The Concept of Yanga: Dipping into Virtuosity

By Thomas Talawa Prestø

Special thanks: to Chris Walker and Mr. Samba for communication about the Jamaican and Congolese context respectively.

Listening to an online clip of Miss Lou, the renowned Jamaican folklorist, poet, and singer, I heard her mention the Yanga step in relation to mento dancing and reggae. This term, one I had not heard in a long time, brought back vivid memories. My grandfather always used to tell me that I had to Yanga and Lele. In Trinidad, to Lele means to push your bottom back, often in a swinging manner and also to go lower by bending the knees. The Yanga was the preparatory step in order to Lele or wine, involving dipping quickly and then catching myself, coming up into the right position. My grandfather, my first dance teacher in Caribbean dance, laid the foundation of my technique, instilling in me the importance of these movements.

The Dance and Its Characteristics

From a dance perspective, Yanga is characterized by either bouncing or benindg the knees, or is somethimes also used to describe a pulsing swaying step, movement, often described as stylish or alluring. This movement involves pulsing or bouncing bent knees, creating a dynamic interplay between balance and controlled imbalance. Yanga is particularly prevalent in dances from the Congo Complex, including retentions from Angola and Congo, and is integral to Caribbean dance forms like Calypso, Reggae, Mento, and other folk dances.

In practice, Yanga often features what is termed a “weak-kneed” moment—a sudden, weightless, off-balance step that transitions seamlessly into a display of stylistic prowess. This movement is not merely about losing balance; it is a deliberate positioning to engage the hips and other body centers, emphasizing the sensual and expressive quality of the dance. When the hip cocks back in Yanga, it underscores the hip-oriented nature of the movement, complementing the knee-oriented view.


Etymology and Linguistic Origins

The term “Yanga” likely derives from several interrelated linguistic sources, highlighting its diverse cultural roots. In Jamaican patois and Nigerian Pidgin, phrases like “nyanga” or “making yanga” refer to a sassy walk or showing off. This term finds parallels in Bantu languages, where “Nyonga” or “inyonga” means hip, and “yangalala” in Kikongo means to be happy or to overflow with joy. The concepts of Yanga are therefore always linked to bouth a sassy bouncing and swaying stylish walk, showing off, and joy. “Get down” posture which is soft kneed and bouncing which involves the hips is aesthetically linked to displays of show off and of joy. It is most likely that these concepts have intertwined in the Caribbean and are captured by the word Yanga that is most likely both rooted in Nyonga and Yanga.

Tracing Caribbean words with African roots back to their original languages is challenging due to changes in pronunciation and the merging of similar words from different ethnic groups to form new meanings. Despite these challenges, much has been written about Africanism in Caribbean languages, and it is very likely that Yanga is one such word.


The Yanga and The Hip

Yanga is not just a dance movement but a cultural expression that embodies resilience, adaptability, and resistance. It mirrors the aesthetic principles of African and Caribbean dance traditions, where controlled imbalance is both a physical technique and a metaphor for navigating life’s uncertainties with grace and strength.

In this dance, the hip plays a crucial role. The Yanga step involves a deliberate engagement of the hips, which, in combination with bent knees, creates a sensual and expressive movement. This hip-oriented action underscores the cultural importance of the hip in African and Caribbean dance, where it is often the center of movement and expression.


The Yanga Dip and Rhythm

In communal dance settings, Yanga serves as a unifying force, enhancing the interaction between dancer and drummer. The Yanga dip, a specific movement within this step, often initiates rhythmic breaks or helps realign the group’s timing when dancing to live drumming. This interplay highlights the dancer’s virtuosity and ability to maintain balance within the complex polyrhythmic structure, a hallmark of African diasporic dance forms. When dancing to live drums, the rhythm has a tendancy to speed up gradually. The Yanga dip can be used by the dancer to re-align the tempo of the rhythm and slow it back down or speed it up. This is done by how one “recovers” from the Yanga dip. If recovering in a “sappy” and sinewy fashion the rhyhtm will slow down and become more groovy. If recovering with a jerk and a strong accentuation, the rhyhtm will speed up and become more “springy”. The Yanga dip is often used to signal that the dancer will go into a rhythmic break or what is often referred to as a Kassé.

Kassé represents a moment of heightened intensity or climax within a dance sequence, where energy, rhythm, and movement converge to create a powerful expression. This can be seen as a moment where the dancer’s movements become more intense, the rhythm accelerates, and the emotional energy reaches its zenith. Kassé is not just a physical phenomenon but also an emotional and spiritual one, often leading to a state of catharsis or transcendence for both the dancer and the audience. It embodies a release of pent-up energy and a celebration of life, struggle, and resilience. It is also usually the moment of virtuosic show off.

Kassé is also about dancing a rhythmic break. This break may be accented, syncopated, or even slower, rendering a different interpretation upon the polyrhythmic construct and cutting across the established code. It disrupts the expected rhythmic flow, offering a moment of surprise and innovation within the dance, challenging both the dancer and the audience to engage with the music in new and unexpected ways.

Bob Marley’s quote, “the good thing about music is that when it hits you, you feel no pain,” encapsulates the essence of Yanga. It suggests a transformative power of music and dance, where the physical impact of rhythm creates a momentary disruption only to lead to a rejuvenated and joyful engagement with the dance.


The Yanga and Catching Power

Yanga shows off the dancer’s skill in managing polycentric movements and polyrhythms. Polycentrism in dance involves multiple centers of movement within the body, creating a complex, layered dynamic. The Yanga step Complex, particularly its off-balance dips and spins, exemplifies the dancer’s ability to navigate and reset within this intricate framework. It signals a heightened state of performance, drawing attention from the community and drummers, and accentuates the dancer’s connection with the rhythm.

Just as polyrhythmic constructs are at constant risk of collapsing, creating friction that needs to be resolved, polycentric movement mirrors this on a kinetic and bodily dimension. In polycentric movement, one must understand the forces at play in and around the body and be able to layer and coordinate them to multiply movement possibilities. This facilitates coexistence without movements canceling each other out or creating harm to the body (the whole). The Yanga Dip delves into this same negotiation but with a focus on balance, equilibrium, and levels. It is an exploration of the dancer’s virtuosity in navigating gravity, stance, and shifting balance, seemingly creating impossible situations yet miraculously remaining in control and in flow.


The definition of Yanga and its etymological exploration are referenced from the “Dictionary of Jamaican English,” University of the West Indies, 2002.