The Dragon Can’t Dance Summary

The Dragon Can’t Dance is a 1979 novel that follows several characters in the Calvary Hill neighborhood of Port of Spain, Trinidad.

  • Every year during Carnival, Aldrick Prospect masquerades as the dragon. He is attracted to the seventeen-year-old Sylvia, the daughter of a neighbor.
  • Paraig, an East Indian food vendor, feels like an outsider in the Creole community of Calvary Hill and tries to connect with his neighbors in vain.
  • Aldrick and a group of men take two police officers hostage, and Aldrick then makes a speech to a crowd. After six years in prison, he returns to Calvary Hill.


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Last Updated on June 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1323

The narrator describes life on Calvary Hill, in Port of Spain, Trinidad, as Carnival approaches. Though the Hill is impoverished and squalid, Carnival gives the community a respite when they can celebrate, revel in the rhythm of calypso music, and forget their troubles. Lovelace introduces several of the key players...

(The entire section contains 1323 words.)

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The narrator describes life on Calvary Hill, in Port of Spain, Trinidad, as Carnival approaches. Though the Hill is impoverished and squalid, Carnival gives the community a respite when they can celebrate, revel in the rhythm of calypso music, and forget their troubles. Lovelace introduces several of the key players in the neighborhood known as the Yard, which is part of the Hill, as they come into contact with one another. Miss Cleothilda plays the role of “Queen of the Band” for Carnival. Though she is affable during Carnival, she is typically superior in her dealings with neighbors, occupying a higher rank than they as shopkeeper. Miss Olive wants to confront Cleothilda but cannot bring herself to. Olive’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Sylvia, a girl with stunning beauty and burgeoning sexuality, attracts the notice of all the men. She considers dressing as a princess for Carnival, and the landlord, Mr. Guy, buys her costume in exchange for sexual favors, which she also uses to pay the rent.

Aldrick, who sews a dragon costume and masquerades as the feared dragon each Carnival, has a complex relationship with Sylvia. He is attracted to her, but he is penniless and underconfident. He thinks Sylvia is equipped to live beyond the constraints of the Hill, that her spirit is not aligned with a life of poverty and filth. Meanwhile, Aldrick’s apprentice in costume-making, Basil, reveals that his stepfather, Fisheye, beats him. Aldrick confronts the man. The confrontation goes nowhere, but the narrative leads into Fisheye’s backstory: he has excess energy and no real outlet, so he engages in physical fights. He is extremely strong, so he joins the steelband to carry their equipment, but he is eventually kicked out because his troublemaking threatens the band’s sponsorship. The new practice of sponsorship seems, to Fisheye, like a sign that the Hill is losing its soul and therefore cannot fight the colonial and postcolonial forces that keep average citizens living in such abject circumstances.

Lovelace profiles an outsider to the community, Pariag, an Indian man who left the countryside with his wife to experience something bigger and, he thought, better. He is frustrated by his lack of connection with his Creole neighbors and tries to find ways to assert himself and gain their friendship. Eventually, he buys a bike, and the neighbors think he is acting better than them. The people of the Yard expect Aldrick to do something, but he never acts. As a result, Aldrick assumes, there is no traditional call to the dragon, where all the people come to his shack to dragon dance, the young boys showing off their moves to the dragon himself.

Philo, a forty-year-old calypsonian who is always pursuing Cleothilda, finally breaks through with a calypso hit known as the Axe Man during this Carnival. His friend Aldrick is disappointed because the song is about sexual conquests and has no political message. Aldrick worries that his neighbors have lost all their fighting spirit. Nonetheless, the Saturday before Carnival, they all dance and drink rum, and Aldrick and Philo both take women home. Starting on Carnival Monday, everyone masks and walks from the Hill to Port of Spain for a two-day celebration. Aldrick embraces the power of the dragon, so much so that he will not accept the ritualistic coins offered to figuratively chase away the dragon’s danger. During Carnival, Fisheye instigates a fight and is injured, landing in the hospital. As Carnival winds down, they head back up the Hill, and Sylvia’s unassailable spirit, her restless dancing, and her utter vitality strike Aldrick.

As Ash Wednesday dawns, reality hits Aldrick, who notices the sights and smells of his impoverished neighborhood. People of the Yard continue to goad Aldrick to stop Pariag from making them feel inferior. He doesn’t, so someone smashes up Pariag’s bike. Nevertheless, Pariag walks his bike into town and continues to make his living. He decides to visit the country and finds things have changed; however, his uncle still feels insulted that Pariag wouldn’t work for him. Pariag, despite the recent hardships, remains committed to living a bigger life than the country can offer.

Everyone notices that Aldrick is now serious and introverted; he thinks about the community’s failure to fight and about Sylvia. After Fisheye leaves the hospital and takes up residence on the Corner with some younger followers, Aldrick gravitates toward him. Aldrick continues to observe Sylvia going out with her friends, restless and hurried. He wants to talk to her, but he cannot get anything out. Fisheye resents Philo as his fame grows; he thinks he is a materialistic sellout and wants him off the Hill. Aldrick is conflicted: he goes out with Philo but feels distanced from him, even though Philo says he is unchanged. Once when Philo comes to the Corner with some scotch to share, they insult him and hit the woman with him. Even Aldrick publicly disowns him, not answering when Philo claims they are friends. Philo turns this experience into a popular calypso.

As anger and feelings of impotence build in the men of the Corner, and the police presence increases, they rebel against the authorities.They start a fight to attract police attention, and eventually, they take the police hostage at gunpoint. They drive into the Square and make announcements over a megaphone claiming to be the People’s Liberation Army. Aldrick urges the crowd not to “make peace” with their circumstances, to demand more, to insist to be acknowledged as people. The police pursue them but do not arrest them right away, which becomes controversial. Even though their defense lawyer argues that the police saw their actions as merely a dragon dance, presenting no real threat, the men are jailed, with Aldrick serving five years in prison. During that time, he seeks to educate Fisheye, who does make some strides to understanding rebellion and liberation, but ultimately, everyone still thinks Aldrick is mad.

When Aldrick is released, he goes to the Yard. Sylvia tells him that she heard what he said on the day of the revolt and that people were happy that it happened. She updates him on the neighbors, and he learns she is to marry Guy, even though she has other men on the side. He walks by Pariag’s shop and thinks to go in but does not. Pariag notices that Aldrick hesitates outside and wonders why he stopped and then decided not to come in. Even though Pariag is now the shop owner and has three daughters, he seeks the approval of the Creole community. His wife, Dolly, cannot understand, because she thinks the community must “see him” since he owns the shop. He realizes that they only see a version of him that doesn’t reflect his truest self.

As the novel closes, Philo, in Diego Martin in a nice house, enjoys calypso fame but also notices the monotony of his neighbors’ lives. This inspires a new calypso. He reminisces about his childhood, about how his mother struggled to support the family while his father repeatedly finished fourth place in the talent competition. He wondered if he was like his father until he made it big with his first hit. As he continued to write more crowd-pleasing calypsos, he traveled the world, became a huge star, and acquired material possessions. However, he also gained the ire of his community, who think he is a sell-out. He turns all of his negative experiences into calypsos. In a last interaction with a young woman named JoAnn, Philo tells her about his childhood memories for the first time and wants to be naked, to be himself with her, to embrace who he has been in the past and who he is now in the present. He makes a trip to the Hill to visit Freddie’s snackette and then Cleothilda, who senses this is the ending of something.

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