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Dancing Against the Beat

Times Staff Writer

The girl in the flounced white micro-mini and green glitter tube top writhes to the dancehall beat throbbing through the Q-West nightclub. She drunkenly gyrates in a motion that sends her skirt riding up high enough to show her panties, if she were wearing any.

Throughout the club, sporadically lighted by the flash of a camera or strobe light, barely clad girls dance themselves into a frenzy of carnal excess.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 16, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 16, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Caribbean dance craze: Captions with photographs accompanying the April 10 Column One article about the Passa Passa dance craze in Grenada gave the incorrect venue. The photographs were taken at the Princess Cafe, not the Q-West nightclub.

At the crossroads of obscurity and nowhere, this rustic seaport scented by nutmeg, diesel and decomposing fish seems an unlikely venue for the most controversial new dance craze in the Caribbean. But anyone who makes the journey here on a Friday night -- actually, Saturday morning -- is likely to get an eye-opening glimpse of Passa Passa and an idea why parents, clergy, government and cultural guardians are trying to exorcise the Jamaican import from the island.

Grenadian elders have condemned Passa Passa, performed to the fast, rhythmic percussions of the reggae style known as dancehall, charging that its strip-tease eroticism exploits directionless island girls. In this nation where many parents have gone abroad to find work, they say, the young women lack moral guideposts, leaving them susceptible to attention-getting stunts.

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“It’s vulgarish. People strip and grab at their bodies,” said Carl Charmaine, a father of five, including three teenage daughters. “This is not good for Grenada.”

Education Minister Claris Charles elevated Passa Passa from a fringe pastime to a regionwide controversy when she recently called for a ban after learning people were doing it not only during the traditionally wanton Carnival season but into Lent.

“The line between freedom of expression and respect for our values has been crossed,” Charles said.

The Jamaican-born dance craze, aimed at showcasing moves and titillating onlookers to catch the eye of music video producers, initially migrated to clubs in St. George’s, the Grenadian capital. But the condemnation by Charles and other civic leaders has sent it underground here in Gouyave, to a kind of after-hours party that follows this tiny port’s “Fish Fridays” food fairs.

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Charles declined to speculate whether Passa Passa fetes were cause for more alarm than Woodstock generated two generations ago or Spring Break revelries such as wet T-shirt contests do today.

“There are always persons, whatever time and whatever era, who will go to extremes to get cheap publicity. There will always be people who would like to challenge the values of our time,” she said.

Whether a ban would work is open to question, she acknowledged, but said the government was duty-bound to point out symptoms of a society in crisis and encourage citizens to engage in “stock-taking.”

“Where are the parents?” minibus driver Moody Thomas demanded, recalling a 16-year-old he recently shuttled to the yacht harbor. She climbed carefully into the front seat of his van, tugging on the hem of her denim miniskirt, and explained that she had to move gingerly “because she didn’t have any drawers on,” Thomas recounted with disapproval.

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The street outside Q-West is a sort of anteroom for the dance parties, a place where deafening music and escalating inebriation make conversation only marginally more possible than inside the club. Young men in baggy pants and basketball jerseys strike diffident poses, as if they just happened to be there when someone got the idea of throwing a party. The preening girls smoke, and look haughty, even as they try to avoid stepping into the waste-filled gutters with their flimsy footwear.

Speakers set up at the nearby Texaco station blare techno music through Gouyave’s gritty main drag. The crowd bobs as one.

Dorcia -- no last names, please -- has come all the way from Grenville, on the Atlantic side of the island, in hopes of becoming famous, at least in Grenada, by getting photographed and having her image posted on a club-scene website.

Wearing a strapless white top and towering in silver gladiator sandals, she badgers a video producer who promised her copies of photos he took weeks ago. “Then pay my ticket!” she orders when he says he forgot them, punching his shoulder with a petulance apparently intended to get him to fork out the club’s $4 admission.

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Her friend, in a short red dress that wouldn’t look out of place on an Olympic figure skater, glares when asked why she has come to the party. “Ain’t no Passa Passa here!” she says with an attitude intended for police or a parent.

But parents are in short supply on Grenada these days. With little employment outside tourism, fishing and spice farming, the island has suffered not just a brain drain but the loss of an entire generation. Nearly 70% of the population is under 25, social development specialist Denyse Ogilvie said, because most islanders in their prime working years go abroad to find jobs.

Social worker Ann Peters says those left behind with grandparents or older siblings are profoundly vulnerable to the moral pitfalls of adolescence. They are called “barrel children” -- “The parents go abroad and ship back jeans and sneakers and all the bling in barrels,” Peters said. “But the parents are not there for them.”

Passa Passa dancing for music video producers or the entertainment of onlookers is the latest but far from the only exploitation of young women who grow up without proper adult supervision, she said.

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“The age of sexual consent in Grenada is 16, but you have scores of children born every year to girls as young as 12, and no one is being prosecuted,” Peters said. “We have here what we call ‘the 24-year-old grandmother syndrome.’ ”

Since Hurricane Ivan demolished almost 90% of the buildings in Grenada in September 2004, the island has become a giant construction site, with hundreds of contractors here from Suriname, Guyana and islands including Trinidad for the round-the-clock rebuilding effort. Girls without supervision go to the contractors’ barracks to work as cooks, laundry maids or prostitutes, Peters said.

The poorer girls often befriend several men, she said: one to buy food, one to pay rent, another to give them clothes or a cellphone. These girls are being drawn to self-destructive behavior like Passa Passa, she said.

Roderick St. Clair works for the Grenadian Connection website that chronicles the cultural scene on the island. He has attended several Passa Passa parties where young women compete for the attention of DVD producers. He said cameras capture the dancers “whining” and “juking” -- gyrating suggestively and mimicking intercourse -- and use the images as background for their reggae and dancehall music recordings.

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Since Passa Passa became controversial in Grenada, public promotion of the events has ceased and websites have removed the most controversial photos. But parties erupt amid other revelry, even in public places like the Q-West club.

“I don’t think the young ladies will drift away from it because some people are trying to ban it. Grenadians have a very defiant nature,” St. Clair said. “The criticism will drive it underground, but it will continue as long as it is fashionable.”

Musicians who perform traditional African drum music or the steel drums, calypso and soca rhythms popular during Carnival see Passa Passa’s origins in the same social milieu that gave rise to their music, but they denounce it as vulgar.

“The roots of reggae are in the experience of struggle -- poor people trying to give themselves voice. That was and still is a positive force,” said Livingston Krumah Nelson of the Tivoli Drummers, who sells produce at the St. George’s market to supplement his income. “But like anything else, people try to commercialize it with sexual intonations. Passa Passa is a perversion of reggae, which is about justice and spirituality and black consciousness. Passa Passa is a contradiction of those things.”

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Passa Passa began a few years ago in the rough downtown slums of Kingston, the Jamaican capital. It became fashionable with more affluent Jamaicans, transforming the weekly events into a symbolic show of social unity in one of the Caribbean’s most socially stratified islands.

As DVDs and videos featuring the dance made their way from Jamaica to St. George’s, idle youths in search of entertainment began imitating the moves and nightclub owners accommodated them by throwing Passa Passa parties.

Observers of the culture scene, such as photographer Howard “Max” Bhola, say the dance style initially seemed like this generation’s signature act of rebellion, something that upset the island’s strait-laced seniors but was perceived by participants as relatively innocent fun. But the dance took on a more sordid taint as older men -- including the foreign construction workers, flush with lust and Friday paychecks -- gravitated to the parties to watch and woo the impoverished young women, he said.

Some say the dance doesn’t need to be banned, just toned down to match the stricter, Christian mores of Grenada.

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“It’s fun. I’ve been a couple of times,” said Listra George, a slender 20-year-old in a skintight costume fringed with gold bangles. As she waited near Q-West, she debated whether to take the risk that the night’s party would evolve into the kind of displays raising hackles across the island.

“If you go when they’re really whining, you can get marked,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re a Passa Passa girl,’ and they expect you to take your clothes off.”


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