dance for themselves, folding it into a capacious sense of identititity, others distance themselves from the scene and all it opens into —

It looks like you can get pregnant from that dance

While some celebrate MAMA AFRICA incarnate, some can’t look past head-to-batty and man-on-man action —


All manner of associations and explanations are proffered —

sumwere in east africa yall..

Remarkably, debate continues despite that the uploader — who was, incidentally, not the first: this copy has nearly 20X as many views — finally “corrected” the title after several commenters correctly ID’d it as a Colombian scene/song (i.e., “Choque” by Son de AK).

People remain keenly interested in, skeptical of, and, indeed, ignorant of the video’s provenance. Some insist it is African African. Of course, even once we locate it in the Americas, that hardly means it’s not “African.” Note that Sonjah refers to the dance as a product of “the African community in South America,” an interesting (and, of course, political) way to describe it — as opposed to say, “Colombian” or “Afro-Colombian” or “Buenaventuran” etc. — and, I hasten to add, not necessarily an identititity that the kids in the video would oppose.

But pan-African commitments do not always lead to the tightest coalitions, for local cultural mores can produce fissures. It’s clear, for instance, that certain Jamaican viewers, even as they observe strong links to their own dear practices (“Dagga dat”!), find themselves repelled by certain practices that, no pun intended, give them pause (“dat cyaah gwaan a yaard”) —

Dagga dat.

When I shared the “Best African Dance Ever” video with one of my favorite observers of Jamaican culture — @ProdigalJA (né @bigblackbarry) — he quipped (and I’m sorry I can’t find the tweet) that he knew it couldn’t be “African” when he saw the guy hit the girl’s butt with his head. Rasta nuh move so.

And I think he was further convinced, and a little dismayed and bemused, when I shared some other choque videos I had turned up:

That video led me to a couple more, where the action is set in front of and then inside a home, and (thus?) it gets a little more intimate:

As you might imagine, given how YouTube has become ground zero for gay slurs, the comments on these videos get pretty hyperbolic. Indeed, trawling for interesting responses, I came across some classic chatroom Spanglish invective:


Another one of my fave supporters of JA dance culture (esp vis-a-vis homophobia), @rizzla_dj, had a different take on it:

dandyism at it's most based?

My friend and colleague, Michael Birenbaum Quintero, a self-identified “ethnomusicólogo gringolombiano” who has been working in Colombia (and specifically in Buenaventura) for many years now, and is well acquainted with the choque phenomenon, offered another interpretation. He told me this sort of display — dancing in front of one’s house with a small soundsystem — is a commonplace practice in Buenaventura, including same-sex partnering. It may be homosocial, but it is not necessarily homoerotic — and according to MBQ such activity is rarely seen that way. Rather, and perhaps ironically (for some outside observers), this sort of galavanting is, more often than not, a means of showing off for girls. (But tell that to YouTube.)

Moreover, and this is something I hadn’t picked up on, MBQ noted that there’s a fair amount of subtle deflection in the dancing between men: rather than a square crotch-to-ass thrust, the guys are more likely to swivel hips at the last moment, so the bumping of sides is more frequent.

This is not always so, however, as some fellow Buenaventuran fellows demonstrate:

Then again, here they are again (and again), with opp-sex partners, so go figure:

And here’s a great example of two girls from Buenaventura, at what appears to be a family party, showing how the dance can be a lot more athletic than erotic —

Clearly, specific cultural frames and contextual understandings structure the meanings of choque, even as translocal elements (reggaeton, daggering, skinnyjeans) undeniably inform both local engagements and global circulation / fascination / revulsion. That said, it’s worth noting that the reason the choque became the phenomenon that it did — inspiring local and regional artists to record songs about and for it — is precisely because of all the kids in Buenaventura and Chocó dancing with abandon out in the street, up on the roof, and, eventually, on YouTube. This has made the choque more popular than ever, and it has invited contributions and appropriations of all sorts.

For one, thanks no doubt to YouTube, it has long since traveled beyond Buenaventura and Colombia: uploaded in September 2009, this video finds a Dominican couple doing the “baile de choque” (as well as jerkin’s “reject”) to some local dembow beats:

Closer to home, some recording artists have attempted to court crossover success by translating the choque for audiences outside of Colombia’s Afro-Pacific communities. As noted on the Masala blog a few months ago, Element Black and Bloke 18 premiered an upscale take on the tune, complete with HD video:

note the mambo outro

According to MBQ, although hailing from Buenaventura, Element Black appear to be targeting the regional capital, Cali, with this production. The most obvious cue is the participation of Cali-based group Bloke 18, but as MBQ told me via email, there are other signs to be read here: for one, whereas “videos for Pacific-focused music tends to have a generally darker demographic like that of the Pacific itself,” in this video we see “much lighter-skinned, upper-class-Caleño-looking models”; moreover, MBQ contends that “the fact that the more virtuosic aspects of the dance (e.g. head to butt headbutts) don’t appear” suggests that they wanted to “make it easier for Cali dancers,” a strategy seemingly buttressed by the use of mambo / merengue in the production. (But then, MBQ adds: “This is more that post-Ilegales No Pare Sigue Sigue neo-merengue mambo stuff than merengue, but it’s probably important that merengue is generally associated with the upper classes in Cali.”)

While listening to an Element Black mixtape I turned up, it occurred to me that mambo (as well as reggaeton) was working as a sort of platform in itself — as a means to project and promote one’s act, to invite the participation of a readymade public (i.e., one already addressed/amassed by mambo). It seems telling that there are multiple choque mambos circulating with their name on it. Then again, is mambo the platform, or does “choque” itself create a new scaffolding?

Perhaps inspired by the same crossover dreams, another act drummed up a (blanqueado?) salsa version:

Given the choque’s “African” connotations, there are consequences — in terms of social, cultural, and financial capital — for facilitating the circulation of choque beyond Colombia’s Pacific coast. While I can’t speak further to its reception in Cali, I have noticed a few videos portraying the choque in Bogotá, where it is definitely received ambivalently, not least because the suggestive dance has been embraced by (putatively) non-Afro-Colombians — most scandalously of course, by highschool kids and even younger.

On videos like this one, we see comment threads unfolding along familiar lines


Indeed, the following footage of uniformed students in Bogotá doing “EL NUEVO BAILE PARA JOVENES” (as the description phrases it) became the focus of an alarmist “national” news story

Despite, then, what we might observe — and some would celebrate — as a certain set of cultural mores on display in choque videos, discourses of shame and scandal persist, at least in certain quarters. (One gets the sense, looking across these various videos and their metatexts, that these dances are ok, y’know, on the coasts, but not in the center!) Or maybe it’s just another lame excuse for the moralist media to replay the same supposedly salacious imagery again and again and again:

Resonant (and in conversation) with mediatized youth dance scenes the world over, the choque stands as another site of cultural and social contest. The myriad comments on choque videos using terms like “mierda” or “porquería” alongside racist and heterosexist epithets merely serve to confirm, among other things, that as with its kindred genres (perreo, daggering, wining, freakin’) the choque can do a whole lot of cultural work at once. Whether teaching kids how to be in their bodies and cavort with their peers (sometimes a lot more innocently and playfully than critics let on), or pushing against longstanding biases, the choque vividly embodies the inevitable collisions in a post-slave, post-colonial, and multicultural society like Colombia.

And, indeed, despite vitriolic debates on YouTube and the fanning of populist fears on TV news, a large part of the choque’s cultural work may already be done. As MBQ also noted in our email exchange:

As for the upward mobility of choque, I recently saw on a friend of mine’s Facebook page a video of a middle-class white mother of about 40 and her 20something son in Buenaventura unironically dancing choque together.

It’s practically a post-script.