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Moko Jumbie-A tall act to follow - Dangerous art form fuses dance, theatre and athletics

Published:Wednesday | September 19, 2018 | 12:00 AMStephanie Lyew
Moko Jumbie performer Oliver Barrett of L'Acadco: A United Caribbean Dance Force.
Oliver Barrett prepares straps to secure his legs to the stilts.
Oliver Barrett, a Moko Jumbie performer of L'Acadco: A United Caribbean Dance Force, secures his legs to the stilts.
Oliver Barrett has been a stilt walker for over 10 years.

Standing tall, confident, and fearless at 15 to 20 feet in the air dressed in vibrant, multicoloured apparel, stilt dancers always have the audience looking up. Intricate dance routines and moves instantly put the spectator in a trance.

Stilt performers have become a traditional component of local celebrations, festivals, carnival parades, and circus routines on the hotel circuit. The art form is part of Jamaica's African inheritance that though widely practised, is not fully understood by onlookers.

Dr L'Antoinette Stines, founder, artistic director, and principal choreographer of L'Acadco, told The Sunday Gleaner that what we know as stilt dancing is from the African-derived tradition Moko Jumbie.

The word 'moko' means healer in Central and West Africa, while 'jumbie' is a colloquial expression for ghosts or spirits throughout the Caribbean, and the art is widely practised in Trinidad and Tobago, St Lucia, The Bahamas, The Virgin Islands, Cuba, and Barbados for various cultural celebrations.


Spiritual Practices


She explained that moko jumbie traditions were centred on spiritual practices in African countries, and part of their purpose was to pray for the crops to grow.

"There are many persons who have experimented with using stilts as part of performances but not with the proper training and equipment," said Stines.

L'Acadco is one of the first companies to train individuals in the art of dancing on stilts. She said that she became interested in the art and introduced it to her programme over 20 years ago. A trained Barbadian moko jumbie was involved in training her team.

"It is somewhat of an athletic sport, and if one was to see the moko jumbie in action in Africa, there are routines that involve full flips and landing on their stilts," she explained. "It's a dangerous art, and stilt dancers fall all the time. So part of the training is to learn how to fall."


Learning to fall


Videos of practitioners falling have been circulated on the Internet recently, to the amusement of many, which worries Stines since the injuries can be life threatening. On some islands moko, jumbie performers are given protective gear such as gloves, knee and elbow pads.

L'Acadco moko jumbie dancer Oliver Barrett has been committed to the art for approximately 10 years and says that he has fallen numerous times but only twice in public while performing.

"There are many complications that could cause a moko jumbie to fall to the ground. My falls were due to not strapping on the stilts properly, which made my foot shift. And another time, I slipped - very painful experiences," recalls Barrett.

He is always conscious of the dangers and notes, "When we interact with people during a performance, it is done with great caution because the onlookers will want to touch us and some persons literally just want to see you drop."

There is no particular type of insurance provided locally that will cover injuries incurred by the act, which is also part of the reason the moko jumbie performers are the highest paid members of L'Acadco.

Barrett has been able to coordinate a way to fall that is stylish and does not make the audience know that it was an accident.


Stilt making


Barrett got into stilt dancing through a bet with Stines' son, Aaron Vereen. The two grew up together, and one day, Vereen, who was more proficient in the art, bet Barrett that he could not get up on the stilts by himself. Barrett accepted the challenge and had a wad of cash to prove his prowess. He has been walking tall ever since.

The 28-year-old demonstrated how the legs are properly attached to stilts which are usually made of wood that can handle the pressure - in most cases, pine. There are some stilts made of aluminium that are lightweight and strong.

The shape of the stilts used for performances is mostly rectangular and has a base close to the top where a pair of sneakers are fastened by bolts. Some stilt makers have been known to include velcro straps in their design.

As he sits on the bars of the dance studio to put on a cushion around his leg, he adds; "It usually takes teamwork to get ready and up on the stilts, but over time, you learn to be independent." The stilts are secured to his leg using cloth bandage. He tells The Sunday Gleaner - "Moko jumbie dancers have to be fearless."