The Gift of Caribana
We know everyone in the human race is different, whether it is in skin colour or culture, but where humanity is found is in recognizing these differences and ultimately celebrating them. This is what we want for our peers, this is what we want for our children, this is what we want for the future of the world. May love and peace guide you to having hearts full of gratitude.
Like many of us, I had a few friends throughout elementary school with whom I was particularly close. Among them is one whose family is from Trinidad… let’s call her “Belle”.
Belle always had banana bread. To this day, every time I eat or make banana bread, I think about Belle’s mom—Gabriela. Gabriela would make banana bread every day. Belle was happy to share her banana bread at recess or sometimes she simply gave it away with no tradesies—Belle was up to her forehead with banana bread. Years later, when I needed a recipe (before infinite recipes were posted online) I would email Belle for her mom’s recipe.
But I digress. This blog and webpage are primarily about dance and music…. actually, primarily about flamenco dance and music, and Julian’s and my involvement in flamenco performances and lessons. The idea of writing about Belle has entered my mind before, but I wasn’t sure this platform was the right place for it. After a recent conversation with Belle, however, I realized it absolutely has a place here. After all, this website is also about who I am, and what has shaped me as an artist.
My first Carnival
I can’t remember how old I was, I estimate being around 13, when Belle and her mom invited me and a few other girls to Caribana, now called Toronto Carnival. I remember walking along what looked to be empty grounds, wondering “Where is this ‘Caribana?’” At a distance I could hear music coming from the judging point—an area yonder a fence where the mas bands and accompanying dancers are judged before entering the parade. For those of you new to the terminology, mas bands or playing mas refers to the dancers and bands in the parade. A little bit of history: “mas” is a reference to the masquerade balls that Catholic Europeans used to relish in before Lent. Colonialists took this tradition to the Americas, where over time it was appropriated and redefined by those who were enslaved (more details below). Nowadays, in order to play mas in Toronto’s Carnival, members of the public must select a group / float, all of which feature a drum or soca band, or DJ, then register and pay for their costume. While different mas-costume themes exist, the bikini-mas is quite popular. Costumes are sure to be elaborate and colourful, matching across the group, designed by a mas-costume designer and assembled by a team.
We walked away from the judging point, eventually coming to a fence so long it seemed infinite. On the other side of the fence was a parade, and one of the first things I remember seeing was a grand steel drum band riding by on a float. I’d never seen a steel drum band of that size before. I remember thinking: “I wish I had a picnic blanket and that they’d park a while, so I can properly take them in.” And then… unbeknownst to me, just behind this steel drum band came a dance escapade I hadn’t imagined. Nearly naked, yet highly decorated dancing bodies, surrounding a DJ’d float, with dancers decked out in tall feather head-dresses of bright yellow, with shining, glittery bikinis that clearly weren’t made for swimming—they were made for parading. At the time I didn’t know what a Caribbean carnival was. For me the word “carnival” meant “carnaval”—with Bonhomme—or the “carnavales” I saw in family albums from El Salvador, with marching school children and people dressed in traditional Salvadoran clothes (a topic for another blog); or a traveling fair. I never expected to be transported into a bacchanal of soca dance, music, and colourful head-dresses.
As these bikini-mas dancers approached, they vigorously and unapologetically swayed their hips. The float paused right in my line of vision. Etched in my memory is the unreserved dancing that ensued. Dancers exchanged a look, strutted their way towards each other, pressed their hips together and wined. In case you don’t already know, wining is a dance move that involves standing in a first or second position plié, generally somewhere between turned out and parallel, and manipulating the hips in a controlled manner so as to make a full circle—hips pointing to the front, side, back, side, and front again, over and over again. Ofttimes, wining can be done as a couple, where one set of hips is pressed up against the other’s and they wine together, (ideally) in unison.
The dancing was explicitly sexual and yet somehow teeter-tottering the fine line between raunchy and not-raunchy. This was well before I pursued a degree in dance and took courses that would teach me about dance history, ritual, subversion, and meaning. But something about it told me that as suggestive as it was, there was a celebratory underpinning that made it that much more exciting. It wasn’t until I was in undergrad that I would start learning that dance events such as carnival first started to take form as subversive acts. Carnival has its roots in slaves imitating their masters’ masquerades. These “imitation” events were outlawed, yet later, with the emancipation, they took a new form during the celebratory processions of the newly freed slaves.
A couple of years ago, I remember stumbling upon an article online (which unfortunately I’ve not been able to relocate) that spoke about how bikini-mas’s interpretation and meaning has changed over time. It pointed out how revealing one’s body and dancing in a sexually suggestive way represent a breaking free from the shaming of black bodies during slavery and the newfound agency to choose one’s sexual partners… as opposed to being at the forceful command of one’s master. The writer warned that new audiences have lost sight of this. But even without knowing carnival’s history and the emancipatory act of this uninhibited dancing, there was something about the way the dancers expressed themselves that seemed to me, even at a young age, to be an act of freedom. It was liberating and celebratory, in a “safe zone” fenced off from the public attendees. The suggestive dancing was done with intent. Much in the same way that some of the most exciting pole dance performances I have ever seen have been from within the LGBT community (another topic for another post), something about this exhibitionist dancing seemed to yell “freedom!” Not to mention that beat… I was your regular Baloo the Bear: “Man, what a beat.”
From that point on, I was regularly invited to Belle’s house for family parties—anniversaries, birthdays, etc. where they’d always play calypso and soca and teach me how to dance—how to articulate the hips, and the width of the plié that I should employ so as to wine without being too suggestive. While at Caribana the sexualized aspect of the dancing can certainly be at the fore, at family parties the dancing was just as rhythmic and the hips just as fluid yet the overall effect was far more G-rated; but still fun and lively. The music, food, communal dancing, exchange of jokes, and family-fun reminded me of my own home and background. Replace the soca and calypso with salsa, merengue, and the like; the roti with tortillas; the Trinidadian English (which I still cannot understand) with Spanish, and you were practically at my house. It felt as though through Belle and her family, I had found an extension of myself.
Going to Belle’s family events shaped who I am—as a dancer, as an artist and musician, and more simply but just as significantly, as a listener and appreciator of music. To this day, if soca comes on the radio (yes, I still listen to the radio) or on a YouTube playlist, watch out, I can barely control myself. Seriously, if any of my fellow(ette) PhD students or professors were to witness it, I’d probably be embarrassed, not because dancing to soca is anything to be embarrassed about, but, let’s be honest, in our Canadian academic landscape, an unbridled enthusiasm for gyrating one’s hips to lively music is not something you readily come across.
My hips don’t lie
My first flamenco and Spanish classical dance instructors were trained primarily as classical dancers. They gave to me an awareness of arm positions and body alignment that became foundational to my dancing. Still, they also taught me to contain the movements of my hips. Conflating Spanish classical with flamenco, I remember for years thinking that flamenco did not incorporate fluid hips into its movement vocabulary. Years later, I would see flamenco dancing that would prove this notion wrong. Yet even after seeing this, I wasn’t entirely sure how to incorporate into flamenco the hip movements I’d learned from Gabriela (Caribbean) or from Latin dance, which my own Mom had taught me. Until one day, in an improvised performance for a studio open house, as a friend of mine kindly and zealously sang me a Bulerías de Cadiz, did I channel my inner Gabriela. Low and behold, in spite of being in a 12/8 rhythmic pattern, that since the age of twelve I’d been marking with my feet, I was suddenly feeling the rhythm in my hips. Amidst an improvised flamenco dance, I was wining! My dance worlds collided in the most magnificent way.
Although technical dance training can be a road to self-actualization, it can sometimes also become stifling, hence the emphasis on prolonged improvisation in contemporary dance, meant to enable the breaking free of one’s learned movement patterns. I love dancing, and have since well before I started with any formal training. Prior to taking studio classes, one of my favourite parts about dancing was how dancing would transport me to somewhere almost mystical, how connected it made me feel with an inner part of myself; and how I might be able to share that sensation with others through my body movements. I still love dancing, but ironically, that ecstatic feeling has become harder to access as I’ve grown older and trained more. Few of my dance moments have been quite like the one during that improvisation, where I genuinely felt that for a brief moment, I was able to access a part of my authentic self. In that trance-like wine, I felt like the real me—the young me dancing to soca with Belle and her mom, or to salsa with my mom. I suppose you might say that in that moment, “my hips [didn’t] lie”. And though it may not look like much (it’s subtle, I was a sweaty mess, and making some sort of flamenco face), I have the Instagram video to prove it happened!
I’ve become accustomed to this “real me” being contained or forgotten in my adulthood. These days, the only people whom I dare “bump ‘n grind” in front are my Vic Park & Finch / Scarberian friends, or Mr. KJ McKnight during his soca class. Not even Julian has the privilege. It’s something that I really miss, and when I get to reconnect with it it’s refreshing. It may come as a surprise, but it doesn’t even have a sexual undertone. It’s earthy, and sensual in that it’s a visceral and felt experience, but it’s far more than skin deep. It’s connection to music, it’s an appreciation of being in my body—which as we age can so often be a source of self-consciousness—and it’s liberating to allow myself to move in the way that feels the most natural to me.
Black Lives Matter
Now let me address the elephant in the room. The fact that I write this blog now is no coincidence. With the Black Lives Matter movement currently gaining momentum, I draw attention to these friends who helped shape me and who I care so much about. I daresay that growing up I was not blind to Belle’s colour. Physically, she always had such a beautiful and radiant skin colour. And more than that, much in the same way that people can describe someone’s personality as being “colourful,” I’d say her family possessed all the colours of the rainbow. They were warm, lively, and filled with humour. But at the same time, Gabriela was serious and firm when she needed to be. Fun and play were encouraged, as were hard work and respectfulness. What I’d failed to see though, up until very recently, were the implications of this colour. I grew up thinking that because Belle and I grew up in the same neighbourhood, earned more or less the same level of education, and ended up staying in similar sociodemographic brackets, that our realities were very much the same. Like Belle’s family, my family also had their fair share of struggles as newcomers to Canada. But what I was blind to was the fact that the very skin colour that I thought was so enchanting would bring an added layer of struggle and complexity to Belle’s life. I didn’t realize that because I had lighter skin, I wouldn’t have to face so many of the prejudices she has had to face.
As a child, my colourblindess could have arguably been a blessing, for it allowed me to simply love a people and their culture. Today, I find myself asking the following questions: at the time that Gabriela invited Belle’s friends to Caribana and to family parties, did she realize that what she was doing was sowing seeds of appreciation of a culture? Or was she simply being a mom facilitating quality time for her daughter and her friends? Did she ever think this inclusion could shape who I am, how I dance, or that years later, the dancing she’d involved me in would make my pulse quicken whenever I’d hear Caribbean music? Does Gabriela know now that what she has given to me has been a gift?
 This is how dancers and dance instructors call the bending of the legs. The roots of much of western studio dance forms’ terminology is based on Ballet’s French history.
 When the toes and knees are pointing outward (initiated by the femur rotating in the hip socket), or with the feet in parallel, as they are when you’re standing naturally.
 Bulerías is a flamenco form, with subcategories of its own, including one specifically from the city of Cadiz, which is typically sung at the end of the song and dance form called Alegrías.
 I used this term with endearment. In other to produce a certain sound, required of the flamenco aesthetic, flamenco singers are very expressive with their faces, sometimes forming a kind of grimace. This also translates into the various facial expressions used by dancers.
Disclosure: The history of carnival as outlined in this blogpost is a combination of knowledge I have accrued through non-scholarly online resources as well as videos and articles by scholars of carnival studies. The history outlined here should not be taken as a robust academic account of carnival.
#BlackLivesMatter #Carnival #Caribana #Dance #DancerLife
Links and references
Brief History of Carnival – by Nandi Bynoe – Informative Caribbean History
Carnival is Culture – The Dangers of Sexualizing and Shaming Caribbean Culture – #IAMENOUGH
Commodification of the Black Body, Sexual Objectification and Social Hierarchies during Slavery by Iman Cooper
Dr Sue Ann Barratt on Carnival and Gender
Female Agency and Oppression in Caribbean Bacchanalian Culture: Soca, Carnival, and Dancehall by Kevin Frank
Homophobia in the Caribbean – NYTimes.com
Homosexuality Is Still Illegal In These 9 Caribbean Countries | NewNowNext
In Trinidad and Tobago, Carnival goes feminist (bikinis and feathers included)
Lord Kitchener and Lord Pretender – Soca vs Calypso
Their story: Carnival, Women, Sexuality and Sex in the Caribbean by Shivaughn Hem-Lee, Cynthia Hunter, and Justin Mcnab
I love this post. So nicely written and so true about self connection and connection with others. <3
Thank you very much for reading, Jelena! I really appreciate you taking the time to do so, and for leaving such a nice comment about it on our page :).
Yes, a thoughtful and heart-felt blog post. Thank you for this lovely, rich discussion, Claudia. I had a similar experience growing up with a best friend who was a person of colour. We both took ballet classes and aspired to be ballet dancers and eventually we both trained with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. I was blind to the prejudice that may well have created barriers to my friend’s ability to achieve her dream. However, she also eventually opened up her own ballet school in our home town and has had this long wonderful career as a dance teacher, choreographer and mentor for other dancers and dance teachers.
That’s great to hear that she went on to have such a career! I’m glad and at the same time not glad that the blogpost resonated with you. On the one hand, it’s an indication that I was able to communicate an important message of relevance to you – I still feel rather elated when my writing gets your seal of approval :). On the other hand, it also hints at how many us have friends who’ve experienced similar prejudices :(.