Dance and music are often seen as two different artistic genres. In the minds of some though, dance and music are partners in the same cultural art form. One should serve as a physical  representation and expression of the other. In the Opinion of Sylvien Chanon, dance on Reunion is being left behind as creole cultures export music alone cross the globe.

Human society and culture cannot adequately be captured, researched, and shared through just one medium. Would one fully understand the French culture through cuisine alone? Can the American spirit be encapsulated solely within the fierce independence of American people? No culture’s heritage can adequately be understood, preserved, and shared with future generations by focusing on one aspect.

It is with that goal in mind that noted musician and artist Sylvien Chanon has turned his attention to preserving and promoting the culture of the Indian Ocean island nation of Reunion through dance. With so much focus on the music from creole artists throughout the Indian Ocean, and likewise other regions of the globe, Chanon has turned his devotion to the arts to the preservation of cultural dances from Reunion.

Who is Sylvien Chanon

Chanon is a self-described musician, music teacher, and researcher based in Reunion. Although he does not formally teach or research at any educational institution, he nonetheless views himself as a cultural researcher intent on discovering and preserving the “patrimony of dance in Reunion.”

With 20 years of experience as a musician, Chanon has noticed that in Reunion (and other creole cultures) the heritage of dance in many creole cultures is being left by the wayside as music is promoted and exported around the world. Unlike the public institutions of Reunion, Chanon believes that dance is being left behind culturally and financially.

While music is promoted, supported, and exported around the globe, Chanon believes dance is being left behind. Chanon sees this as a grave mistake not because dance is more or less important than music, but because of the deeper connection that the two artistic forms share. Chanon believes that dance has a historical link, both anthropological and societal, to music. The two art forms work together to tell the story of a culture’s present and past.

As a prime example of his belief, Chanon points to the Caribbean creole musical genre of Salsa. When fans of Salsa take in the joyful music, they are not simply listening to lively Salsa rhythms, but dancing feverishly in-step with the beat of the music to truly experience Salsa. As he put it, “people go to Salsa concerts not to simply hear the music, but to dance.”

Keeping it Local

Throughout his research of cultural dance on Reunion, Chanon has noticed that while music is promoted across international borders, dance is not taken along for the ride. He believes that in order to preserve dance on Reunion, it must be preserved at home first before it is promoted alongside creole music as it is exported around the globe.

Chanon’s focus over the past five years has been on casting aside the folklore imagery often used with dance on Reunion and digging deeper to discover the traditional dance mediums expressed by everyday people throughout the island’s history. Just as each of the predominantly creole islands of the Indian Ocean (Seychelles, Mauritius, Rodrigues, etc.) has its own dance styles, Chanon has identified those which are considered unique to Reunion.

There are variations on Sega dancing, a popular dance on Seychelles, which are known locally as Sega Pique. Additionally, popular dance forms on Reunion include Maloya, Cabaret, Tribal, Valse, and Cadri. For each of these dance forms, Chanon has noticed a different approach ranging from slow, intimate dances experienced deeply between a couple, to faster  dances that are extremely expressive and even erotic in nature.

For example, Chanon identifies the Les Cadris dance as one that was traditionally suited to a more reserved middle class. Developed during a period of history where European settlers on Reunion needed a reminder of the Old World, Les Cadris was predominantly a dance for Reunion’s white populace with more reserved movements.

Similarly, there was Maloya dancing which almost put participants into a trance-like state of being. The movements were slow and repetitive, putting dancers into a rhythmic state of repetition that seemed to have them in a trance.

On the other hand, there were more expressive dance forms such as Sega Pique and Valse which have roots in the islands mixture of cultures that grew from its slaveholding past. These dances were more tribal in nature and often very expressive.

Dispelling Myths

One factor regarding dance on Reunion that has particularly irritated Chanon has been the focus on costumes as a part of dance on the island. Beginning in the 1960s, Chanon believes a false image of the traditional dress associated with dance on the island has been misrepresented by the growing tourism industry.

In an effort to promote a sense of tropical pleasure surrounding the island, an inflated version of the traditional costumes was presented along with the island’s cultural dances. As Chanon has pointed out, traditional costumes for cultural dances were often everyday clothing that could differ by the class and group of society enjoying a particular form of dance.

By this, Chanon means that those segments of Reunion society with deeper European roots might wear their “Sunday Best” to dances feature traditional music in the cities. By contrast, those segments of society with ties to former slaves or other African cultures would wear simpler clothes and often attending gatherings in villages.

Regardless of the segment of society, Chanon believes it is important to highlight the fact that what people wear and how they perform any given dance will depend upon their heritage and where they are attending dance gatherings.

Eye on the Future

Chanon’s work is just beginning to gain traction and attention for dance on Reunion. Although not a reality yet, he has visions of a future where dance schools on Reunion can offer courses aimed at keeping traditional, accurate representations of dance on Reunion alive. In this extremely technological 21st  century, he views the potential for online instructional videos as an outlet for properly exporting dance on Reunion around the globe along with the culture’s music.