The Antigua Dance Academy: it starts with the drum | Backstory

As the Antigua Dance Academy celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, it can boast of keeping traditional Afro-Caribbean dance and music alive, writes Joanne C. Hillhouse

Photo courtesy Zahra AirallPhoto courtesy Zahra AirallPhoto courtesy Zahra AirallAntigua Dance Academy founder Veronica Yearwood. Photo courtesy Zahra AirallPhoto courtesy Zahra AirallPhoto courtesy Zahra AirallPhoto courtesy Zahra AirallPhoto courtesy Zahra Airall

The Antigua Dance Academy is the kind of company that brings a full musical theatre production to the streets of St John’s — “disturbing St John’s City because we can,” as founder Veronica Yearwood once said. It’s also connected and confident enough to recruit visiting dancers — Nevis’s Rhythmz Dance Theatre and Trinidad’s Shashamane — to recreate, respectively, plantation fieldwork and African stick fighting as a part of an overall production, with next to no rehearsal time. It’s the kind of company that under moonlight, drizzle rain, and uncertainty, still manages to put on a showcase marked by the kind of professional, exuberant, and culturally-relevant execution they’ve become known for — whether at home in Antigua and Barbuda, at Carifesta, the regional arts showcase, or in the United States and Europe, which the ADA typically tours during the summer.

ADA is Antigua and Barbuda’s premier dance company, marking its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2017. The open-air scripted musical theatre I mentioned above — an extrapolation of the life and martyrdom of rebel leader and national hero King Court — happened in 2008, during the third installment of the biennial Out of the Drum Afro-Caribbean folk dance and drumming festival. Antiguan and Barbudan artist and former Culture Director Heather Doram says that ADA, as a preserver of “the African influences on Antiguan and Caribbean dance forms . . . has really played a huge role in the preservation of our culture through dance.”

That’s not by accident. As Nneka Hull-James, ADA media liaison — a mid-twenties veterinarian who started dancing with ADA at age five — explains, “When we do a performance, we do it because we have an understanding of where the particular style of dance comes from.” And for founder Veronica Yearwood, everything the ADA has done and continues to do, leading up to the yearlong celebration of the company’s milestone quarter-century anniversary, has meaning. Of Afro-Caribbean dance, she says, “I think because we grow in this, we think it’s less than it is.” Her mission is to continue elevating the artform so that those who experience it understand not only the joy, but the substance.

In fact, it was this search for meaningful engagement with dance that led Yearwood to start her own company in 1991. Kai Davis, Ms Antigua Universe 2003, a principal dancer with ADA until 2004, was there from the beginning, when it was still called the Little Dancers School of Dance. “I can remember when we first started out,” Davis says, “and it used to be just a few of us in a little building performing for our parents.” The ADA has bounced around quite a bit: a dedicated home is a future fundraising goal. But this infrastructural deficit has not been used as a crutch. “We’re known to be a group that’s going to bring it professionally and keep it cultural,” Davis says.

 

Veronica Yearwood was already an adult when she accompanied her big sister to a dance class in 1981. She took to it, but what she couldn’t take was the “bad discipline and erratic behaviour” even at the level of the since-stalled National Dance Theatre. “When I came back from studying, I was not satisfied,” Yearwood explains. Her journey wouldn’t have happened without her mother Mignon Yearwood, the lady they all call “gran-gran,” who died in the past year. “She was the one that said to me, go for it,” Yearwood recalls.

Over time, Yearwood — also trained and employed in the field of hydrology — took up opportunities to study with some of the best in Afro-Caribbean dance, like Danny Hinds of Barbados, Guadeloupe’s Jacqueline Thôle, and Emelda Griffith of Trinidad. “I positioned myself so I could learn from them,” she says. And she continues to pass on everything she has learned. That includes an appreciation for the meaning behind every toe point and hip shake — from congo belé to grand belé — and every move the ADA has made as a group.

“When we started our folk dance festival, all of what we had witnessed was now in our hands, it was a tremendous responsibility,” Kai Davis says. Out of the Drum has called to Antigua the diaspora of Afro-Caribbean folk dance — and not just from the English-speaking part of the region, or even, strictly speaking, the Caribbean. Canada’s Collective of Black Artists, Guadeloupe’s Kamojaka, Haiti’s Tchaka Danse, Jamaica’s Dance Works of Edna Manley College, Montserrat’s Hybred Masqueraders, Raices Culturales out of Puerto Rico, St Croix’s Caribbean Dance Company, and Tobago’s Culture Shop have all performed at Out of the Drum. Sistah Mafalda Thomas, artistic director of the Philadelphia-based Afro-Caribbean drum and dance group Kuumba Performers, recalls participating in the festival. “It was such an enlightening and unforgettable experience to behold such a diverse group of dancers and drummers from the African diaspora. I give big props to the ADA for hosting such an event — I’m forever grateful.”

When it was launched in 2004, Out of the Drum was also, to Yearwood’s mind, an opportunity for her dancers to build skills around all areas of producing a performing arts festival. This is consistent with Yearwood’s penchant for pushing at boundaries.

Francine Carbey, the company’s resident drama tutor and artistic director for some fourteen years and counting, initially came to the ADA as wardrobe mistress. Samantha Zachariah, an ADA member since 2010, wrote her first play after joining. “It was [my] first time really doing something like that and seeing it come alive,” she says. Drummer Jahlarni Nanton, a member since age three, now seventeen, says, “I was a very standoffish person. I would sit in the corner and don’t talk to nobody, but it just uplifted me to be the person that I am now” — the kind of person emboldened to enter the national junior calypso competition. This is a running theme, the more ADA dancers you speak to: Nailah Liverpool talks of how the ADA built her confidence; Guyana native Shonette Sobers, who joined as an adult three years ago after being drawn to the drumming one evening in the city, spoke of how it helped her find herself — “how to listen, how to be a family.”

Several ADA members have gone on to greater things: such as former principal dancer and regional soca star Tizzy, who Hull-James remembers looking up to (“so tall, so elegant, dancing so beautifully”); another Ms Antigua Universe, Stephanie Winter; and Abi McCoy, who this season graduates summa cum laude with a BFA in musical theatre from Westminster College of the Arts at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. “ADA allowed me to explore all aspects of performance, from costuming to ticket handling,” says McCoy. “However, Antigua Dance Academy is more than just dance, playing drums, and performing — it’s about finding out who you are and where you come from. It has gifted me with appreciation for what my ancestors have endured.”

Soyica Straker is an elder drummer with ADA, and his daughter Meserete Ozundo, whom he brought to ADA as a child, is the current principal dancer. Straker says part of ADA’s legacy has been as a feeder to the many groups that have since sprouted, even the ones that claim to be self-taught. And Straker and Yearwood have taught workshops not only throughout the Caribbean but Stateside as well — Straker reflected on one workshop in New York where their unique style of drumming “had them going.” Yearwood’s esteem among her peers is well-earned: “I’ve worked with them — they understand the work we do.” Off the dance floor, they’ve sought to encourage engagement around Afro-folk traditions, including hosting the first Caribbean Arts Encounter meeting.

So there’s lots to celebrate for the little company that did — which, as senior dancer and Chicago native Zinnijah Guadalupe puts it, has “more of a sense of community and more of a priority for the community” than any other dance group of which she’s been a part. Anniversary year activities, which launched in November 2016, include workshops (in folk song, drumming, dance, health, head-tieing, and makeup for the stage), a Creole dress tea party, their annual production (in July), a Tobago tour (in August), and Out of the Drum (in November).

“We at ADA pride ourselves on being the true storytellers of Antiguan culture — through dance, through music and through our attire,” McCoy says. It’s important, Jahlarni Nanton adds, because the drum “is our heartbeat,” and like so many cultural elements, this and other folk traditions “are dying away now.”

One of Yearwood’s future projects is to tangibly document in book or video form the research that has gone into her productions, including the variations in dance and rhythm across the Caribbean. Mostly, though, she wants to see her dancers, drummers, and other actors, seventy-five strong at this writing, continue to “spread their wings . . . you’ve come, you learn, you’ve blossomed — go out there.” But they need a home. “If we had more money, there’s so much I could do,” says Yearwood, who has had the opportunities to leave, but opted to stay in Antigua and build. “It continues,” she says. “I didn’t start for it to come to an end when I stop. The legacy should be the continuance of Antigua Dance Academy.”

 

Find the Antigua Dance Academy online at www.facebook.com/antiguadanceacademy