Bounce Theory, by Jacqueline Couti

(A shorter English version of “Une poétique du corps dansant”)

During the 2016 Carnival, in the aftermath of the fracas generated by Beyoncé’s video Formation, one of my friends and colleagues on Facebook was musing over Big Freedia’s participation in that project. She was very keen on discussing the “Queen Diva” of the bounce, this urban art form in New Orleans that gave birth to a particular music and dance moves similar to the ones of twerk/twerking. Contrary to some purists, she was not arguing whether or not one style came before the other or how titillating and lascivious they may appear. What piqued my interest was how my friend’s commentary highlighted the fact that she loved as she puts it “the idea of committing your talents to making people bounce.” She also added that if she had been “smart,” she would have thought more about how to “make people move,” the way she has always encouraged them to think. This remark was most surprising coming from the mouth of a professor of law whose latest book examined the high numbers of black men on death row.

Her words percolated in my mind, generated many questions and led me to attempt to define in jest a theory of the bounce. Though bouncing, moving, dancing has always been a part of my life, it is only recently that it has become a part of my academic research. Though my friend did not comment on the possible diasporic and transatlantic connections between the release of Beyoncé’s video during carnival and her collaboration with Big Freedia, I could not help making these connections. Other likely influences also struck me; one cannot ignore the resemblance between the North American bounce and twerk/twerking and West African dance forms such as the mapouka from Ivory Coast, also known as the danse du fessier (buttock dance) for its frenetic pelvic and hip moves. The Caribbean whine/whining recalls the vibrating and gyrating movements at play in the Senegalese sabar, a traditional drumming and dance technique. In the so-called New World, during carnival all these techniques may come crashing together in a frenzy of beats and pulses. In the Americas, for descendants of enslaved Africans, this celebration has a particular heritage of subversion that is celebrated in its music and dance reminiscent of African drums and rhythms. Depending on the territory, the island, some individuals may use their hips and buttocks to bounce, some to shake or others to whine among many other moves and so on, but all of them know how to move what their mama gave them to a percussive beat.

By now, the 2016 Carnival session had long concluded; it is very fitting to examine the questions that my friend’s comments raised in my mind. During Carnival, in New Orleans and in the Caribbean, many had been bouncing, jumping, moving—in a word: Dancing. What do you gain when you know how to move, how to dance? Does moving your body make you a better thinker and/or a better person?

Until recently, I have only thought of dance or the various ways to move my body on a beat as just a hobby but it has always been a part of me. The way I move has always colored the way that I see life. I was born in Martinique, but I grew up in France. There, I took many different styles of dance classes in studios. They all taught me humility, and they all taught me to lie. Dance may be about performance and creating beauty as well as illusion. Dance may be about pretending that whatever one does is easy and natural. When you dance or perform in front of a bedazzled audience, you may pretend to have no fear and no pain but you know better. You learn to smile through the pain. To be the best you have to work a lot and unfortunately, often your amount of dedication is not enough. So dance teaches you about life and its potential unfairness, and how nothing is ever a given. Dance teaches you about an ethic of life.

In France, I started with ballet, then swapped to modern jazz and hip-hop. Ballet taught me a lot; it was my first love and my first heartbreak. Like any dance form, ballet first taught me humility and discipline. It also taught me about forbidden and biased spaces. You learn about your difference; that the way your body looks may clash too much with others performing the same routine. You learn that some ballet instructors dedicated to the purity of their arts will resent what they perceive as the limitations of your body and your mind. They will obsess about things such as a neutral pelvis and a neutral spine; correct placement will become an irreconcilable bone of contention. Well, I could not tuck my derrière sufficiently, or, at least never to their liking. No matter what I did, it rebounded or “bounced” back, a question of point-of-view. Back then, that body part had a life of its own and soon epitomized resistance: its creed was “take me as I am.” Those were frustrating times.

However, before any attempts to reshape my body and my mind, before there existed any formal type of dances in my life, such as ballet, there was the “bounce.” The bounce was in Caribbean music, in kompa, in zouk, in the carnival songs I heard and danced to at weddings, christenings and parties. Even in France, my dad had all the good records and on weekends we would go to all the christenings and weddings all over the city and beyond. Once we even drove more than six hours to go to a wedding in southern France; the music was perfect. I knew how to bounce and how to dance before taking any formal classes and specializing in a particular genre. I learned about the “bounce” outside of dance studios—sometimes in a footstep, sometimes in a stroll.

There is something unforgiving and visceral about the “bounce.” You are in it or you are not. It encompasses the best of dance: the raw truth of who you are. It is all about the self and maybe that is why it is often frowned upon, or maybe that is why you can be killed for it. But no matter what, if you listen to the beat, you can hear a whisper… “Bounce, baby, bounce….” The beat of the drum… the bounce represents the gasp after almost choking, the inhalation of air, the gasp for air, the gasp for breath, after choking for so long…the beat up of the drum resounding in your heart. The bounce resembles the drum beat, visceral irresistible, like a breath of fresh air… When you listen to it and let it carry you away, you can finally breathe. When you open to accept yourself, you are also more welcoming of others.

The bounce, just like the hips, “don’t lie.”

Dance may teach all you need about effort, dedication and failure; it teaches you about beauty, ugliness, at times arrogance or humility, truth and lies. Dance teaches you all you need about life, the good and the bad.

But the “bounce” goes beyond; it is a rhythm of self. The “bounce” tells you all you need to know about you, right here, right now. It also teaches you about resistance and about accepting your body the way it was created. Surprisingly, it teaches you also about how to accept others.

So, for now, this is my theory of the bounce.

(bounce, Whine, shake, secoué sa…)


Jacqueline Couti is an Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies/Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky.  She probes the literary constructions of eroticized and sexualized images of bodies for the promotion and propagation of identity politics and nationalistic awareness in former French colonies from the Caribbean and West Africa.  She has published articles on women writers, on questions of diasporic identities, memory, and exile as well as on issues of nationhood, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and violence in colonial and postcolonial societies.  In May 2014, L’Harmattan published in the series Autrement Mêmes her critical edition of MAÏOTTE : Roman Martiniquais inédit by Jenny Manet, first published in1896. In June 2016, Liverpool University Press published her first monograph Dangerous Creole Liaisons: Sexuality and Nationalism in French Caribbean Discourses from 1806 to 1897.


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