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NDEO's "Behind the Curtain" Blog features articles written by NDEO members about dance and dance education topics as well as periodic updates on NDEO programs and services. This is a FREE resource available to ALL.


Demystifying the Haitian Foklore through Dance Pedagogy and Performance Art

NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Weiselande 'Tanui' Cesar, Executive Founding Director and Choreographer of TLL, Inc. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.

A black woman moves energetically in a white skirt and top with orange and yellow accents

It is universally known that dance is a form of communication, and it is often considered to be the language of our soul. From a cultural context, dance and music are essentially the fabric of cultures. In many cultures, folk dances emerged from the day to day activities of the common people, and Haitian Folk dances are no different. Haitians are a group African descent people, majorily originated from Dahomey/Benin, Congos, and Petro Nago/Nigerian. In Haitian folklife, dance is done as a way to remain connected to our ancestors and give praise and thanks. Moreover, dance serves as a process of healing and an expression of our soul and experiences/passageways. 

Haitian Folk Dance and Rhythms 

Each of the dances and rhythms in the Haitian Folklore varies, depending on the specific family lineage and subculture of the region from which they originated. There are eight primary dances which varies to more than a hundred variations based on regions, departments, towns, cities and family lakous/family habitations. In Haitian Folklore each dance has its own costume, with specifications down to even the fabric used, as well as colors. Each of the dances are categorized as Cool (Arada/Rada) or Hot (Petro/Ibo) dances, and are affiliated with a particular element. The dances and their associated elements are as follows: 

  • Dahomey Yanvalou (Water) 
  • Congo/Kongo (Wind/Earth) 
  • Ibo/Igbo (Metal/Iron) 
  • Nago (Metal/Iron) 
  • Petro (Fire) 
  • Djumba (Earth) 
  • Mayi/zèpol (Earth/Wind)
  • Rara/Rabòday (Wind and may have other aspects) 
  • Areyen/Banda (Earth/water, depicting life cycle)

The Process of Demystifying Haitian Folk Dances

Without a doubt, there is an assumption that all Haitian dances are ceremonial or ritualistic. “Ceremonial” and “ritualistic” are terms that may be used interchangeably with respect to Haitian dances. Most of Haitian folk dances were first done as rituals or ceremonies. A dance done as a ritual is more of a personal act, with spiritual intentions. A ceremonial dance tends to be more open to others, who are invited to be a part of it. Over time, Haitian ritualistic dances have been secularized, as they were brought from the temples to the stages by dancers and choreographers like Lavinia Williams, Chuck Davis, Geoffrey Holder, Katherine Dunham, Jeanguy Saintus and many others.

Every so often, I get someone inquiring about the dances I teach and choreograph, wanting to know if they are ceremonial or ritualistic. In a production with Haitian dance choreography that is supposed to depict a ceremony, the dance has ceremonial aspects. However, simply because the dance has ritualistic aspects, doesn't mean the dancer/choreographer is a Vodou practitioner. With respect to Vodouism, it's a lifetime process with many positive discipline/principles as is in Buddhism.  Simply because one burns incense, meditates, or practices Yoga, does not make one a monk.

Perhaps a fitting metaphor would be an individual making the conclusion that someone else is vegan because they consume vegetables or non-dairy produce. It could be a true statement, but it might not be. It would be misleading to make that statement.

To demystify Haitian dance, we must rely on deductive reasoning, not inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning relies on a general statement or hypothesis (premise) which leads to a specific conclusion. The familiar example is the if/then: If A=B and B=C, then A=C. Inductive reasoning, however, is making broad generalizations resulting from specific patterns or observations. An example is pulling coins out of a bag. If the first, second, and third coins pulled out are all pennies, inductive reasoning would conclude that all the coins in the bag are pennies. 

In respect to Haitian Folklore Dance, using inductive reasoning leads to assumptions and negative stereotypes. To exemplify, one might assume that if Yanvalou is a ritualistic dance, drum is a ritualistic vital instrument also used in Vodou ceremonies, then all dancers and drummers are voduist. If one makes such assumptions, they might conclude that Haitan dances are all ritualistic and have no place in other professional venues within the high arts arena. 

A black woman dressed in all white, with a white headwrap on stands posed with her arm up

As founding Executive Director of Tradisyon Lakou Lakayis and its performance group, the TLL Dance Ensemble, I have shared Haitian Folk Dance as a performance art with audiences and students. Tradisyon Lakou Lakay is a 501-c3 non-profit arts and cultural organization, fostering a creative and educational platform for the community through music, dance, camps, dance classes/workshops and performances at various venues. We believe that Haitian Folk Dance, like other dance styles, may be used as an educational tool to foster empathy and cultivate emotional intelligence. 

For the past five years, I have been developing a new technique to contribute to the body of Haitian Folk Dance Pedagogy. "Yanui Technique,” based in the Haitian Yanvalou dance, starts with the awareness of self and one's loading point. “Loading point” is a term I use to refer to the parts of the body which holds an experience, whether it is a traumatic or positive one. Practitioners of Yanui technique must do an emotional inventory to intentionally move into the art of the dance. “What energy are you bringing to the shared space?” is a question that practitioners must answer in seeking their own truth as it relates to the dance. So for example, one must understand having a fear of water, for example, may alter the experience of dancing water dance, such as Yanvalou/Siren. Where you are at in life, essentially affects the quality of creativity and experience. Hence, the dance experiences are different at different stages of our lives based on the healing process of the body, spirit and mind.

I started teaching dance with the mindset that movements must be purposeful and healing, besides being beautiful through the eyes of the beholder. So as we move to the vibrational soulful sounds of drums, the body receives these vibrations and elicits specific energies and/or vibes/moods. Depending on how receptive one is to those energies, vibes, or moods, the healing process and heightened creativity can be experienced fully. One may absolutely embrace this process or reject it and shy away. To master the style, one must go through a healing process.

For example, I often tell participants to visualize water or a snake to practice the undulation needed to do the Yanvalou core movement. Some dancers still find this movement challenging, until they become aware of the cause for the lack of fluidity. For example, they may be plagued by an accident or injury, menstrual issues, closed chakras, poor diet, or ancestral/family lineage trauma. Once they have healed, the movement often becomes easier. Of course it is also necessary for me to point out that some people may never master the technique, traumatized or not.

I truly believe that Yanvalou is one of the most beautiful and healing dances. Perhaps, it is because its energy is of the water element. After all, our body contains more than 75% water, a reflection of Mother Earth, as the oceans reflect the universe. 

Weiselande is a black woman with her hair pulled back, gently smiling in her headshot with a black shirt on.

Weiselande Yanui Cesar is a mother, educator and the Executive Founding Director of Tradisyon Lakou Lakay Inc. TLL is in residency at Little Haiti Cultural Complex (LHCC). Under the direction of Ms. Cesar, the performance group, TLL Dance Ensemble was cast in the Jason Derulo music video Colors. TLLDE also opened shows for Wyclef Jean, Tabou Combo, RAM, to name a few. Ms. Cesar is the author of self published books "The Colors We Feel" and "Loving Thyself: Discovering the Spirit Within", which can be found on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. She also forged her way and was successful in getting the TLL Concert Series commissioned to be presented at two different venues. Ms. Cesar served as a grant panelist for the Florida Department of Cultural Affairs for two consecutive years. Currently residing in Miami, Ms. Cesar is pursuing a Ph.D degree in Human Services Public Health from Walden University. This evolving artist, when not working, can be found traveling, spending time with family, enjoying home decorating, cooking, reading, writing and gardening. Ms. Cesar holds a Bachelor's of Arts in Theater, a Master's of Science in Exceptional Student Education and a Specialist Degree in Educational Leadership from Barry University.

Photo credits: 

Photo 1 - Woosler Delisfort of Woosler Documentary Photography

Photo 2 - Ethnicity Models and Kids Talent

Photo 3 - Zeek Mathias of Infinite Imprints

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