Culture IS alive: Antigua Dance Academy thrills with Bélélaunch and exhibition

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By Orville Williams

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With the launch of its Bélé last Saturday, the Antigua Dance Academy (ADA) showed the nation that, amid fears cultural identity and expression are on the wane, there is more than enough talent available within its 170 square miles to make culture a major force once again.

Curated by dance aficionado, founder and Director of the ADA, Veronica Yearwood, the launch – which included the uniquely Antiguan and Barbudan Sunday Bélé, the Pickney Bélé (for the first time ever), the Drummers’ Presentation and the vibrant Market Bélé – displayed the tenacity, confidence and undeniable talent of the dancers who featured, as well as Yearwood’s brilliant artistic vision.

“It was a lot of original stuff. I thought the spacing was excellent [and] the movements were terrific. There’s a lot of sensuality in the dance also, [and] the drumming, the drumming was outstanding. I haven’t heard that type of drumming in this country for a while, [so] I really appreciated that too.

“The choreography was excellent, but I mean, this is Veronica’s work [and] we expect that of her,” remarked Ambassador Dorbrene O’Marde, Chairman of the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission (ABRSC) and modern-day cultural guru.

O’Marde’s sentiments were echoed by virtually all the launch attendees, particularly during the performances – with the sustained ‘oohs and aahs’ only dwarfed by the rousing applause at the end of each segment.

This was the ADA’s first official production since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic – which put nearly all in-person events and activities on hold for the better part of two years – but there was no sign of rust or nerves on the dancers who performed, not as though they were in the Multipurpose Cultural Centre, but in a Broadway theatre in New York City’s Theatre District.

They looked the part as well, in [not costumes as Yearwood corrected me, but] outfits that were reminiscent of Broadway adaptations of Aladdin and Mary Poppins as far as quality is concerned. “Everything is original”, from the ‘riddim’ to the outfits and the compositions, Kai Davis – Miss Antigua and Barbuda Universe 2003 and one of the original ADA students – had explained while opening the proceedings with a blessing and overview.

“[The outfits were] designed for each movement, for the occasion. Our older people liked to wear a lot of floral print…they loved cloth and fabric, the [fancy] type of sleeves, they [also] loved the necklaces and you had to have on your earrings.

“So, I have to convey that to my students, because if you look around today [and] ask somebody to get dressed, they practically wear nothing, and you can wear a whole lot of clothes and be so beautiful. That’s what we are trying to show here,” Yearwood later explained.

The Sunday Bélé could be described as a showcase of aristocratic expression, with the outfits for that segment a mixture of plain white and floral patterns, complete with headwraps fashioned from Madras, pearl necklaces and earrings. The choreography was similar – sleek, sensual movements complemented by synchronised spacing and a variety of intense facial expressions.

The Pickney Bélé – which was an obvious play on the composition of the Sunday Bélé and performed by, you probably guessed it, kids – was particularly impressive, as the young dancers strutted and glided across the floor with confidence that belied their age.

“It’s amazing how good they are at remembering the choreography, staying in character and performing together, for being so young. It’s a testament to the brilliant work the Dance Academy is doing,” one attendee, 36-year-old Rachel, told Observer.

That performance was followed by a drumology from the ADA drummers, which was a highlight for many persons. Decked out in a mixture of all white and African pattern shirts, the fierce drumming had everyone in attendance locked in, and the pulsating rhythm certainly had heads rocking and feet stomping.

The closer was the entertaining Market Bélé, that was as intense and captivating as the outfits were aesthetically pleasing. In motions that lived up to the title of the performance, the dancers went back and forth, almost challenging each other to be more fierce – a delightful treat for the engaged audience.

The round of applause that came after the final performance was not deafening (more to do with the layout of the room), but was remarkably genuine and certainly gratifying for the dancers, as Abi McCoy – in an obviously exhausted state – told us.

“I think we did really well, considering that we were really tired from preparing…we would have been practicing for months [and] this is something that we would have wanted to launch at the end of last year, but obviously things happened, so it ended up being now.

“We say this thing, we go with the universe, and so now is when it was meant to happen. It was good to finally put it up in front of persons, to see persons’ reactions and feel the energy. Yeah, it was good,” she said.

The Bélé is a folk dance that originated in the French West Indies, as a synergy between traditional African styles and Caribbean influence, and has since been replicated in other islands. It was usually performed (in Africa) during fertility rituals and (in the French West Indies) during times of festivity.

Yearwood conceptualised the ADA’s Bélé out of a belief that Antigua and Barbuda needed to have its own indigenous version, which reflects the look, personality and culture of its people, and the launch was the first of its kind in the country.

The guest list was a who’s who of the local cultural ecosystem: Minister of Culture and the Arts Daryll Mathew, Dorbrene O’Marde, Heather Doram, Gilbert Laudat, Zahra Airall, Calvin S, Stephanie Winter, Joanne Bento, Tavia Hunte and Janelle Williams were only some of those who were in attendance.

The exhibition, which kicked off Saturday’s activities, showcased the ‘other side’ of the talent and passions of the ADA students. This component was critical to the entire event, as it was Yearwood’s vision to simultaneously display the work of her students – who are responsible for the clothing creation, makeup design and décor of this and all ADA productions – outside the dancefloor.

The Antigua Dance Academy was established by Yearwood more than three decades ago, welcoming its first cohort of students on October 19 1991. Since then, it has staked its claim as Antigua and Barbuda’s premier dance company and one of the finest in the region, specialising in Caribbean Folk and West African dance styles.

It continues to play a critical role in empowering the people of Antigua and Barbuda, the youth in particular, to embrace their culture, and has produced a catalogue of unique documented movements, drum scores and clothing.

The ADA intends to continue sharing the art form with the public through workshops throughout the year and its grand production scheduled for July.

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