Magazine: A leap of faith

Meet the 97-year-old goddess of Haitian dance.

a leap of faith/ do not use magazine only
'In dancing, you forget everything that's bad,' explains Viviane Gauthier, the woman many credit with keeping Haitian folklore dance alive [Allison Griner]
They came to her shaded porch, not to learn pliés or pirouettes, but to stomp and sway in the rhythm of the loa spirits. Knees low, arms wide, they bounced and flicked their limbs, their footfalls echoing centuries of Haitian ancestors.

Viviane Gauthier taught her students the steps to some of Haiti’s most famous folklore dances: the yanvalou, the nago, the rada. They were taught to undulate with the curves of the snake king Damballa, to arc their backs with Agoue, the spirit of the sea.

But now the barre is untouched, the long mirror empty. Gauthier’s house is the image of peace. The walls of her garden keep the screeching traffic and bustling pedestrians of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, at bay.

In March, Gauthier celebrated her 97th birthday, another year passing in the life of a Caribbean icon. More than 70 of those years have been spent performing and teaching dance.

And without her dedication, some of her students believe Haitian folklore dance would effectively be dead.

That is why they have dubbed her the “goddess of Haitian dance”. But do not imagine her as some ethereal, otherworldly creature, for the woman behind the highfalutin title is nothing if not an unapologetically direct firecracker.

“There are people who don’t sit on their butt cheeks. They sit like this,” Gauthier says, slouching. The veteran dancer quickly resumes her stick-straight posture. Slouchers are evidently a pet peeve, a trigger for a spontaneous rant.

“I am very strict,” she adds, matter-of-factly. “In everything, there must be discipline.”

Slender and small – she seems to barely scrape five feet in height –, Gauthier is a towering figure in the Haitian dance community. Performers flock from around the world to work with her. And they graduate from her studio with enviable prospects.

One alumnus now has his own dance company in Paris. Another became the only Haitian ever to receive a heritage fellowship for lifetime achievement from the National Endowment for the Arts in the US.

But for Gauthier, this is her time to rest. Teaching is rare nowadays. Dancing is rarer. The years have calcified her limbs. 

After climbing the stairs to the second floor, Gauthier relaxes against a window ledge in the house that doubles as her dance studio. A hummingbird floats by. Sheets flutter on clotheslines below. And mangoes, still green, ripen on the branches above.

Gauthier’s studio-home is almost as iconic as its owner. In a city built largely of cinderblock, hers is an elegant gingerbread house, constructed at the turn of the 20th century. Few remain standing. Their intricate, carved woodwork and vodou-themed patterns hark back to a period of prosperity.

But the house and its owner are increasingly facing the perils of age. A patina has clouded the stucco, just as cataracts have to Gauthier’s eyes. Sunlight shines through some of the wooden boards. Alzheimer’s has started to erode Gauthier’s memories.

“I was 19 years old when I started,” she says, a flicker of rebellion in her eyes. “I loved to dance, but my parents didn’t like it so much.”

Her parents warned her that dancing was not a real job, that she would not be able to earn a living. But Gauthier was a dance student at a time when the interest in non-Western art reached its height.

The early 20th century was an age of exoticism. Artists like Picasso and Matisse were embraced for their use of African styles. A Missouri girl transformed herself into the “Creole Goddess” Josephine Baker, an international superstar. And a new generation of scholars and artists were turning their attention to Haiti, the “pearl of the Antilles”.

Marquees in New York City advertised dance performances like The Haitian Suite and Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem. They were the creations of an American dancer named Katherine Dunham. One of her students would change Gauthier’s life.

A view of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince [Allison Griner]
A view of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince [Allison Griner]

Philadelphia-born Lavinia Williams wanted to follow in her mentor’s footsteps. Enthralled by the beauty of Haitian dance, Williams travelled to Port-au-Prince to learn Haiti’s traditions first-hand.

She founded a school while she was there, and among her pupils was a young Viviane Gauthier. “I liked dance so much, I went to her dance school,” Gauthier explains with an airy laugh, as if it were the obvious thing to do. “There, she saw me, and she told me I was a magnificent student.”

But the professor often became the student. “As Haitians, we gave many lessons to Lavinia,” Gauthier says. “We had to show her our steps.”

Gauthier’s eyes light up as she recalls the lessons they shared. “She thought la danse sous la tonnelle just came naturally. No. There was a discipline to that as well. So we ended up laughing a lot of times.”

But one of Gauthier’s former students, Cherline Edouard, believes that Gauthier always had a profound advantage over Williams. “Lavinia danced folklore dances in Haiti. But Viviane, she has it in her veins. She was born with folklore,” Edouard explains.

Haitian folklore dance is not something that can simply be taught, Edouard elaborates, her voice rising with passion. The dance is a living link to Haitian history, a history bloody with slavery and revolution.

Haiti has the distinction of being the only country whose independence was won through a successful slave revolt. It became Latin America’s first independent nation in 1804.

And that history is felt in the rhythms of its folklore dance, Edouard argues. “It makes us think of our ancient times, of our warriors. When they worked for our liberty, those were the same drums they heard.”

She reels off some of their names: Dutty Boukman, the self-educated slave who prophesised the revolt; François Mackandal, the vodou houngan known to poison slave owners; and the Nèg Marron, the mythical black slave, whose conch horn called the masses to revolt.

Folklore dance is a spiritual experience, one that Gauthier was born into as a Haitian. She was quite simply a natural. And her talent did not pass unnoticed by Williams, her teacher.

Gauthier remembers how before Williams returned to the US, she told her that she was to be left in charge of the dance school. “How can I say this? I liked that a lot,” Gauthier says.

But it was some time later that Gauthier was finally able to found her own dance company. The Viviane Gauthier School of Dance became her life. No husband or children would ever get in the way of her passion for Haitian folk dance.

“I told myself, ‘If I got married, I would need to stay home, and I would need to take care of everything that happens.’ That didn’t interest me at all,” she explains. “That’s one of the reasons I stayed single. I like to command people. I like to command.”

She always found children to be the hardest part of her job. “Too much noise,” she says with her usual candor. But over the years, she picked up several students who consider her as dear as a parent.

“She is a mother to me,” explains Frantz Métayer. He has known Gauthier for the past 37 years. But their relationship did not start out so rosy.

As a young dancer, Métayer thought he would breeze through her school without a problem. Instead, he was on the receiving end of Gauthier’s fierce critiques: “That’s no good, Métayer. You’re being impossible. Lower your back.” He almost quit.

“I would tell myself, ‘Oh man, I have a problem with this. I’m not going to continue.’ But now I see that it was good for me. She loved me,” he reflects. It took him three months of hard work, but he ultimately grew to be one of Gauthier’s professors and choreographers.

Métayer now heads his own dance company, having recently left his role as supervisor of Gauthier’s school. On a Saturday morning, he sits on the sidelines as two rows of dancers file past, practicing new moves.

Many of his students are new, a fact betrayed by the slight hesitation in their steps. But the drums keep playing, and they keep moving. Métayer is watching. They need to be performance-ready.

Their routine is to be strictly Haitian folklore dance, none of this modern stuff coming from abroad. Métayer is a purist. He and other experts worry that modern dance and hip-hop are supplanting, or appropriating, the traditional dances. “Day after day, we are tempted to modernise,” Métayer says.

Part of the problem is the belief that folklore dance has no form or artistry, especially compared to better-known dances like ballet. Gauthier spent her life fighting that misconception, even in her home country.

“Haitians, my countrymen, thought that our dances lacked discipline,” Gauthier remembers. So, during her career, she travelled from city to city, department to department, chronicling the unique dances of each one.

The National Cathedral in Port-au-Prince is still in ruins after the 2010 earthquake [Allison Griner]
The National Cathedral in Port-au-Prince is still in ruins after the 2010 earthquake [Allison Griner]

The other problem is a perpetual one for performers: a lack of funds. In the past, Métayer remembers joining Gauthier for a weekly dance show aboard incoming cruise ships. And with each ship came much-needed tourist money.

But Haiti’s public image has drastically changed since then. Over Gauthier’s lifetime, Haiti has gone from lodging foreign luminaries like Truman Capote, Graham Greene and Mick Jagger at its resorts, to welcoming droves of aid workers and NGOs.

The 2010 earthquake left many of the capital’s monuments as dust, including its national palace, and the country suffers from a reputation for poverty.

That perception is reflected in the country’s tourism revenues. According to the latest World Bank data from 2012, Haiti only earned $170m in tourist money per year, a mere 3.6 percent of what the neighbouring Dominican Republic rakes in from tourism. “You know the situation of the country. Foreigners almost never come here. There aren’t any shows,” Métayer says. “Artists work, but what for? For nothing. Almost nothing. And that’s a constant discouragement for professors and dancers.”

When the dancers leave practice, they wave and tell Métayer: “See you next week.” But Métayer knows that for some it’s a lie. They don’t come back. And he understands why. They have to go where the money is.

“Dance could succeed, but we lack encouragement,” he explains. He wants Haiti’s ministry of culture to provide greater support. “Me, I will forever stay with the folklore that I love and that Viviane Gauthier gave me. Even if I die poor.”

The sun is unrelenting, and practice lasts for hours. But even as sweat drips down his brow, Métayer energetically describes the dances that feed his passion.

Yanvalou was the world’s first dance,” he says. “You dance everything in the world. It represents the waves of the sea, the leaves, the trees, everything that moves. We found the movement of folklore in everything.”

Gauthier has been performing and teaching Haitian folklore dance for more than 70 years, but the years have calcified her limbs and her memory is not what it used to be [Allison Griner]
Gauthier has been performing and teaching Haitian folklore dance for more than 70 years, but the years have calcified her limbs and her memory is not what it used to be [Allison Griner]

But it is a heritage that risks fading away with Gauthier’s memories. At the thought of her advancing Alzheimer’s, Métayer begins to stumble over his words. Tears trickle down his face, mixing with the beads of sweat.

“I miss Viviane a lot,” he says. “Last week, I spoke with her, and I saw that she was talking about things that had no relevance to the conversation. It was then that I told myself that I was losing hope.”

Back at the gingerbread house, Gauthier wiggles her shoulders ever so slightly at the mention of dancing, answering the call of an invisible drum. Haitian folklore dance has been her escape, a discipline that helped her navigate a tumultuous world.

“In dancing, you forget everything that’s bad, everything you don’t like, because you don’t have time to think about what you don’t like. You move, and you’re always busy,” she says.

With her guests ready to depart, Gauthier casually unbuttons her wrap-around skirt, revealing a pair of shorts underneath. Her concern now is the mango tree overhead, and caring for her prized garden. The future of Haitian dance lies in someone else’s hands now – but to devote a life to an uncertain profession, well, that’s a leap of faith. 

This article first appeared in the July issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. Download it for iPads and iPhones  here  and for Android devices  here .

Source: Al Jazeera