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Dance cultures uprooted - Latonya Style, Pilgrim say regional art form needs ‘fertiliser’

Published:Friday | November 8, 2019 | 12:00 AMStephanie Lyew/Gleaner Writer
Trinidadian dancer-choreographer Michelle Pilgrim.
Latonya Style on the set of Elephant Man’s ‘Find It’.

As soon as music plays, the mind and body of a dancer or choreographer starts to move. There is no denying the rhythm, and while each region may have its own genre of popular music, it is almost unnatural to find dancers, whether on the local or international scene, who sit still to sounds outside of what they’re used to.

Dance JA Academy’s founder, Latonya Style, says similarly, the motivation for the international dance community is to learn the dances of unexplored and distant soils.

There is a learning culture that exists in other countries, Style told The Gleaner, “where persons are always trying to feed their brains and will spend all their income on a trip to be in the centre of it all because they see the benefit of learning. We can’t prevent them learning from us, because they can learn for free via Instagram and if they come, they soak up what they see for free at the dances.”

Hundreds of dancers, tourists even, have learnt on the verandah of the veteran dancer’s home, some of whom have returned to their homes elsewhere and are now “top teachers”.

To be in the country where a dance is birthed, in the communities or in the streets of, for example, dancehall parties, Style said, “is all they need to qualify them to be rated highly”.

How has this benefited Jamaica’s dance culture? For the dancer-teacher who has toured extensively throughout North and South America, Europe and Africa for the purpose of promoting her career, she has observed: “It is more about appropriation, and while some persons who come to learn have a conscience, some don’t have a conscience.”

Lack of resources

Another disadvantage is the lack of resources which, according to Style, sets Jamaica’s dancers on a limited plane.

“In other countries, dancers have resources that include technology: from access to Internet, social media and advanced video recording tools and the manpower (larger populations) to help perfect and promote what is learnt. The reality is, economically, we don’t have that much fertiliser to keep the roots firmly planted,” she said.

“It is not rare that I hear, I am not a real dancer advocating for dancehall in the streets, but I have been there, done that. The priority now is to secure dance culture here, while at the same time securing a place in the global dance sphere. What I want people to understand from this is, at the end of the day, while we want them to learn and spread the culture to open doors for us, it is left up to us to know how to dance productively through the open doors.”

Trinidadian dance teacher Michelle Pilgrim supported Style, saying: “The world is seeing the value of rooted cultures [more] than us, Caribbean people, who are supposed to know the dancers are gravitating to dance styles that originate outside of where they reside.”

Using African dance as an example, Pilgrim said that in less than half of a decade, the African dance traditions of the Caribbean have gained a lot of attention globally, especially with music like soca and dancehall’s rise, leading individuals and dance companies to create great investment plans to eventually earn from it.

“Dancers, strive to know and invest your own before mastering another man’s art. It can only help to stay rooted and find new ways to let the culture grow so that people want to come to you or invite you to teach, so you can earn just as much from your own culture,” she said.