ISRF Fellow ‘H’ Patten takes a closer look at the impact the Windrush dance revolution has had on British culture.
Growing up in Birmingham in the early 1960s, I am part of the African Caribbean generation that migrated to Britain between the 1940s and 1980s. Commonly known as the “Windrush generation”, our arrival in the UK marked a significant turning point in the country’s social, artistic and economic landscape.
Back in those days, nights out in Birmingham revolved around paid entry into “blues” or “shubeens” (house parties). They were often held in unconventional venues, from basements and abandoned buildings to church and school halls. These events took place up and down the country – black bodies dancing and expressing themselves through music and “riddim” (rhythm).
These venues became the birthplace of black clubs, stage shows and major international events such as the Notting Hill carnival and the Mobo Awards ceremony. In these spaces, we challenged the exclusion that African and Caribbean people faced relating to established white-owned social venues.
Reflecting back on my childhood, I vividly remember attending Jamaican dance sessions where black bodies performed seemingly unconscious and spiritually symbolic dance rituals. This represented a form of resistance. But it was also about identity affirmation and survival.
Dance sessions involved setting up massive speakers, amplifiers, turntables and other sonic components that produced the pulsating music of the sound systems. Operated by talented deejays (DJs), selectors and MCs, these musical artists transformed ordinary British locations into dynamic dance spaces.
Through dance, we resisted cultural marginalisation and asserted our presence in the face of oppression. I recall witnessing people performing the ska dance, characterised by energetic arm movements and knee-raising, to the popular song My Boy Lollipop by Millie Small, which topped the UK charts in 1964.
In darkened rooms, bodies would sensuously move together, intertwining their pelvises in figure-eight, half or full circles. Side-stepping, bending and straightening their knees, they performed the reggae bounce.
These dance movements were performed to songs like Janet Kay’s 1979 anthem Silly Games, which propelled the lover’s rock reggae genre beyond its African Caribbean audience base to global markets including China and Japan.
Dance and music were integral to our cultural celebrations marking the major lifecycle milestones, from christenings and weddings to birthdays and funerals.
Contributing far and wide
The influence of African Caribbean popular culture extended beyond our communities and made significant contributions to British society as a whole. For instance, Lord Kitchener’s calypso London is the Place for Me, played on the decks of the SS Empire Windrush upon its arrival in 1948, expressed the dreams and aspirations of many who migrated to Britain.
Invited by the British government, African Caribbean people settled in the “Mother country”. We became an indispensable part of the workforce, contributing to various sectors such as the NHS, transportation, business and infrastructural developments.
The Notting Hill carnival, born out of our resistance to oppression and violence following the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959, became one of the greatest African Caribbean cultural contributions to British society.
Cochrane, an innocent black man walking home, was killed at the hands of white youths in Notting Hill. This ignited the UK’s first race riots, which directly influenced Trinidad and Tobago-born journalist and activist Claudia Jones to set up the London Caribbean Carnival – a precursor to the Notting Hill carnival that was established in 1966.
Today, “Carnival” is not only a vibrant celebration of our heritage but a significant contributor to the British economy and tourism industry. Reggae’s sound-system culture was incorporated into this annual event, amplifying its reach beyond calypso, soca (an offshoot of calypso) and steel pan culture to encompass many forms of artistry.
Dance movements within reggae and dancehall music have become powerful expressions of cultural identity and personhood. The signature “whining” or “wining” movement, characterised by circling or rotating the pelvis while rocking it back and forth in a tumbling action, exemplifies Jamaican pride and self-worth.
Similarly, the iconic Bogle dance, created by master dancer Gerald “Bogle” Levy in Jamaica and adopted within British dance spaces in the 1990s, features undulating arms and bodies across the dancehall space to the hit song Bogle, by Buju Banton.
Through reggae and dancehall, black bodies in Britain confidently occupied central positions within popular culture. We challenged gender stereotypes, body stigmatisation and the limitations imposed on African Caribbean bodies due to race.
Freedom and empowerment
The freedom and empowerment found in reggae and dancehall culture has also influenced the growth of other marginalised communities in Britain. It played a crucial role in the development of genres such as hip-hop, punk rock, jungle, garage, drum ‘n’ bass, Afrobeat, reggaeton (South America), kwaito or di gong (South Africa), and hip-life (West Africa).
The wider influence of reggae, dancehall and African Caribbean culture can be seen throughout British culture: in television programmes, radio shows and advertisements that incorporate Jamaican slang, iconic songs and dance moves.
Examples include the Vitalite advert, featuring Desmond Dekker’s The Israelites, Fairy Liquid’s use of Bob Marley’s Don’t Worry in their ads, and the BBC’s original Test match cricket theme, Soul Limbo. Alongside the everyday use of Jamaican and African Caribbean slang terms and phrases such as “big up”, “shout out to” (acknowledging individuals), “bouyaka!” (signifying gunshots), “blood” or “fam” (meaning family), are actions including fist pumps, wining and twerking.
Of course, life in the UK has not been without its challenges. The Windrush scandal of 2017 exposed that many from the Windrush generation had been excluded from British society, due to the UK government’s “hostile environment” legislation. This intended to cut off undocumented migrants from access to any public services, including healthcare.
But despite such oppression, our cultural and economic contributions remain intertwined with British history. And we continue to shape the UK’s cultural landscape, today and into the future.
Goldsmiths, University of London
‘H’ Patten is an associate lecturer in African/Caribbean dance on the Irie! Dance Theatre BA (hons) degree course. He received his PhD from Canterbury Christ Church University. Having authored a number of chapters on reggae/dancehall culture, ‘H’ is currently completing a monograph on the spiritual genealogy of Jamaican reggae/dancehall dance, as well as co-editing a book on in/securities relating to dancehall performance.