Not Allowed to Dance? A year in a Haitian-American dance company

I’ve been looking back this week at the twists and turns in my path and asking: how did I get here? How did I get to this place where I feel compelled to make a case for dance as a vital art?  I’ve been prompted to do so by some quality time spent with Yvonne Daniel’s thoughtful, thorough book, Dancing Wisdom: Embodied Knowledge in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Yoruba, and Bahian Candomble (2003).

In Daniel’s account of these three ritual dance traditions of the African Diaspora, she deftly, rigorously elaborates how the act of learning and repeating patterns of movement serves as an effective conduit for the culture’s most important values, ideals, and knowledge. These “dance-dependent ritual structures with dance-initiating objectives” (4), she affirms, are “social medicine.” Their movement patterns serve as “blueprints and choices for possible action,”  as “repositories” of legend, attitude, and belief that promise “survival and salvation” (64), while guiding persons along “a path to social responsibility” (273). Yes!

Reading these words propels me back to 1990-91, the year I began a PhD program in the Study of Religion—and the year I accepted an invitation from a Haitian dancer, Patric Lacroix, to join his Haitian-American Dance Company. Little did I know that my time with Patric would set me on the path of my doctoral work: delving deep into the philosophy and theology of the modern western tradition, in search of allies who valued the act of dancing as a medium of religious experience and expression.

In Patric’s company, I was one of three white women, dancing alongside Patric and his Haitian niece and nephew. As Patric explained, members of the local Haitian community wouldn’t send their children to study with him. They wanted their children to become dentists and doctors, not dancers. He needed dancers.

That year with Patric, I danced—a lot. Company members were expected to take class in traditional Haitian dance three or four times a week, most of the time with live drumming. We learned the names of the Haitian dances—yanvalou, zepol, mahi—and the names of the divinities, or lwa, for whom each dance was performed. The company spent each weekend rehearsing pieces that Patric had choreographed. In one of our dances, we enacted a ritual, pretending to be “ridden” or possessed by the lwa whose presence the dancing invokes. We did so as professional dancers, not religious practitioners. Even so, the power and precision, the beauty of the forms, was undeniable.

I loved every minute of dancing with Patric. I loved making the Haitian movements. Rather than working so hard to pull myself up and in as I had been doing for years in my ballet and modern classes, I bent low and pulsed, undulating with the rhythmic beat. Within weeks after joining the company, chronic pain in my lower back disappeared. I felt stronger and more grounded.

Meanwhile, in a course on Feminist Theology, I wrote a research paper on gender roles in Haitian ritual dance. In a class on American religious history, when it came time to read Al Raboteau’s Slave Religion, I offered to give a live solo performance of Haitian dance, and did.

When the company performed, it was most often for members of the Haitian community in Boston. Even though community members would not send their children to dance with Patric, they still packed his concerts, and invited us to participate in fundraisers and fashion shows held at highend hotels to benefit people back in Haiti.

The most formative performance for me, however, occurred when we were on tour in West Palm Beach, Florida. Some Catholic sisters who worked with the Haitian community there were organizing a festival celebrating Haitian culture. The sisters invited our company to be the culminating event. When we arrived, we learned that we might not have an audience. As the sisters explained, Protestant pastors in the community had been speaking out in their pulpits, counseling their congregants not to attend the dance performance.

The company gathered in the local auditorium, unsure of what to expect. Soon enough, an audience started to stream in—made up almost entirely of children. The parents who were not coming were nevertheless sending their children.

My heart soared. In the first dance, I entered alone from stage left, skipping and shaking with Haitian-inspired modern dance movements to “Conga” by Gloria Estefan. The rest of the company joined me. All of us were on fire.

At the close of the final piece, as we took our bows, the children in the audience rushed the stage. As the drums beat on, we all danced together, kids and company members, weaving and bobbing and hugging. It was one of our most moving performances ever.

At the end of that year, Patric was shifting his focus to singing. I was left to wonder what next. My experience with the company catalyzed me on my way. As enamored as I was of the Haitain forms, I knew that my path lay elsewhere. I had to discover a way to crack open my own modern western protestant tradition to the power and beauty of dance. I had to address the fact that people who wanted to succeed within a modern western context felt that they could only do so at the expense of their ritual dance practices and traditions. I wanted to add to the pool of philosophical resources that scholars have for acknowledging the importance and value of dancing as knowledge.

Daniel bears witness to the challenge. In describing her research process, she notes, “I search for words in English that correspond closely to what participants say” (246). Closely. Then she discusses those choices with participants. As she explains, she is guided in the process by her own experience as a dancer. She draws upon her trained sensory awareness to help recreate in herself the movement patterns that these ritual dances entail, so as to understand better the transformative impact of making them. As she confirms, “Dancing is a method of perceiving and understanding the human condition” (269).

Here is where my project connects with hers. I am building an argument for why this is so that supports work of those in the field who are learning and documenting ritual dance forms. Research from across scholarly disciplines is confirming the primacy of movement in the development of human empathy, compassion, intelligence, and adaptability. It is time, now as never before, to make a case for Why We Dance.

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