But Which One?
Not the “limbo” that describes a state of in-betweenness. And not the word that Catholics have used since the 13th century to explain the fate of a baby who dies pre-babtism in original sin … from the Latin word limbus, meaning the boundary of hell.
In 19th century Trinidad another limbo emerged in the form of a dance. Stemming back to the slave trade, the limbo bar was a pole on the ships that held the slaves in chains. The dance is said to symbolise how slaves would navigate tight spaces in the underbellies of ships to find their friends and family. It was a sombre dance for funerals and wakes until the 1950s when Julia Edwards, The First Lady of Limbo paired the dance with calypso music.
In 1960s Harlem, the bar was passed to a man named Mike Quashie, aka The Limbo King. Quashie hung out with Jimi Hendrix and worked as an entertainer, giving glam-rock, calypso singing and voodoo fire-breathing performances. He also pioneered some of the earliest drag contests, frequenting venues like Greenwich Village Nightclub, Café Wha and the Peppermint Lounge. His pièce de résistance was limbo dancing. As a result, later in life Quashie was plagued with spine and knee problems, the toll of his captivating displays.
The dance lived on despite the health risks of regular practice. The 2010 Guinness World Record for limbo dancing is held by Shemika Campbell a third generation limbo dancer from (as it happens) Trinidad. Shemika’s record, at 21cm, is akin to limboing the space underneath a car. Handy. This has garnered her the title of The Queen of Limbo, a well earned moniker as she trained for four hours a day for six years to set the record, and remains undefeated. Watch a micro-documentary featuring Shemika from now-defunct media company Great Big Story HERE.
So when using the word limbo in your everyday lives to describe a space of nothingness, spare a thought for our limbo dance royalty: Julia, Mike and Shemika. They took something that originally represented sadness and loss, danced through it, took ownership of it, celebrated it … and turned it into something else.
Great Big Story: Reaching New Lows With the Queen of Limbo
1. Limbo in London. Image: Henry Grant.
2. Julia Edwards, The First Lady of Limbo
3. Mike Quashie, The Limbo King
4. Add Fire
5. Chubby Checker, Limbo Party
6. Shemika Campbell, The Queen of Limbo
7. Shemika Campbell