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Caribbean and Atlantic Diaspora Dance
By YVONNE DANIEL
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One Diaspora Dance: Courageous Performers
For Emmika of Suriname
Defining Dance, the African Diaspora, and the Caribbean
Throughout the human world, dance is powerful, nonverbal, expressive body communication. Almost everywhere, dance provides festive relaxation and connects movement and music making to things and events beyond entertainment, recreation, or creativity. Even though dance comes from the aesthetic domain of social life, it contains strong links to political, religious, and even economic domains. For example, dance can articulate politics in the spinning and breaking virtuosity of youths as they take charge of urban spaces after being ostracized elsewhere; it can articulate resistance within historically suppressed and marginalized religious rituals; and it can articulate economics at the core of tourist settings where critical financial gains are calculated within aesthetic displays. Dance is play, but not simply play. Across the African continent and in most sectors of its Diaspora, including the Caribbean, dance is that mode of communication often central to social life.
Talented dancers perform and provoke movement responses in others. Participation in a dance event increases as seasoned specialists draw on the relationship between musical sound and bodily movement, and communicate in a multi-channeled manner to other performers and observers alike. As dancing and music making intensifies, so does a sense of group solidarity. It is a temporary condition that is regularly repeated to generate prolonged cohesiveness and to benefit the entire dancing group.
For Diaspora communities like those throughout the Circum-Caribbean culture sphere, the dancing body is almost inseparable from music, and dance and music together are esteemed aesthetic performance that has the capacity to symbolize the full range of human expression. Its after-effects leave a sense of individual centeredness, wholeness, and calm, group connectedness and well-being. As dancing provides physical, psychological, and aesthetic satisfaction, it releases stress and gives energy, spirit, and excitation. For many African descendants, it is a powerful mode of communication and a meaningful emotional resource.
Of course, not only African and Diaspora people are mesmerized by African dance performance. Many viewers of African and Caribbean dance transcend from the ordinary of social life to the extraordinary of unusual, often ecstatic experience. For example, audience members at an African, Diaspora, or Caribbean dance performance are usually transformed by the dance they witness into clapping, shouting, or rhythmically moving participants. As would-be spectators, they become enthralled by the exquisite bodily movement and lush rhythms of African-derived dance. They are stimulated aesthetically and engaged emotionally as performers seduce their attentiveness and stimulate even keener interest. Consequently, so-called spectators become participants as they travel the path of aesthetic transformation. The transcendent potential within Diaspora dance is important and will become clearer in our observations of specific dance types.
Defining types of dance is somewhat difficult, since genres change over time. For example, the waltz was a popular dance in nineteenth-century Europe and is still "popular" as a twenty-first-century ballroom specialty; however, it is hardly popular in dance halls, cabarets, and nightclubs. Accordingly, social dances are discussed throughout this volume as forms that have the intent to gather people for sociability and dancing. Social dance usually emphasizes couple dancing, but it can also include parading and group forms, which sometimes rise in skill level to professional, exhibition, or theatrical performance, like tango, rumba, or even Vodou dancing.
Popular dance is the prevalent dance of a given social group in a particular period. Both social and popular dance are contained by a time frame; however, Diaspora popular dance relies more on the contemporary choices of the young, and, more than social dance, opposes "high," "fine," and "classical" dance with their associated privileged audiences. Popular dance can engage local communities and spread across borders to become international phenomena like salsa and merengue have done. Popular dance that appears for a relatively short time (from one month to perhaps ten years) and then fades away is discussed here as fad dance—the macarena, for example. The remaining dance definitions in the skeletal charts are more easily and commonly accepted.
Early Culture Collision and Native Americans
In the Caribbean islands, enslaved Africans replaced native peoples of the region. Enslaved and (later) freed Africans performed what they remembered of African movement traditions in their plantation quarters or in secret, but they also learned and publicly performed the dances of European nations that came to dominate all island groupings. Both African and European forms of movement mingled within New World dance repertoires between the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, but by the nineteenth century, distinct dance creations and fresh styles came to identify particular linguistic groupings on the islands. Regardless of differences throughout the islands and related mainland territories, creative improvisation and polyrhythmic textures became characteristic of dance performance. African dance and music understandings survived efforts to destroy or marginalize "things African" within European hegemony.
By the twentieth century, Caribbean dance especially yielded foreign currency and economic profit in addition to aesthetic pleasure, recreation, or spiritual transcendence. Tourism had become the most important economic force in the Caribbean, since it was the only activity that gave the islands some advantage in competitive international trade and commercialization of dance came with tourism. At times, Caribbean nations were able to present intriguing representations of diverse regional culture, as they also increased much-needed profits from tourist-related industries. More so, however, Caribbean performers were subject to increased contact with black-market industries, prostitution, and crime and were threatened by increased exposure to HIV and AIDS. Additionally, island populations have always had to endure regional health hazards and ecological pressures that have intermittently challenged culture survival: hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, drought, tropical parasitic infections, etc.
Because of courageous dancers and musicians who defied cultural pressures that would erase African legacies, several types of African movement styles echo across the Diaspora today. Also, because of persistent African-descended artists, African-derived dance practices have been introduced to the mainstream European, Asian, and American dance worlds. Knowledge of African-derived or Diaspora dance has spread by means of concert performances, DVD and CD recordings, both radio and television programming, internet access, and the growth of African American ritual communities; and African-derived dance continues to develop. The Caribbean islands in particular have harbored fascinating dance practices because of their strategic location between either Europe or Africa and the Americas.
Despite serious challenges within colonization and slavery, postcolonial marginalization, and more contemporary sun-sand-and-sex tourism, Caribbean performers have managed to guard African and European heritages, as well as Creole creativity. For Haiti, several distinguished artists have championed African Diaspora dance when most cultural representations were reflecting European models solely. Jean Léon Destiné came to fame in the mid-1940s as Haiti's first professional dancer and founder of the National Folklore Theater (1949). His depictions of Haitian folk characters and jumping over six-foot-high drums are legendary. Although he was trained as a journalist and singer, he has enjoyed a life of stellar dance performance and acclaimed teaching while based in New York.
Lavinia Williams Yarborough, a professional dancer from the United States, went to Haiti to take Destiné's place after his departure. As an acknowledged ballerina and principle dancer in Katherine Dunham's touring company, Yarborough's job was to train National Theater dancers in ballet and Dunham technique. Originally, she was supposed to stay for six months, but her positive influence on Haitian society, especially in guiding young female students toward productive lives, caused the government to request that she remain. For the next forty years, she studied all forms of Haitian dance and shared her command of the Haitian, European, and American dance repertoires with local and international students.
Another great Haitian dancer, Louinès Louinis, was recruited by Jean Léon Destiné for the Haitian National troupe because of his natural dance talents. Louinis danced professionally with Lavinia Yarborough and achieved national distinction before leaving Haiti to perform, choreograph, and teach. He continues to train students in Miami and New York within the distinctive clarity and phenomenal strength of Haitian folkloric dance.
Haitian dancer and choreographer Odette Wilner maintained a well-respected Haitian dance troupe for several decades and presented a variety of Haitian genres in local hotels starting in the 1970s. As well, dancer and teacher Viviane Gauthier trained middle class Haitians not only in ballet and modern dance techniques, but also in Haitian folkloric dance.
The most recognized promoter of Haitian dance, however, was Katherine Dunham, an African American who used what she learned in anthropological research among Haitians, including the Vodou community of the late 1930s, to develop a dance technique. Dunham technique was used to execute her original choreographies on stage and also for training those not born to or familiar with African-based dance.
The dancers named above presented African-derived dance heritage as it evolved in Haiti, the first "black" or African and slave-less Republic in the Americas. These dancers defied societal standards and cultural biases of their times in order to present, preserve, and elaborate African heritage. Their professional descendants in Haiti and across the Diaspora are numerous: Mona Estimé Amira, Blanche Brown, Joan Burroughs, Elizabeth Chin, Nadia Dieudonné, Colette Eloi, Peniel Guerrier, Julio Jean, Michelline Pierre, Judith Samuels, Serge St. Juste, and literally hundreds more.
Elsewhere in the French/Kreyol-speaking Caribbean, dancers have not been able to hold onto their African heritage as easily as Haitians. For example, Martinique and Guadeloupe are still in a colonial relationship as Departments of the French government and consequently receive immeasurable French cultural input that has historically minimized African legacies in favor of French history and culture. Some Martinicans perform a historical quadrille known as bele as a symbol of their African and European heritages and some Guadeloupeans perform their traditional drum/ dance, called gwoka or lewoz, to express Afro-Caribbean identity. Many French Caribbeans look to the directors of bele and gwoka organizations, such as Martinican La Soso, for artistic as well as sociopolitical leadership, leadership that they believe conserves African culture linkages. Others, like Josiane Antourel and Josy Michalon on Martinique, and Léna Blou on Guadeloupe, use African heritage as seminal material for choreographic, concert, and technique development.
African style persists in the Spanish Caribbean through choreographies of well-respected Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican dance specialists. Ramiro Guerra was the leader of a revolutionary dance movement in the 1950s that initiated the study of the Cuban body and resulted in danza cubana, a modern dance technique that adds the African roots of Cuban culture to Martha Graham and José Limón techniques. Guerra continues in the fore of Cuban dance with published and performed explorations of voluptuousness, sexuality, and gender through dance.
Two U.S. Americans influenced Cuban dance during Guerra's early period: Elfrida Mahler and Lorna Burdsall, who specialized in Doris Humphrey, José Limón, and Graham techniques. Burdsall was part of Guerra's pivotal group in the development of danza, and many other choreographers have followed in the Cuban choreographic tradition, notably Eduardo Rivera, Teresa Gonzalez, Manolo Micler, Juan de Dios, to name a few. Each in his or her way (through folkloric dance, ballet, modern dance, or combinations of these) has brought to light the distinct Cuban-ness that resides in Cuban forms.
The late Sylvia del Villard almost single-handedly fostered the recognition of African dance in Puerto Rico, when it was more popular to identify with Spanish heritage only. She and two families who are noted for the dance bomba, the Ayalas and the Cepedas, have boosted Afro–Puerto Rican heritage into the Caribbean dance repertoire, as well as into public discourse. More recently, Puerto Rican transnational identity and migration experiences have brought forward the crucial role that Puerto Ricans have played in the formation of salsa, a dance with Cuban roots that has gone global as "world dance."
In the Dominican Republic, the inevitable forces of change have caused African heritage to emerge after centuries of severe anti-African and anti-Haitian perspectives. Neyreda Rodrigues, like Sylvia del Villard in Puerto Rico, has used a Dunham-like model that validates African and Diaspora dance in segregated or prejudicial environments. These dancers have developed dance schools in addition to their companies, which are dedicated to the development of African-descended youths. Rodrigues' daughter, Senia, like other young twenty-first-century dance artists, works with impoverished communities in cooperative artistic productions that provide purpose and productivity for Dominican youths.
In the English/Creole Caribbean or the West Indies, few Caribbean dancers have been as articulate about African dance legacies and Diaspora elaborations as the late Rex Nettleford, former Minister of Culture and founder of the National Dance Theater of Jamaica. Nettleford's company continues to maintain island history, as well as present the issues of "black liberation" and social justice through staged choreographies and professional dance training programs. His company has made alliances throughout the Caribbean that have promoted a dance education program and strengthened positive images of Caribbean life on stage. For example, the company repeatedly engaged Eduardo Rivera of Cuba to mount his work on Jamaican performers, and before her death, the company routinely employed Lavinia Yarborough from Haiti to lead intensive dance workshops.
On Trinidad and Tobago, Beryl McBurnie, J. D. Elder, and Molly Ahye have formed the backbone of both professional dance performance and documented dance research for their two-island nation; however, Trinidad-born Geoffrey Holder and his wife, Carmen de Lavallade, have perhaps made a more global impact as Caribbean dance artists. Holder came to Broadway's attention in "House of Flowers" in 1963 with a distinctive bass voice, incredible dance technique, and success as a painter and art collector (which made him known in New York's art world as a "Caribbean Renaissance man"). De Lavallade has been acknowledged as a prima ballerina, having danced with the New York Metropolitan Opera Company, John Butler's Company, and in association with Alvin Ailey for several years. Additionally, she danced Caribbean forms in several of her husband's choreographies. Her exquisite dancing and striking beauty made her name stellar on the dance concert stage.
On Trinidad proper and working against strong British influence up through the mid-twentieth century, an influence which negated "things African," Beryl McBurnie's artistic leadership promoted local history and culture through "the Carib Theater." She and her professional disciples provided development models for the spread of African-based heritage. They supplied solid, creative legacies for generations of choreographers and teachers such as Cyril St. Lewis, Astor Johnson, Robert Johnson, Wilfred Mark, Hazel Franco, Sonja Dumas, and others.
Excerpted from Caribbean and Atlantic Diaspora Dance by YVONNE DANIEL Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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