Portsha Jefferson gracefully swayed her upper-body back and forth as she stepped lightly across the brightly lit dance studio at Oakland’s Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts. Four musicians sat at her side striking their drums with their palms, and layering their independent parts into the poly-rhythm that is familiar in Haitian folkloric music.
She was teaching her students “Yanvalou,” a traditional Haitian dance performed to honor the serpent spirit Damballa who represents fertility, rain, and water. Her back moved fluidly, resembling a slithering snake or rolling wave, and her earrings dangled with each step she took.
Her students watched while they lined up in four rows, preparing to begin. One-after-another, each row followed Jefferson until there was a synchronized mass of people moving to the blend of rhythms and drum-tones that filled the room.
“To me, it’s a meditative dance and prayer,” said Jefferson during an interview at a Berkeley café. Jefferson is a North Oakland-resident who directs the Rara Tou Limen Haitian Folkloric Ensemble, and teaches Haitian dance to children and adults in Oakland, Emeryville, Berkeley, and San Francisco.
Haitian folkloric dance is an art form rooted in the Voudou religion. Voudou is the Creole word for what English speakers know as Voodoo –a term that often conjures negative connotations because of demonic ways in which Hollywood has historically portrayed the religion.
Voudou emerged out of a combination of spiritual practices that slaves brought to the Caribbean from West and Central Africa, and the Catholic influences of the Spanish and French colonizers. The belief honors the supreme God Bondye, and the spirits called Lwa who communicate between Bondye and humanity.
Some Haitian folkloric dances are used in rituals to show respect to Lwa. Others tell stories of shared Haitian experiences or honor the African nations from which the slaves had been transported. “Within the dance there are certain feelings, certain emotions, certain characteristics, moods and energy,” said Jefferson. “So you have a wide spectrum of dances that represent life, that represent celebration, that represent honoring the Earth, celebrating and revering the dead.”
Jefferson’s classes attract a variety of students. She said people take her class because they’re interested in Haitian culture, want to connect with their Haitian roots, or have a desire to learn about dance. “She has great body movement, and she really breaks down all the moves for you,” said student Jasmine Teer, 24, before the class. “I was looking for a class where I could move and sweat.”
Jefferson was born in Beaumont, Texas in 1972, and moved to Hayward with her mother in 1985. She spent her childhood doing ballet, jazz, tap, and modern, and continued until she attended Oakland’s Laney College in 1994. “I decided to take African dance classes — something that would be challenging, and different.”
It was at Laney, she said, that she discovered Haitian dance. “I think the dances play a vital role in our lives,” said Jefferson.
She said the movement connects with people in different ways. A dance called “Ibo” honors the Ibo people of Nigeria, who were enslaved throughout the Caribbean. Jefferson said the piece calls for “breaking away the chains of slavery,” an idea that matches a movement where dancers extend their arms out as if trying to break free from something. Jefferson said this dance can relate to student’s everyday lives – like those who want to free themselves from stress, work or other constraints.
After beginning Haitian dance at Laney, Jefferson continued studying under prominent Bay Area Haitian dancers like Blanche Brown, Lynn Coles, and Michelle Martin. But she still found herself searching for further inspiration. “I had all these amazing teachers, but I felt like I wanted more,” Jefferson said. Four years after she started teaching Haitian dance, she decided to go to Haiti for the first time. “In 2003, I just felt like I needed to go to the source,” she said. “So I took my trip to Haiti, alone.”
She went to Port-au-Prince and met drummer Daniel Brevil through a mutual friend – the Haitian-jazz musician Markus Schwartz. Brevil was raised in Carrefour Feiulles, Haiti, and grew up learning folkloric music from his father, who was a Haitian drummer and Voudou priest. Brevil is now the music director of Rara Tou Limen.
Since 2003, Jefferson and Brevil have collaborated to produce workshops and performances in the United States and Haiti. In 2008, Brevil moved to Oakland to teach Haitian drumming. He now accompanies Jefferson’s dance classes and holds drumming classes in Oakland, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz.
Back at the Malonga Casquelourd Center, Brevil was the head drummer in Jefferson’s dance class. He stood in the center of the other seated drummers and played the “Maman,” or lead drum, with a stick and his bare hand. “I want to make my team feel connected to each other,” said Brevil.
During the class his eyes moved between the dancers and drummers as he gave the musicians queues indicating when to begin, break in the music, or stop playing altogether. “Each dance is made for the rhythm,” he said.
The drummers were long past Yanvalou, and were now playing a fast-paced piece called Zepol. (“It means ‘shoulder,’” Brevil said after the class.) The dancers moved their shoulders back in a constant motion as they moved across the floor. They started smiling, as though they were enjoying the challenge. They were all breathing heavily, flushed cheeks and damp foreheads. “The drum is the heart beat of Voudou,” said Jefferson.
The two artists are bringing attention to Haitian culture throughout the Bay Area through their classes and performance like the annual pre-lent Carnaval celebration and parade in San Francisco’s Mission district. Jefferson said Rara Tou Limen is the only contingent to represent Haiti.
Last spring, Rara Tou Limen sponsored a group of Bay Area artists to visit Haiti and study with local choreographers and musicians. They intend to make it an annual trip, to expose Bay Area residents to more of Haiti then what is commonly perceived – political unrest and extreme poverty. Jefferson said that all though these things are true, people need to see the positivity in the country. “There are people dancing and enjoying life together,” said Jefferson.
”When I came here,” Brevil said, talking about why he helped organize Rara Tou Limen, “I heard a lot of negative things about Haiti. I wanted to show people what Haiti was like and the beautiful things they could see for themselves.”
Haiti, a former French and Spanish colony and U.S. occupied territory, has a long history of political instability, but was also the first country to wage a successful slave rebellion against its French colonizers between 1791-1804. In recent years, Haiti has faced a series of problems that have heightened longstanding political turmoil, including the four deadly hurricanes that hit the country in 2008, environmental degradation, and food riots that broke out due to an ongoing hunger crisis.
“The trip really affected a lot of people in many different ways—emotionally, spiritually, artistically,” said Jefferson. It also inspired the participants to raise funds for a new dance floor at the Ecole Nationale Des Arts— a school in Port-au-Prince that hosted them while they were visiting, but is in need of major building repairs. “Although the school is government owned,” said Jefferson. “The government isn’t really doing anything for it, and the dance floor is in really bad condition right now.”
Rara Tou Limen is organizing a fundraiser this Wednesday, October 21, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at San Francisco’s Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. The program will include performances by Rara Tou Limen, and an all women’s drumming ensemble taught by Brevil. There will also be a market for people to purchase Haitian crafts. Tickets are $15 – $20 at the door, with a sliding scale.
At Malonga Casquelourd Center, Jefferson’s silver bracelets faintly clattered against each other as she stretched her arms out to her side. She gestured with her hand for the perspiring students to dance toward the center of the room to face the drummers.
The music slowed, and Jefferson guided the dancers through a gentle stretch. After a few minutes, the drumming came to a stop, and the dancers stood up while applauding the closure of class. Jefferson thanked the volunteer drummers and asked the dancers to donate if they could.
“We need to keep the fire going with the music,” said Jefferson.
“I believe in the fire,” said a student dancer as he laid down an offering to the drummers.
Rara Tou Limen is preparing for their April 1-15, 2010 cultural tour. If interested in the tour or more information on classes, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org