In contemporary Martinique, an overseas territory of France located in the Lesser Antilles, the term bèlè is used to describe a subculture or a way of life that is organized around a rich complex of ancestral Afro-Creole drum-dance practices. In this article, the author analyzes the therapeutic functions of bèlè performance from a womanist theoretical framework in order to uncover the interrelationship among Black women’s sensual expressivity, spirituality, and emotional wellness in Martinique. This research relies on qualitative data analysis and a reflexive analytical approach to illuminate how Black women in Martinique draw from their experiences with dance to conceptualize holistic notions of health, well-being, and continuity.
In a society where Black women have been historically objectified based on colonial notions of sexuality, are shamed as dependents on French public assistance, and suffer disproportionately from family violence, bèlè is an emancipatory space where women are valorized for their physical agility, competitive display, and sensual dance prowess. On the bèlè dance floor, women’s authority and erotic agency are asserted and applauded. Drawing from notions of the “healthy erotic” and the “politics of pleasure” (Morgan 2015), the author argues that this woman-centered aspect of bèlè performance has a critical therapeutic function for Black women in Martinique—interpreted as restorative sensuality in that it brings a remarkable sense of affirmation and preservation of self and community in ways that are unique to bèlè women.