American Style Ballroom Dancing In Trinidad
A Meeting of Hearts and Minds through Dance
By Dolly Reynolds Tavasieff
Traditionally, American Style ballroom dancing--that smooth, romantic, earthy, creative style of dancing embraced by both Fred Astaire and the Mambo Kings--has been confined to the United States. Professional ballroom dancers from Maine to California have raised the standards of American Style dancing to unprecedented levels. But for the rest of the world, professional ballroom dancing has a European face: it is the formal, rigid elegance of the International Style.
But now, on a beautiful island 7 miles off the coast of Venezuela, the small Caribbean nation of Trinidad has its own corps of professionally certified American Style ballroom dancers. This is the extraordinary result of the collaboration of Diane Jarmolow of the Ballroom Dance Teachers College in Oakland, California, and Eugene and Jessica Joseph of the Trinidad Dance Theater in San Fernando, Trinidad. This was much more than just a series of professional certification workshops. Diane?s experience in Trinidad was a true cultural exchange, a meeting of hearts and minds through dance.
?Politicians should learn from our experience,? says Eugene Joseph. ?Our work with Diane proves that dance has the power to transform the world.?
The fortuitous collaboration between Diane and the Josephs began a year and a half ago when the Trinidad couple began their own training in American Style with Diane. Eugene and Jessica were hardly novices to the ballroom dancing world. They have run their own enormously successful ballroom studios, The Trinidad Dance Theatre, for nearly forty years. They operate schools in four separate cities and enroll nearly 900 students. The schools have been accredited by the British Imperial Society of Teachers of Dance and the Royal Academy of Dancing. Recently, the Josephs hosted U.S. Latin champions Bob Powers and Julia Gorchacova.
Additionally, Trinidad Dance Theater has a performing company that celebrates the rich traditions of native Caribbean dance and musical forms. The company has performed all over the world, including at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Royal Festival Hall in London (where they were the first Black dance company ever to perform in that prestigious location.) In addition to his work with the Trinidad Dance Theatre, Eugene also served as Trinidad?s Minister of Culture.
The Josephs were attracted to American Style dancing because it is more compatible with Trinidad?s tremendously rich cultural traditions. Trinidad is an island nation about the size of Delaware whose population is almost evenly split between those of African descent (who were first brought to the island as slaves in the sixteenth century) and more recent immigrants from Northern India (who began arriving in the mid nineteenth century.) These two ethnic traditions contribute both dance and musical forms to create an ecstatic cultural mélange.
Calypso music began in Trinidad. It was derived from a West African storytelling form of music called kaiso, and was used as a means of communication and story telling among plantation workers. Calypso has since spawned a tremendously popular modern form of music called Soca (for soul calypso), including the popular ballroom samba ?Hot!Hot!Hot!.? There is now also Rapso (rap + calypso) and, due to the Indian influence, the hugely popular forms of exuberant, spicy Chutney music, which is influenced by classical Hindi songs. Add to this Trinidad?s native musical forms of Steelband (also called Pan) and Parang (from the Spanish word for ?to party? or ?to spree?), and you can see why this beautiful Caribbean nation has one of the richest musical landscapes in the world.
?The East Indian musical tradition is very lyrical, the African tradition is earthy and sexual, and European classical music is very cerebral. All traditions have something to contribute,? says Eugene. ?Trinidad?s music epitomizes the synthesis of cultural unity; it is what brings us together.? he continues. ?But still, we need structure and standards to be most effective. I was searching for a formalized system of dancing that could incorporate our own cultural tradition. And I found it in DVIDA?s American Style syllabus. And in the wonderful person of Diane Jarmolow.?
American Style ballroom dancing accommodates the more natural movement of Trinidad?s own dance styles. Mambo, Samba, Cha Cha and Tango all have Caribbean roots. In the Rhythm dances, the hip action comes from soft knees as opposed to the long lines achieved with the straight legs in the International Latin dances. Some of the Rhythm dances like Lindy and West Coast Swing, allow (and even encourage) improvisation on the part of the follower. The partners can dance in open position or even apart in the Smooth dances, which greatly increases the creativity and range of expression. Additionally, American Style is, at its core, social dancing that requires dance partners to focus primarily on each other rather than on a formulaic series of dance figures.
?For years, Ballet has been presented to Caribbeans as the highest form of dancing,? said Eugene. ?However, for all its grace and beauty, Ballet has been difficult for the Caribbean psyche, because it imposes a European aesthetic that denies our own cultural traditions and contributions. But with American Style ballroom dancing, there is room for what we Trinidadians know how to do so well.?
Still, Eugene says, structure and standardization are crucial, especially for teaching and learning dance. ?Diane has given us a system for teaching American Style ballroom dancing to our students.?
Diane has been extremely influential in the creation of DVIDA, which provides manuals, videos, professional certification exams, and student medal tests for all American Style Smooth and Rhythm dances, in addition to a vast network of professional support services. These materials, especially the syllabus manuals and accompanying videos, have allowed dancers around the world to study and master American Style ballroom dancing. ?DVIDA?s motto is ?Teaching the World to Dance?,? said Eugene. ?Now, with DVIDA?s help, we are teaching the Caribbean to dance.?
Eugene and Jessica discovered Diane on the Internet and began consulting with her. Diane has been training dance teachers for nearly thirty years and is widely regarded as the United States? premier expert on ballroom dance teacher training and professional certification. The Josephs have traveled to California twice to prepare for and take their DVIDA American Style professional certification exams. These dance masters from separate parts of the world had an instant chemistry.
?The Josephs are such spiritual, inspiring people,? Diane said, ?and extraordinary dancers, whose technique shows a level of sustained excellence. What a joy to work with them!?
Eugene puts it this way. ?It was Divine Intervention that brought us together with Diane.? And, after years of coming to know Diane on her territory, the Josephs invited Diane and her husband Peter to be their guests at their beautiful home studio in San Fernando, Trinidad.
Over the course of the next nine days, Diane came to know and work with the dedicated instructors and students of the Trinidad Dance Theater. She gave professional certification exams to four teachers (all of whom passed with high honors) and, most incredibly, gave medal exams to thirty-four different students!
?The dancers were so gifted and so dedicated,? Diane said. ?They were incredibly serious about their dancing and at the same time totally joyful and buoyant about life. It was transporting! There were times when I was teaching that I was so in the moment I lost the awareness of my body. That?s really a spiritual experience that happens maybe once or twice in a teacher?s entire career.?
One night, Diane said, she and the Josephs traveled to a studio in San Miguel, an hour away, to teach a nighttime West Coast Swing class. When they got there, they discovered that the power was out in the studio. It was sweltering hot and there were no lights or any way to play music. Diane expected the class to be cancelled, but none of the students wanted to leave! Eventually, someone brought a few candles and the whole class began to learn West Coast Swing by candle light with no music. After an hour the electricity came back on and the whole class erupted in a cheer.
Her time in the Caribbean was not all work and no play, however. Even with all her teaching, Diane still had time for some swimming and snorkeling in the beautiful tropical ocean. On their last night there, the Josephs held a party for Diane and her husband where the two Americans danced to Trinidad music until dawn. ?To dance with the Josephs and their students and teachers was an amazing experience of connection,? Diane said.
Currently, the Josephs are working on bringing partner dancing to Trinidad?s schools and to its poorer communities. It is through dance, they believe, that young people can awaken in themselves a sense of their own power and a respect for others. Boys come to treat girls with reverence and dignity. They learn that through coming together, tremendous avenues of possibility will open up. The Josephs have rigorous standards for all who participate. From the earliest age, all students in the Trinidad Dance Theatre must espouse the credo of Trust, Honesty, Consciousness, and Purity.
?Dance has the power to transform the world,? Eugene says. ?People from all cultures can come together and learn from each other. This is what we have learned from our wonderful experience with Diane. Now it is our job to take the riches of this connection and give it back to the world.?
Eugene Joseph ? American Style Rhythm ? Associate ? Honors
Jessica Joseph ? American Style Rhythm ? Associate ? Honors
Kelly Stewart ? American Style Rhythm ? Associate ? Honors
Alicia Tribuce ? American Style Rhythm ? Associate ? Honors
Annisa Mohammed ? American Style Rhythm ? Associate ? High Honors
Nickell Joseph ? American Style Rhythm ? Associate ? High Honors
Teran Atkins ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm ? Honors
Wazid Baksh ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Audrey Elock ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Winston Ferguson ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Sylvia Ford Grant ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Holanda Knights ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Rozzell Noel ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Noreen Pearson ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Rajdeo Ramdhan ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Chan Ramdhan ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Lisa Ramnath ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Shawna Venus ? Bronze II ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Patricia Sookram ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Roger Sylvester ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm - Honors
Joann Sirju ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? Honors
Dale Raawlins ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? Honors
Rita Ramnarine ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? Honors
Kiran Ramnarine ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? Honors
Shanti Liverpool ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? Honors
Suzan Hassanally ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? Honors
Crystal Guillen ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? Honors
Kimoy Bernard ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Ryan Bertrand ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Jeanne Harewood ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Jesse Ling ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Michael Neroo ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Giselle Raghunath ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Sarika Ramnarine ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Shane Ramnarine ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Jimmy Riley ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Christopher Smith ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Racquel Whittier ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Kyla Tajudeen ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
David Steele ? Bronze III ? American Style Rhythm ? High Honors
Diane Jarmolow is a DVIDA National Examnier. Visit her website at Ballroom Dance Teachers College