St.Lucia Spirit Alive in East Flatbush.
As we continue the Our Caribbean Spirit interview series, we make our way over to the St.Lucia Folklore Association. This organization, in existence for 10 years in Brooklyn, has as its mission, to promote and preserve the culture of St. Lucia, in a way that honors camaraderie and togetherness among its members. In DCC’s long courtship to engage them, we were able to see them perform at the (St.Lucia) Annual Independence Gospel Festival (pictured above), at their weekly rehearsals in East Flatbush, at a Gala Dinner hosted by the group and their meeting with us for the video interview. What stands out at all encounters, is their light heartedness and a deep appreciation for their way of life (more about that soon).
So what do they do?
The organization performs song and dance at major events in the Northeast, presenting the rich culture of St. Lucia. The group’s members have different relationships with performance. Quite a few have serious accolades in Performing Arts in their home country – namely John SonSon and Bryan Henry – who have both studied with Frank Norville of the Island Creole Dancers and performed at the prestigious CARIFESTA representing St.Lucia. Henith Samuel, St. Lucia Folklore Association President, also hails from a line of folk practitioners being the great-nephew of Cessene, a celebrated folk queen of the island. Others have no past professional experience but nostalgia and true passion for the culture lead them to seek out these experiences in North America. The group has performed at Taste of the Caribbean Jerk Festival in Connecticut, Maryland for the Journen Kreyol Festival, and can be seen at most celebrations for St.Lucia Independence in NYC, bringing their Lucian soul to all and sundry.
Caribbean Spirit in Process
We visit their rehearsal space, a basement in East Flatbush. After greeting us, the members are discussing the piece they are about to run. The pique-waltz. The music starts, and four couples shift, move, advance and retreat to some sweet Antillean music. It’s truly been a long time since I’ve seen grown folks coupled up and dancing quite so merrily. For a moment it feels like time had stopped and these folks were completely at home, free to enjoy each twirl. The President of the association Mr. Samuel, beams in our interview that what these dances express is a sense of what village life was like, how people greeted each other, the joy and the sense of familiarity with everyone. This theme recurs on almost every encounter with them.
What is the dance culture of St. Lucia?
As explained by John SonSon, the Dance Coordinator, each rehearsal consists of teaching and practicing different traditional St.Lucian dances. These dances drawn from various traditional settings including wakes, funerals, rituals of courtship and celebration, with some being considered more ‘formal’ (their words) for occasions where people dress up to celebrate – weddings, christenings etc., and others when folks get together more ‘informally’ (again their words).
Some of these dances are (in order of mention):
- Quadrille and its 4 figures – performed for special and formal occasions – French Ancestry
- Pique-waltz – Another couple dance of European ancestry
- La commette – danced at funerals/wakes – African roots
- Weedova – a heel and toe dance that references the African roots
- The Scottish Polka
- The Norwegian Polka
Performance at Gala Dinner on April 23, 2017.
- The Grande Ronde
- With the drums:
- Broche – aggressive, risqué dance lead by women performed at Christmas
- Contre en l’air and contre en bas
They prioritize dance styles in rehearsal based on the next upcoming performance and which dance can best connect and interact with the audience. The Quadrille is among the favourites for performance, along with the Norwegian (like a ring game with couples interchanging linked arms) and the Grande Ronde where the audience gets involved, usually performed after the Quadrille. For them these dance traditions highlight the history of the country, the heavy French and British influence, referring to the changing of sovereigns 7 times between each colonial power and of course their deep African roots. Each dance reinforces some aspect of this story and the corresponding values within a small island that celebrates warm interaction among its people, jokes and laughter, dance for courtship and flirtation, and genuine affection for one another.
Bryan Henry Music Coordinator confirms proudly, ‘Every time we perform, it says that St.Lucia is alive. St Lucia is away but we bring St.Lucia here to you.’
A tiny group in Brooklyn?
The quadrille figure they rehearse that night includes an advance and retreat of lines of men and women that whisper in each other’s ear, blow kisses at each other, and/or look at each other comically. It’s enjoyable for us to watch and it seems as well for them to perform. We are offered food and drink, friends and family are there in support including kids and younger adults, and I was graciously invited to jump in to learn one of the figures (one of the pre-set formations of the Quadrille). Besides what the group does in performance, it is clear in practice, they model these very values as well.
Beyond the surface…
Besides dance and performance, the association is thinking intently about the future of the group and their role in the wider society. Mr.Samuel cites a need for even greater unity among Caribbean people to wield collective power for political and social change.
“Yes we (Caribbean Diaspora) meet each other, we go to dances, we dance and so on, that’s the fun part of it. Then we go home but we[‘re] not organized in a way that we could have an effect… if we have a real organized political force, we could move mountains… With our unique ability to express our self through dance and song we can extend that to be a political force.”
St.Lucia Folklore Association also has an affiliated youth ensemble called Children of Culture run by one of their members Mary Smith. This is their way of planning for succession and the continuance of their way of life here in Brooklyn. The group also wishes to lead workshops, create exchanges with others Caribbean groups and to welcome more members including non-St.Lucians to join them. “We don’t have a closed door policy, if you like what we do, you can join us.”
Our Caribbean Spirit
On reflecting on our time with them, if we were to infer about this idea of the Caribbean Spirit, one could say it is our desire for meaningful interaction whether in a two-step, a laugh, a spin, a wine-down, a heckle or otherwise. Dance culture like this one, keeps us honest about our desires to communicate within the Caribbean-American community. Are we prioritizing people, our people and so-called kinship over schedules, money, commutes, carnival costumes etc.? Our traditions really do have something to teach us if we slow down and pay attention.