Brussels becomes livelier than ever once summer comes, with a whole range of shows, sessions, battles, cyphers and other not-to-be-missed street dance events. It seemed the right time for BRUZZ to talk to dancehall queen Oriane Vandenbergh, known as “Coco”. “There is so much more to dancehall than Sean Paul’s videos.”
Bet you’ve wiggled your hips on the dance floor, or maybe in front of your mirror, to the music of Sean Paul, Shaggy, or Beenie Man while trying to rotate your pelvis like the sensual dancers in the Jamaican superstars’ videos? Dancehall, often wrongly labelled “ragga” in the dance-course brochures of Brussels schools, is huge in Europe. For long, its popularity had the effect of cutting off the street-dance style from the ghettos of Kingston from its cultural roots. Slowly it changed into a commercial, easily consumed version that has gradually lost the essence of dancehall.
Now, dancers themselves are setting that right. Among them, 34-year-old Brussels-based Oriane Vandenbergh, known as “Coco”. Trained in Jamaica and in Europe (by Jamaican teachers), she and her Lil Coco crew won first prize at the Made in Belgium and Groove choreographic competitions in 2022, following her coronation as Belgian Dancehall Queen in 2020. She works tirelessly to render unto dancehall the things that are dancehall’s. How? By celebrating the richness of dancehall culture through talks, intensive courses at Pianofabriek in Sint-Gillis/Saint-Gilles, and jams and clashes under the title “Dancehall Corner”.
What should we expect at a Coco-style Dancehall Corner?
Oriane Vandenbergh: I try to achieve a balance between dancehall nights of the kind you can experience in Jamaica – that is to say, rooted in a culture and its codes – and the reality of Brussels. Dancehall mainly takes place at night, but many Belgian dancers don’t like going to clubs, because the codes of dancehall are not known and respected there. So I organise sessions and jams in the early afternoon or the early evening. I invite a DJ and a speaker/MC, both of whom are members of the dancehall community. For the dancers, the only rule is to really go for your style, because what you wear is really important in dancehall.
When you’re dancing, the vibe you give off is just as important as technical feats: you have to succeed at being yourself. Just like at dancehall events in Jamaica, there are pieces of music to which only the girls have the right to dance. In most other dance styles, the female dancer’s role is not clear and the masculine presence is strongly felt.
In a club, the sensuality and eroticism of dancehall steps can be misinterpreted?
Vandenbergh: In dancehall, one works a lot on sensuality, to music that is highly sexualised. When people see us dancing in a club, they don’t realise that when a girl wiggles her hips, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is inviting a boy to dance with her. At the events I organise, I create spaces where the codes of dancehall are understood by everyone, so that the girls can let themselves go, can wear clothes that are very short and tight-fitting if they want, and really live dancehall culture.
For you, personally, what has dancehall offered you in terms of exploring your femininity and your sensuality?
Vandenbergh: I started dancehall in August 2012 at the first dancehall camp organised in Europe, in the south of France. At the time, I was in my early twenties and I wasn’t feminine at all. I was part of a hip-hop world in which girls wore very loose-fitting clothes. During the camp, I met two Jamaican girls who were wearing clothes that were very tight to their bodies. They were really embracing their curves and their femininity. As someone who had lots of trouble moving my hips, I had to learn to whine, that is to say, to do a 360-degree rotation of the pelvis. I gained confidence in my body and I realised that I didn’t have to hide it or to have complexes about it.
Ever since that camp, you’ve never left dancehall.
Vandenbergh: It was dancehall that chose me. I came back to Belgium and I became aware that dancehall hadn’t developed much here and, above all, that it was greatly misunderstood. People mixed up ragga and dancehall. Ragga was actually a misunderstanding of dancehall by Europeans, for the most part inspired by Sean Paul videos seen on YouTube. Sure, there is a musical style called raggamuffin, but the dance ragga as such has no basis.
So what does the label “ragga” actually apply to?
Vandenbergh: Ragga is not linked to a culture or to codes: it’s a mixture of just about all the styles, with some movements of the pelvis and a little technique. In one of his videos, for example, Sean Paul does the “Willy Bounce”, which is a dancehall move that came from Bogle, who is to dancehall what Bob Marley is to reggae. He is a very important figure. But we Belgians said, “It’s the Sean Paul step.”
Ragga teachers danced to Sean Paul without knowing the cultural codes. People danced to music without understanding the words – which are often homophobic, address a difficult reality of violence, and tend to sexualize women. You have to see this in the context of a culture that emerged from people who were, for the most part, very poor. People took the clichés and the stereotypes from that culture. With exposure on social media, it’s very easy to copy. A dancer and singer like Chris Brown, for example, was criticized for using moves from major dancehall figures without ever crediting them.
Soon, you decided you wanted to go to Jamaica?
Vandenbergh: Yes. Before going to Jamaica in 2016 and 2018, I went to Russia, where there is a highly developed dancehall community. I also went to the Big Up Kemps in Europe, where there were Jamaican teachers. Then, projects emerged in Brussels in collaboration with Jamaican dancers, including a competition that I took part in with my Coco crew. I started giving classes myself with a view to developing dancehall and giving it more visibility, freed from clichés. I invite Jamaican dancers from the diaspora. For pupils who are interested, I offer to sign them up for dancehall nights in Paris and Amsterdam organised by the Jamaican diaspora, so they can really experience a night very similar to what they might experience in Jamaica.
In your courses, you insist on the importance of situating dancehall within a culture and a history.
Vandenbergh: Yes, that is very important. In Brussels, you also have the dancer Massinda Zinga, who organises workshops and discussions about Afro-Caribbean culture and whiteness within a black culture. For my part, I emphasize to my pupils that appreciating a culture doesn’t mean appropriating it. I have quite a few white pupils and I explain to them that they are not obliged to become fanatics, wearing the Jamaican flag and swapping their culture for Jamaican culture, which is far removed from their reality. In dancehall, for example, there are lots of steps with guns. If you decide to mime a gun with your fingers, you have to know why you’re doing that, or else adapt the step. In dancehall, there are lots of social issues raised, such as criticism of living conditions in the ghettos; sometimes that involves staging acts of violence.
How have you found your own balance, as a black woman, a Belgian, and a dancehall dancer?
Vandenbergh: I’m a Belgian with Ethiopian roots; I was adopted and I’m from Louvain-la-Neuve. Which means I come from an environment very far from dancehall. Apart from the fact that I’m very reserved. I’ve always liked the enthusiastic side of dancehall, the fashions, and the extravagance, but the bare flesh was always a bit of a problem for me. I found my balance, for example, by choosing clothes that matched my own sense of modesty. I also had to help my family to understand dancehall – they only knew it through the most shocking videos on social media. They can see now just how much I’m at ease with what I am doing. That it’s about being proud of my shape, my sensuality, and my place as a woman.
How do you feel when you are dancing?
Vandenbergh: When someone puts on sounds that are specially for girls and the DJ turns it up high, one feels feminine energies that spring up between them. You let yourself be carried away and you are surprised that your own body is capable of doing that. It’s as if my whole body radiates sensuality.
The next Coco’s Dancehall Corner will be at Pianofabriek on 22 June, starting at 7 pm, with guest DJ Selena