STX Students Explore their Heritage at Culture Pop-Up Dances of the V.I.

Students dance the Bomba, led by three costumed dancers, Friday at Sunny Isle Shopping Center. (Source photo by Elisa McKay)
Students dance the Bomba, led by three costumed dancers, Friday at the Sunny Isle Shopping Center. (Source photo by Elisa McKay)

St. Croix students filled the Sunny Isle Amphitheater on Friday, learning about culture through dance.

The spirit and enthusiasm of the youngsters echoed throughout the shopping mall and beckoned shoppers to stop, look and listen. The workshop was free and open to the public. Students throughout the island were welcomed and encouraged to participate.

Students from Alfredo Andrews, Lew Muckle Elementary Schools, St. Croix Christian Academy and St. Croix Educational Complex High School were footloose and fancy free for more than four hours, entertaining folks in the community and themselves in their quest to learn and display their talents in the dance forms of the Bomba, Bamboula, Maypole and Quadrille.

Friday’s event was the second installment of the Pop-Up Workshop Series from the V.I. Department of Education’s Division of Cultural Education for the 2019-20 school year.

According to Cultural Education Director Valrica Bryson, the workshop will “engage both our students and the community to learn the various dance art forms of the Virgin Islands.”

Each dance has significant historic relevance to the Virgin Islands.

“Long ago, our ancestors were not given the opportunity to display their heritage and thus began to mimic those who had them enslaved,” Bryson said, “As we pay homage to the Bomba from our sister island of Puerto Rico and our very own Bamboula, let us bring back those dances of our African heritage.”

Oral history tells us that the enslaved often practiced the traditional Bamboula art form in the “bush.” Bamboula is a dance form that originated from Africa and spread throughout the West Indies, South, Central and North America, and other regions of the Western Hemisphere where Africans were enslaved.

The Bamboula is driven by the beat of the drum on goatskin. It is a powerful rhythm sound transcending one physically and spiritually.

Native Crucian Essi Gaston Edwards led the students in the Bamboula. As they were called to participate, the students eagerly ran to be a part of this slice of their heritage. Edwards’ approach to the dance was professional, with each student picking up the movements and nuances through her directives.

Many of the movements are repetitive and they gave the dancers focus as they continued learning the steps.

Young Crucians learn the steps and the history of the Maypole. (Source photo by Elisa McKay)
Young Crucians learn the steps and the history of the Maypole. (Source photo by Elisa McKay)

A St. Croix Central High School graduate, Edwards was taught dance at the school under the direction of Lisa Lenhardt in 1995. Edwards continued dance training at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and later received her Bachelor of Science degree in health and wellness from Purdue University.

Edwards is the health and modern dance teacher at St. Croix Educational Complex High School. She is the assistant director of the SCEC Band Program and directs the auxiliary unit within the SCEC Marching Band.

The Bomba is Puerto Rico’s traditional dance form, known as the dance of the enslaved. These dances were usually performed on sugar plantations along the coast. A large drum, buleador and maraca are used by the main singer. The call and response fashion was used as an expression that provided an escape from the hardships of slavery.

The tightly plaited ribbons of a completed Maypole. (Source photo by Elisa McKay)

Julieth Bailey-Martinez was born on St. Croix and as a child moved with her family to Puerto Rico. There she learned to dance the Bomba and brought that knowledge back to St. Croix when she returned and completed her education at St. Croix Central High School.

Bailey-Martinez helped to form a cultural dance group, De Nuestras Raices, which translates to “From Our Roots.” The group has been performing for 14 years.

“We have trained kindergarten students to learn the Bomba and they have continued dancing through high school,” Bailey-Martinez said.

The group has performed at schools, Government House and the University of the Virgin Islands St. Thomas campus. Every year new students join the group.

“It was such a pleasure to share knowledge of the Bomba at the Cultural Pop-Up,” Bailey-Martinez said. “All of the students were happy to be a part of this social movement to continue our cultural Hispanic heritage. If we don’t continue this art form, it will die.”

Three of the De Nuestras Raices dancers were dressed in cultural costume and danced at the front giving the students behind them a firsthand lesson in the Bomba. With each round of the dance, the excitement heightened, and students gleefully repeated the steps.

There was no intermission. The dances continued with students being called to participate group after group. With each new dance form, there was a rush of students to be the first to get on stage.

Bryson introduced the Maypole and came equipped with two poles. After an attempt at using both poles, she decided that one pole would give the dancers more room to move about freely.

The Maypole is British in origin and was always practiced on May Day, the 1st of May. The Druids saw it as the beginning of a new year.

“In parts of north Florida and Georgia, the Maypole dance was a tradition in observing Emancipation Day activities on May 20, a few weeks after May Day,” Florida State University professor Jerrilyn McGregory wrote in her book, “Downhome Gospel.” “Maypole plaiting is an ancient rite of spring as well as a political pirouette for independence and freedom movements.”

Bryson instructed the students in plaiting the different colored ribbons around the maypole. Partners face each other and move in a circle, as one person moves in a clockwise motion and the other in a counter-clockwise motion – following an over and under movement with the ribbons.

It was a colorful activity that required close attention to direction, which proved to be a fun exercise for all. Several different groups plaited the maypole. As each group completed a round, the ribbons were taken out and a new group began the interweaving movements again.

The Quadrille was the highlight of the day and involved many sets of dancers. The dance has been traced back to 18th century France and known as “le Quadrille de contredanse” performed at balls for the upper classes. In the Caribbean, it developed out of the European colonization. The mix of African cultural traditions carried over by the enslaved population changed the dance.

Kendall Henry was born on St. Croix and became fascinated with learning the culture and traditions of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Henry has instructed Quelbe music and Quadrille dance. He is a member of Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights and formed his own organization “Ay-Ay Cultural Dancers” five years ago.

Henry teaches Quadrille at Arthur A. Richards Junior High School, Eulalia Rivera and Claude O. Markoe Elementary Schools.

Henry was the caller for the student Quadrille dancers. He was a “no-nonsense” instructor in telling them the “right way” to dance the Quadrille. Their level of mobility was evident in their dancing. They were enthusiastic and several different groups danced for the remainder of the program.

“This is encouraging to see the love they have for this dance form,” Henry said. “Events like these are eye-openers. It creates a revival of Quadrille.”

The event made a difference, Bryson said.

“Look at the enthusiasm. There was no hesitation. Everyone wanted to get involved,” Bryson said.

Bamboula dancers perform Friday at Sunny Isle. (Source photo by Elisa McKay)
Bamboula dancers perform Friday at Sunny Isle. (Source photo by Elisa McKay)
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