WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF DANCE AND MUSIC IN THE CARIBBEAN?
When we think of the future, it is natural to contemplate our youth, whether past or present. One of my greatest accomplishments during my pre-adolescent years was my starring role in a dance performance at my elementary or primary school (as we say in Jamaica) when I was 8 years old. I remember now, 19 years later, the final rehearsal… pacing the steps, feeling the hot concrete on my bare feet, as I wore my big sister’s long, blue nightgown as my costume. The dance was choreographed in the spirit of a revivalist experience. It was an exciting time for me – head wrapped with a colourful scarf, anchored by two No.2 pencils on either temple. The tricky part about this last rehearsal was that I would not do the final, most electrifying segment of the Pocomania-flavoured piece on the burning, concrete, open-air platform.
I found out that morning that for the final part of the show, I would roll and writhe as the choreographed spirits would be exorcised out of my artfully thrashing body by my dancing partner…on the sun-roasted, tar and gravel quadrangle. It was a difficult scene to get accustomed to which apparently was never the objective of my dance teacher, Miss Cross (no pun intended). I was there to shine however, so I gingerly rolled, fluttered and writhed; outsides being scorched by the pebbles, insides being lovingly fired up like a beautiful rotisseried Reggae Jammin brand whole chicken.
I nailed the performance later in the afternoon. When I realized after the performance was over, how something else took over as I did the tun yuh roll, tek rebuke demon, get behind me Satan routine, how my commitment to the piece made me forget all the discomfort; focus and become the child revivalist in the moment - I knew I wanted to dance for the rest of my life.
Sadly, after that, within a year, I transferred to a primary school in another part of the country that did not have an active dance troupe. And after that, I started high school in St. Andrew, the urban centre of Jamaica. Sadly again, during my 8 years at the institution, there was no dance troupe for the students to belong. My dream of being a dancer died.
How many of us have given up on dreams? Of dancing? What does it take to make it in this art? Will dance matter in the next 10, 20, 1000 years? How do “Caribbeans” feel about our dance art? Can Caribbean dance match up with the forms from elsewhere? Should it? Should cultures be measured against each other? I probed these notions, playfully assaulting the minds and reservations of some of the most accomplished dance artists in the Caribbean region….
We were taught as regional high school students that our African forefathers danced to solidify and unite themselves with each other and their motherland: in essence to reaffirm who they were. Caribbean descendants of Africans allegedly fared better in having an African culture more readily accessible due to the fact that African slave dancing was not prohibited; African–Americans perhaps search a bit harder to identify with Mama Africa because their forefathers’ homeland dance culture was severely restricted.
….Then again, in Jamaica, we say [Black] people are a clever people because “we tu[r]n we hand and mek fashion”. I’m sure Africa lives on in a good portion of our dances today.
Thus, we go to the interviews. We probe the mentioned issues and more to discover: what is the future of Dance in the Caribbean.
NDTC is a Jamaican dance powerhouse, honing the skills of some of the region’s finest dancers and leading the way in upholding a standard of excellence for the Caribbean dance art form.
DJ: What is NDTC’s mission statement?
BM: Same as the title of Prof’s most recent book - “Renewal and Continuity.”
DJ: What does it take to make it as an NDTC performer?
BM: Commitment! All of our dancers have careers, are professionals with sometimes very
demanding schedules. They dance out of dedication to their passion because there is no
monetary compensation for being an NDTC dancer. And we meet 3 times for the week.
DJ: What do you want NDTC to mean to Jamaica, the Caribbean and the world in the many years
BM: NDTC performances must be identified as special, coming from the Caribbean.
DJ: What is NDTC’s current preoccupation?
BM: Prof. choreographed over 70 pieces for NDTC. We want them to survive - we honour his
DJ: Where do you see dance in Jamaica going in the near and distant future?
BM: The only way we can go is forward. Experimentation will happen. But we (NDTC) are
concerned with keeping our culture alive.
DJ: What, if any, are some substantial challenges that the Art of Dance MUST overcome in
Jamaica and the Caribbean in order to (further) validate itself in the wider global
arena in the future?
BM: There has to be more respect for dance. There is not enough financial support or credit
given to dance in the Caribbean. Cricket gets so much more support.
DJ: Is there a story behind the name NDTC?
BM: Well, it’s straight-forward: National Dance Theatre Company because we are a theatrical
production, more than dance – we have singers, musicians, narrative storylines….and
DJ: We are sorry for the loss of Prof. Nettleford. Please share with us anything that
he has left with you which has made you a better person, performer or leader.
BM: 1. “One must accept knowledge.”
2. He stressed education and doing whatever you do to the best of your ability.
3. Compassion – he was very compassionate.
4. The importance of communication.
Arsenio Andrade. Cuban Master Teacher, Choreographer & Dancer, NDTC – Arsenio started with the NDTC in 1995. Vital to modern day NDTC’s image, Andrade thrills his audience with his clean, soulful, expert and powerful technique – he is definitely a landmark and a highlight of each NDTC season.
AA: My dance teacher in Cuba, Eduardo Rivero Walker knew Prof. Nettleford well. He came to Jamaica on three occasions to conduct workshops with NDTC. He encouraged me to come to Jamaica, be a part of NDTC and continue his work which was to develop dance throughout the Caribbean. I came to help.
DJ: What was your perception of NDTC before you became a member and in what ways, if at all, has this perception been modified?
AA: I always considered it a privilege to be a part of NDTC even when I was still living in Cuba. When I just moved here, I didn’t understand why the dancers came to each class and rehearsal, stayed til late at night and came back the next day: for free. It was only after a while that I understood and saw that Professor’s dream was coming true which was for people to be professional, take what they are doing seriously yet be passionate about it and feed their passion.
DJ: Did you always want to be a dancer?
AA: No, never. Happened by God’s grace. I was actually involved in martial arts as a boy, but my mother hated how dirty and untidy I looked every day after school. Someone encouraged her to send me to ballet. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get kicked out. It was an impossible task. They kept saying “he has got talent.”
DJ: How is the culture here different, if at all, from your culture? Do you have any desire to promote your culture while residing in Jamaica?
AA: Big, big difference in culture. 85% of Cubans know art. In Cuba, if an artist walks down the street, people will whisper “There is the great artist So and So.” It’s not like that in Jamaica. In Cuba, to be a dancer is to be proud of what you do. In Jamaica, there is a problem with how dancers are summed up. In Cuba, boys and girls walk down the street in their leotard tights showing under their uniforms. In Jamaica, it’s mostly girls who dance in schools.
Yes, I always promote my culture fully. When I teach however, I tend to add a Jamaican flavour – I incorporate Kumina, Dinki Mini, a bit of reggae etc. I use different ethnic techniques but I stay true to my roots.
DJ: Who do you pledge allegiance to?
AA: My country, my revolution, Fidel Castro. He gave me a great opportunity which changed my life. I am also loyal to Eduardo and dance in general.
DJ: Where do you see the art of dance positioned in 20 years?
AA: There is a new generation of Jamaican dancers coming up. They need a lot of strong guidance. They are the future. They want to become professional; I hope they reach their destination. Everyone has to come together, work hard and be exceptional ambassadors for the Caribbean. The whole region needs to support the youth; everyone: government, everyone.
DJ: Do you believe the Caribbean needs a revolution in how we contemplate, treat and promote art forms? What are your thoughts?
AA: I notice that here, everything is “Jamaica, no problem”. But still, we cannot find a solution. I think we have to back up our art with compensation. Most are not interested in dance auditions when they are advertised in the papers. But I am sure if the ads also said that for instance, you could earn J$20,000 if successful at the audition, there would be crowds. It is time to take dance and art in general more seriously, in every way. But, no, no revolution needed. Just more dedication and a more serious approach.
DJ: What’s the secret behind the term “como agua para chocolate”?
AA: I don’t really know (after being prodded)….girls use it to describe cute guys they like.
DJ: But what does water have to do with chocolate?
AA: When you open a cocoa pod, to loosen up the beans which the chocolate comes from, you have to use water.
Marlon Simms. Dance Captain, NDTC. A young but still well-seasoned headliner for NDTC, Marlon always wanted to teach, dance and make a strong impact on the younger generation. He currently lectures Dance at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA), fulfilling this dream. Marlon is passionate about all he does and hates the fact that people assume that dancers are unintelligent. His father is very supportive and makes it to every season of NDTC’s productions.
DJ: At what time today did your first thought concerning dance enter your consciousness?
MS: Oh my goodness, when am I never [thinking about dance]? I have no free time to think about anything else…my work outside NDTC revolves around dance, because I am also a Dance lecturer at Edna Manley College. I think about dance constantly, even when I am sleeping.
DJ: Do you go to nightclubs and gully creep/nuh linga/sweep/dagger/wine down low? Is this encouraged at NDTC?
MS: We call it “cultural research.” We go to parties from time to time to observe what we term “urban folk” which is really popular dancing. We’ve noticed that the majority of these new dances that keep springing up have roots in traditional folk dancing. Sometimes, I watch and then say “that’s not new!”
DJ: Have you done enough to ensure that dance lives on, at the highest level for time beyond?
MS: No! Can you ever do enough? Prof. did so much and still could have done so much more if he was still around. At the end of the day, though, you just have to do your best.
DJ: Where do you want to see dance from the Caribbean in the next 15 to 25 years?
MS: I want to see dance in every school. I want to see dancers surviving from their craft. I am proud to affirm my involvement in the creation of the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree now available for a choice of study at EMCVPA.
DJ: What is the future of dance in the Caribbean?
MS: EMCVPA is pivotal to the future of dance in the [English-speaking] Caribbean. Several plans and new ventures are being initiated in the near future with the objective to really take Caribbean Arts including Dance to a higher level. I am very proud to be a part of this strategy for positive change.
Tricia Melville. Jamaican Professional who resides and dances with Youthquake, a dance company in Tobago – Tricia has always wanted to experience dance in its original setting. After living in Tobago for over 6 years, she unapologetically states that her Jamaican culture has been ‘diluted’. “I think this is inevitable,” she says, mentioning that her Jamaican accent has been affected by the change in location. A star performer with excellence as her constant motivation, she dreams of making it big!
DJ: Does culture matter at the end of the day? Does it change the price of a beef patty? How are the patties in T&T?
TM: Very different. There is always a version of the beef patty, a version of dancehall music. But most of the time only a Jamaican would see the big difference.
DJ: How important is passing on a legacy to the youth? Of your country? Of the wider Caribbean?
TM: More important to me would be the older culture, older values, older morals. They are richer [while, now] we are being heavily influenced by the American culture… [it can be] hard to change or make a difference.
DJ: Where do you see the art of dance positioned in 20 years?
TM: It is growing, being offered at UWI at different levels. The competitions are getting more sponsorship. I don’t think it will ever die. Even the rules for the competitions ask for more authenticity.
DJ: Are you as passionate about the youth as you are about…let’s see….giving your leg muscles a thorough stretch before a strenuous routine?
TM: Those that are involved voluntarily I give a hearty applause. I always encourage youth; dancing is a very good co-curricular activity that can help keep them out of trouble. Ironically the worst ghetto in Trinidad – “Laventille,” has the most successful dance group (Northwest Laventille). If I attend a practice there I have no fear of getting robbed… everyone is just there to lime.
Damien Jordan. Barbadian Dancer. Silver Medallist – NIFCA. Damien loves dancing especially “wukking up” which is widely acknowledged as a Bajan innate ability. He believes that dance opportunities are more favourable to females in his country and that by 2050 the whole world will be able to wuk up. He “dabbles” in African, Jazz, Caribbean and folk forms of dance. He also coaches track to young athletes.
NIFCA or National Independence Festival of Creative Arts is a well-established and highly revered, annual Barbadian festival. It celebrates excellence in arts and is the jumping board for many gifted Barbadian artists.
DJ: Do you think your genre of dance will last?
D. Jordan: Yes I know it will last because dance is a part of everyday life.
DJ: As a dancer, do you feel misconstrued at times? Do you have to constantly make declarations or prove who you are? Do you give a damn?
D. Jordan: No I don't give a damn. I live my life for me and don't matter what you do people will talk.
DJ: Tell me about your most recent, exhilarating and enjoyable performance.
D. Jordan: My most enjoyable performance was being a part of Blood's winning performance of "Foot on Fire" at the recently concluded Soca Royale.
DJ: Are you optimistic and hopeful about Caribbean dance and arts in general? Is it going/to reach far? Have we made it as yet as a region in terms of being leaders in world Arts? What more needs to be done if at all?
D. Jordan: It has come far and it will go even further. We are a talented group - the Caribbean, just like how we dominate track we will dominate dance. I do believe countries can do more by creating more programs to help nurture the arts.
TIPPA. Jamaican Popular or “Street” Dancer. Co-Host of Jamaican TV Programme – “Intense” – Tippa is an authentic dancehall culture historian who knows various facts ranging from origins of dancehall dance names to what it takes to make it in the industry to how to smartly market and fund popular dance events. He also teaches dancing to various groups not limited to Jamaicans. I met up with him at a fabulously exhilarating dance class in New Kingston, Jamaica.
DJ: Why did you go into dancing as a career, this type of dance and is there something you want to make a statement about or prove by being a “street dancer”?
TIPPA: The industry is lucrative. I make money quietly by teaching, doing workshops, coming in videos etc.
DJ: Is there a place for popular or street dancing in the big picture? How far do you think dancehall moves can go?
TIPPA: Dancehall moves are international – you had Bogle the dance, and Bogle the dancer. Carlene the dancehall queen brought in the dance named Butterfly. And Sean Paul (Jamaican Grammy-award winning Deejay) took dancehall to another level with his Gimme Di Light music video. I choreographed a music video by Wayne Wonder called No Holding Back, and it was big too. The world already knows about dancehall moves and the music. From long, long time.
DJ: Tell me your thoughts on the perception that the dance world in Jamaica is very elitist and hierarchical.
TIPPA: Most of the people in this [dance class] are uptown (privileged class). Times are changing. Music videos have changed the way we look at dance especially dance from yaad (Jamaica). I think that my show on TV helps people to accept popular dance more than before. They realize from my show that it’s not just indecent grinding, but much more than that.
DJ: Do you think street dancing gets the respect and credit it deserves?
TIPPA: It is well respected in plenty foreign countries. Japanese love it, people in the Caribbean and even English people respect it and love when I go there and do shows and workshops. They respect me as a Jamaican man from the ghetto who is about positivity - I don’t smoke, I don’t have a police record – they respect what I stand for.
DJ: In light of the challenging global economics and turbulence in Jamaica’s political and social arenas….how are you affected, if at all?
TIPPA: I had to stop some of my classes because they couldn’t pay me.
DJ: Is your genre of dance getting sufficient funding and support from the government? Should they be obligated to enrich your field?
TIPPA: The government helps a little by funding the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC) competition each year which has a section for Popular Dance. But nothing apart from that from them. We need more help from them. The private sector does help though, if you go with a smart plan, they will help if they can.
At the end of the interview, TIPPA who I refer to as the Professor of Dancehall Dancing, pointed out to me that I had not asked him a very important question which is as follows:
TIPPA: What is dancehall?
DJ: Ha Ha. Ok, what is dancehall?
TIPPA: Dancehall is Fashion, Music and Dancing Space.
is essentially multi-cultural, multi-purpose, multitudinous in its users and fans and at the same time individualistic in how any given arrangement can impact on a given person. Music from the Caribbean is one of the most popular genres worldwide and so many non-Caribbean listeners are becoming better experts and know-it-alls on Caribbean music than our own people! These interesting tidbits in the end all consolidate the fact that music is a wonderful blessing; that we should try very hard to preserve, innovate and perpetuate for as long as we can.
I got a great and lucky opportunity to speak with three musicians: a final year Music major from Jamaica, a Barbadian keyboardist and a Tobagonian drummer. The future of music certainly seems secure and bright!
Play, play, play Mr. Music
Caniggia Palmer. 19 y/o. Solo Pianist/Accompanist. Final Year Student at EMCVPA. Jamaican. Caniggia started playing the piano at age 11, thinks much more could be done to aid the arts due to his experience as a student at EMCVPA, is amused that people constantly ask him if he is related to Adijah “Vybz Kartel” Palmer and is a big fan of said Jamaican entertainer.
DJ: Do you think your future as a musician is uncertain? Do you have a plan? If so, will you give us as much or as little detail as you like?
CP: My future is definitely certain, I know that I will go on to do great things, and this is why I am making sure that I have my education as priority. God's willing I will be able to go straight into doing my Ph.D. With that, here in Jamaica or anywhere else I would be in great demand to run big things.
DJ: If I said to you, “You have no ambition because you have chosen music…. you are going to become a drug abuser, womanizer and alcoholic”….How would you respond to me?
CP: That is nonsense, I can be whoever I want to be without being influenced, every man has his/her own mind. And who are you to tell me I have no ambition, you are saying that Bob Marley had no ambition? Steven McGregor has no ambition? Romain Virgo has no ambition? Think again!
DJ: Was there anybody or group of persons that encouraged you to “follow your dream”…tell us about your mentors.
CP: My family is my encouraging force, without them I wouldn’t be able to reach thus far.
DJ: Does Caribbean music still exist? Or is there too much cross-pollination with other world genres? Do either or both matter in the long run?
CP: Caribbean music definitely still exists because there is still reggae, dancehall, soca, etc. And the fusions that [we've been] having since the 21st Century are basically for the better as well, as the music will continue to grow.
Kerry “KcBelle” Belgrave. 22 y/o. Barbadian keyboardist and Gospel musician. Kerry believes that Caribbean music can be seen as neither good nor bad but can be viewed as untamed and untrained. He says “sometimes, the ingredients that one island puts into their music may not be something well received in another country but once dealt with accordingly can create interest from even beyond the island’s and region’s shores.”
DJ: Where do you want your music to go? How is the ride so far?
KB: As far as possible. My group is a relatively new group which is in the developing stages but we have benefitted in having our music played online and in one or two other islands. For me that is always a good place to begin where my product is appreciated by others than your own people because then you get a real sense of appreciation for your own style.
DJ: What do you think is music’s main purpose? Does this main purpose make the potentially secondary ones illegitimate? Why?
KB: I’m not sure I fully understand your question, however from what I gather I’ll respond accordingly. Some people use music to make money while others use it to entertain or educate. For me, music was created to give “God praise” and that being my main focus, all other things fall beneath that. I do know that music can uplift as well as “bring down” a person depending on how it impacts on their emotions so I pay very careful attention to how and why I produce what I produce.
DJ: Do you think in 100 years Caribbean music will still exist? Do you want it to?
KB: I’m not sure because there are so many fusions in music that there may not even be a “distinct” name for any one genre. However I do believe that the main elements that make our music what it is today may be present then and as a result we may still have our “unique sound”.
Allen Douglas. 27 y/o Tobagonian “African” drummer. Former member of Youth quake. Presently member of Heartbeats Drummers. Allen’s main objective as a drummer is to share culture and bring as high a performance in music as is possible. He declares that drumming symbolizes to him - “life, the center of my life; [it] defines my personality, it means joy and happiness to me, even in a spiritual sense.”
DJ: If I said to you, “You won’t reach far. Drumming not reaching nowhere. If you not a Jamaican deejay or a young female [Bajan] sex symbol you not getting no Grammy”……what would you say to me?
AD: Is true, cause they are more popular.
DJ: Do you think in 100 years Caribbean music will still exist? Do you want it to?
AD: Of course to both, because it identifies us from the American and the European [music].
DJ: What does your family think about your decision to pursue drumming seriously?
AD: That I will fail.
DJ: What song played in your head the last time you looked into the eyes of a beautiful woman?
AD: Boys to Men – Dear God.
Many many thanks to all artists interviewed. Thank you for taking the time to sit with me, or chat with me online or by phone. Special thanks to Marlon Simms who very much made it all happen on the Jamaican side and Mr. Barry Moncrieffe who is so very accommodating, generous and endearing. On the side of the rest of the Caribbean, I owe a huge favour to Tricia Melville, who took pains to get my questions answered by all the artists she knew in the region. My gratitude also goes to my Barbadian friend Jamar White, who made it his duty to get me an interview with Damien Jordan. Lastly, I thank Miss Trina-Kay Melville and Mr. Keino Seinor – without whom I would not have been able to contact either Tricia or Marlon. I owe you guys a huge package of favours.
Muchas gracias a todos!