Haitian traditional dances are an integral part of Haitian history and culture. They are at the center of gatherings and are essential for the expression of the spirituality of the people. Yanvalou is the most popular traditional dance, but also the less well known. Due to the fact that many have prejudices about its foundations, its connection to voodoo culture and the message conveyed by its undulating movements. This is why we need to shine a light on the wonderful origin of Yanvalou, explain the essence of its unique movements and demystify false beliefs.
How did the Yanvalou end up in Haiti?
You should know that Yanvalou originates from West Africa, more precisely from Benin. The dance came to the island with the Africans. Like the language and the songs, dance movements are among the few things enslaved Africans were able to bring with them on slave ships. Yanvalou is part of the African heritage of Haitians. Dancing was a way for these men and women to stay connected with their ancestors. It was through dancing that Africans could express themselves with their bodies. The rippling movements of Yanvalou are known to help the soul heal and get through the many difficulties of slave life.
The unique movements of Yanvalou
Then, you should know that Yanvalou is easily distinguished from other traditional Haitian dances. Its unique movements mimic ocean waves. Then, to achieve them, the dancer must free himself from any muscular tension. He must let himself go by undulating his body from the base of the skull to the sacral plexus, passing through the pelvic girdle. When a dancer succeeds in achieving total fluidity and letting go, it is because they have shed the negative energetic baggage that lived within them. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing a dancer perform these movements. These ripples, like the movement of the snake, hypnotize and recall nature. Dancing Yanvalou requires being present and mindful. To be honest, it feels good for the body and the mind.
The link between Yanvalou and voodoo
For hundreds of years, Yanvalou has been danced in voodoo ceremonies, in honor of Lwa Danbala. Voodoo is not a traditional religion, on the contrary, it is a practice that promotes tradition, communion and communication with the ancestors. When Yanvalou is danced, the dancers wear the colors white and blue which are reminiscent of life, fertility and harmony. However, whatever one says about it, it is important to know that, "just because a dancer or a choreographer dances Yanvalou does not mean that he is a voodoo practitioner. As far as Voduism is concerned, it is a life process that requires a lot of discipline, as it is in Buddhism. Just because you burn incense, meditate, or practice yoga doesn't mean you become a monk.”1
Well, this was just a glimpse of Yanvalou. It is only while dancing that you can truly appreciate the beauty of this style. That being said, at Centre Toussaint the teachers are passionate. Those who teach traditional dances live in Montreal, but all learned to dance in Haiti. During their classes, you will not only learn the movements, but you will also learn to respect the origins of the dance, because to dance Yanvalou is to honor Haitian culture in all its facets, no matter where you are.
Other articles in the series: Les danses traditionnelles d’Haïti
Let me know in the comments if you have already danced Yanvalou.
Author: Shanna Aristil
1 WEISELANDE CESAR, Demystifying the Haitian Folklore through Dance, https://www.ndeo.org/content.aspx?page_id=2507&club_id=893257&item_id=567&pst=1113