Pale imitations: white performances of slave dance in the public theatres of pre-revolutionary Saint-Domingue

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This article offers an original and nuanced contribution to the larger discussion of dance in the colonial Caribbean. Its focus is on the largely neglected phenomenon of the colonial imitator, and specifically on white imitations of local slave dances in the public theatres of Saint-Domingue in the 1770s and 1780s. Colonial accounts of different types of slave dance (calenda, chica and vodou) are examined as an important point of reference for the subsequent analysis of theatrical performances of what were heralded as slave dances. The majority of these formed part of the performance of a local Créole-language work called Jeannot et Thérèse, set explicitly in Saint-Domingue and featuring slave characters. Despite a number of claims to verisimilitude in relation to these dances, it is clear that they bore little resemblance to their supposed models and that what was presented was, from the colonial perspective, a less threatening, more Europeanized form of slave dance. Most revealing of all is the fact that white dancers in the theatre appear never to have imitated vodou dances, which were bound up with spirit possession, even in a work that does allude to local vodou practices. Rumours had no doubt spread of the involuntary imitations that some colonials had experienced when spying on vodou rituals in secret. This avoidance of vodou dance – and the careful negotiation of a pseudo-vodou ritual in the body of the work – is further evidence of a genuine fear – and, crucially, recognition – of the potency of vodou practices even before the Haitian revolution.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)502-520
Number of pages19
JournalAtlantic Studies
Issue number4
Early online date21 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Slave dance
  • Calenda
  • Chica
  • Vodou
  • Saint-Domingue
  • Colonial Caribbean
  • Imitation
  • Mimicry
  • Créole drama
  • Jeannot et Thérèse


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