While life in the Cayman Islands in the 19th and early-to-mid part of the 20th centuries might have been hard with few luxuries or home comforts, there was a real sense of camaraderie and excitement as soon as musical instruments were produced for the community’s enjoyment. People saw dances as one of the easiest ways to have fun, and so they were extremely popular at that time.
The November 1978 Norwester magazine noted that dances were a widely used form of entertainment in the districts and were usually held in someone’s home or yard. Music was provided by local musicians proficient in the banjo, fiddle and grater, with sometimes the maracas or bottle as an accompaniment.
In the 3rd January 1992 edition of the Caymanian Compass, it noted how kitchen dances and pan dances were part of the Christmas season celebration. Kitchen dances were held, naturally, in the kitchen, which was a separate building from the house, called a caboose. Dances were held from Christmas sometimes all the way until late March, when the men would be home from sea. Pan dances involved hitting a pan like a drum, with someone else scraping a grater and the general community singing and dancing along to the music.
According to the Caymanian Weekly of 1st January 1970, an old-time orchestra consisted of a triangle, scraping grater, drum and accordion along with a violin. During the dance, the men rarely touched their partners, and instead, danced holding the front of their jackets while the women wheeled out their skirts as they danced.
Some of the dances that Caymanians enjoyed were the quadrille, waltzes and the polka. The quadrille was a particular favourite, originally popular during French society during the late 18th Century and then it found its way to England in the early 19th Century. It derived its name from the style of dance, whereby partners would stand in a square. In the West Indies, there was a good deal of an African influence to the dance, according to an article in Newstar from May 1990, which details how more tempo, more rhythm, and livelier steps were all a feature of the quadrille in the Caribbean. The Cayman quadrille was a mix of two specific types pf quadrille – ballroom (more formal) and camp (livelier), however it has its own specific style, with six figures danced to six specific tunes - Scottish or Irish folk tunes - such as ‘Listen to the Mockingbird’, ‘Dixie Land’ and ‘Nellie Gray’. The quadrille was traditionally danced for special occasions such as weddings and especially at Christmas. The band itself that played the music for the quadrille was an important element and consisted of a fiddle (the lead instrument), a cow-skin drum, and a grater.
The George Town Town Hall, since renamed as Constitution Hall, was a focal point for many people in the early part of the 20th Century as a place to gather and watch plays and skits being performed. It was an important meeting place for the community and served as a venue for such performances for many decades throughout that century. In July 1970, the Cayman Drama Society was formed as an informal group and put on a play called ‘See How They Run’, running for three nights in November 1970. According to the CDS, it was the first full play ever presented in Cayman with scenery, costumes and props. The Town Hall, they say, was “bursting at the seams every night”. On the first night, there was much consternation when the curtains opened to reveal what looked like a house built on the stage – a theatrical illusion many local people had not previously seen. But they all settled down and quickly got on terms with the play, laughing in all the right and even the wrong places. The event was a joyful occasion for everyone and most rewarding for the fledgling Society. An extra performance was needed, to meet public demand.
Kids make their own fun
For children, entertainment was rudimentary in the early development of Cayman and very much home-grown. Games included marbles, home-made gigs (spinning tops), kites, rounders, swimming and diving. Ring-a-rosies was a popular game with girls while boys enjoyed cricket. Skipping ropes were crafted out of bayvine and balls were made out of rags rolled tightly and weighted with sand and then stitched. Boats were made out of coconut husks, complete with a little husk and a leaf for a sail.
Singing was also a popular pastime, with early singing games taught by British and West Indian teachers and passed down the generations either at school or in church. Popular ring songs sung by children included ‘Sally, Sally, Water’ and “I Tisk It, I Task It’.
Times may have been hard a century or so ago, but the ingenuity and spirit of the Cayman community meant that entertainment was always around the corner.