Dancehall isn’t just a genre of music. For Jamaicans, it’s a way of life. The impact of this subculture is so massive that it forms part of everything Jamaicans do – from how we talk, dress, dance and even celebrate.
The number-one way to see and experience dancehall in Jamaica is at events, specifically street parties we call “dance.” I can’t recall my first time going to a dance. It’s something that always was (and still is) part of the traditional Jamaican lifestyle – almost as routine as going to church on Sundays, and for many people, just as spiritual.
There are street parties happening in communities on a weekly basis, with Kingston being the number one dancehall hub. Don’t expect to find major artistes at these types of events. While musicians are an important part of the genre of dancehall, its culture is kept relevant by the dedicated DJs, innovative dancers and creative locals who set the tone for what’s trending in Jamaica, the Caribbean and much of global pop culture.
Things to know before you go
Dancehall street parties aren’t massive in size. Dances usually have less than 200 people in attendance, especially during the week, though parties held at clubs or other locations tend to be a bit more crowded. Street parties aren’t typically advertised on major platforms – knowing locals in the party scene or asking around is key to finding the hottest parties. There isn’t usually an entry fee for street parties; the organizers do, however, expect you to support their bar and/or buy food if it’s available.
What to wear
Expect the most creative looks at these events. This is a chance to wear the color you thought was too bold or the hairstyle you thought was too outrageous. Patrons don’t take themselves too seriously and are big on being creative but comfortable. Shorts or jeans are your best bet. And wear comfortable shoes (please, no stiletto heels), as you’ll likely be dancing all night.
The nature of dancehall means that there’s always lots of dancing involved. Much of the dancing is coordinated, involving a crew. There’s also lots of close dancing between two people, which can seem more intimate than it actually is.
At a party, you’ll likely see someone’s partner sharing a close dance with someone else throughout the duration of a song. This is completely normal, as is someone approaching you to share a dance. While it is common, you shouldn’t feel pressured to dance. If you don’t want to dance with anyone, a simple “no” will do the trick.
Support is also big in dancehall. Don’t attend a party if you don’t plan on buying a single drink. Even if you’re not a big drinker, the act of purchasing is seen as a sign of respect. Supporting the DJs who set the vibe of the night (or morning) is also a big deal. A “money pull-up” – the act of throwing money on a DJ’s turntable if you love the song selection or want them to repeat a song – is a major part of dancehall party culture. It’s not expected from every person, but it does show respect for the culture.
Where to experience Dancehall
Dancehall events happen on a daily basis across the island, but there are a few locations and special events that are considered a meeting place for everyone fascinated with the culture.
With DJs being an integral part of dancehall, sound systems – the groups of DJs and emcees responsible for providing the entertainment at events – are considered part of dancehall royalty.
Undoubtedly one of the most legendary dancehall sound systems is Stone Love, which started in the 1970s and still operates today. Stone Love Headquarters in Kingston is where you’ll find the authentic dancehall street parties. This location is particularly popular among those who love “old school” dancehall. There are parties happening here almost every night.
If you can only attend one, go to Weddy Weddy Wednesday, the most popular weekly street party on the island and the No. 1 place to see the latest hairstyles, fashion and dance moves in dancehall before they start trending. You can take the opportunity to dress up, but there’s nothing fancy or upscale about these parties. Dancehall lovers just come to drink, dance and enjoy the music.
Another popular open space to experience dancehall is at Romeich Entertainment headquarters, also in Kingston. This is the business and entertainment hub of Romeich Major, manager of dancehall stars Shenseea and Ding Dong Ravers and a popular events promoter. Parties aren’t as frequent here as at the Stone Love HQ, and Romeich HQ typically draws a younger crowd.
Given his relationship with Ding Dong Ravers – the head of the famed dancehall dancing crew Ravers Clavers – this is the best place to get caught up on all the latest dancehall dance moves. At the events here, you’re likely to find members of the crew in attendance who will gladly teach you their steps.
If you’re more of a club person, Meca in Kingston is a top spot to experience dancehall. The club sticks to the culture of nightly events: Dolly Sundays, Triple Thursdays and Champagne Saturdays are the weekly features. These events attract a mostly younger crowd. Lounge 2727 in Montego Bay, 8Rivaz Ultra Lounge in Ocho Rios and Taboo, an exotic nightclub with locations in Kingston, Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, are also hot spots to experience Dancehall.
Outside of small parties and clubs, live shows are also a great way to experience dancehall – Jamaicans are known for putting on a show, literally. But the two biggest dancehall events on the island are Reggae Sumfest and Sting.
Reggae Sumfest is the biggest concert on the island. It happens every July and draws locals and tourists from all over to Montego Bay. The event spans two days, and night one is billed as dancehall night, with the hottest and greatest dancehall artistes.
If you’re a fan of raunchy, hardcore dancehall, Sting is a must-attend. This event features many more underground dancehall artistes and is also the place to see the top musicians go head-to-head in the Sting music clash.
While small community parties don’t usually have an entry fee for events, those held at larger venues do. Events happening at Stone Love Headquarters cost less than JM$1500 for entry, with drinks on sale. Romeich Headquarters hosts various events, including parties, cookouts and game nights, and the entry fee is around the same. Depending on the night, Meca’s entry fee is a bit more, and there’s also a VIP area.
At most of these events, you won’t find food on sale. Parties held in an outdoor setting may have a few vendors selling jerk chicken, pork or soup, at most. Various kinds of liquor are sold at every event.
Keep it going
Parties in Jamaica tend to go until the wee hours of the morning, ending around 3am (sometimes later). It’s customary for many people to start their night elsewhere and end at a party, making it the last major activity for the night. What time you leave the party will dictate the after-party activity. If it’s close to sunrise, many people will drive out to Palisadoes, a thin peninsula near the Norman Manley International Airport, to start their mornings by jogging or simply watching the sunrise.
If it’s a bit earlier, people who want to keep the party going will gather at a nearby beach with friends. There are several beaches on the coast of Hellshire, Portmore, where most people in the parishes of Kingston and St Catherine end up after a party. Hellshire Beach and Ft Clarence Beach are open early in the morning. The beaches are usually uncrowded, making them a great spot to unwind with friends after a night of partying.
Take it home
Dancehall vinyls or CDs are the best way to bring a piece of the culture back home. Located in downtown Kingston, Rockers International Records store is one of the few places in the capital where you can find a wide variety of dancehall and reggae vinyl records. They also have other merchandise and souvenirs on sale, including clothing, pins, notebooks and key chains.
How to prepare
Preparing for a dancehall event means learning a few songs so you’re not left out when everyone is singing along. YouTube is the best place for this. If you’re attending an old-school event, such as those held at the Stone Love HQ, try to find a Stone Love mix put together and published by the DJs. To find the latest dance moves, do a deep dive into the catalogs of dancehall artistes Ding Dong Ravers and La Lee, the top musicians setting the trends in Jamaica as it relates to dancing.