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Dancing Against the Beat

Grenada's elders condemn the suggestive Passa Passa. They say it is vulgar and exploits girls, many of whose parents work abroad.

April 10, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

GOUYAVE, Grenada — 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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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