Before leading a dance about indigenous women escaping their oppressors, Kesa Whitaker asked her students to summon the spirits of their grandmas.
Their grandmas—Doña Gloria from the Dominican Republic, Mama Rose from France, and Taté from Congo—set the backdrop to a powerful production that aimed to connect young dancers to their ancestors in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Dancers from Fair Haven School rehearsed the piece recently in preparation for a concert this Friday at the school on Grand Avenue. The piece is a production of Ballet Haven, a free after-school dance program Whitaker founded two years ago. The dance recital in honor of Hispanic heritage has become an annual ritual for the nascent ballet group at the school, where over three-quarters of students are Latino.
This year, Whitaker choreographed a piece based on the song called Quimey Nequen by José Larraide, a song in an indigenous Argentinian language, remixed by Argentinian artist Chancha Via Circuito.
The dance combines formal ballet moves, such as plies and chassés, with Latin cumbia influences and a heavy dose of modern dance. It tells a story of indigenous women trying to escape their captors, Whitaker said.
The dance is about “the universal struggle of the woman who carries the weight of the world on her back, because she’s on a mountain somewhere, or she’s in the kitchen, or she’s in your classroom,” Whitaker said. She was speaking from experience: Whitaker is confronting a debilitating autoimmune disease that leaves her, in her words, “fighting not to die.” She defies the pain daily, pouring her energy into teaching English and dance.
“It’s frustrating, as women teachers, to see women continue to degrade themselves,” Whitaker said, sitting with Ballet Haven co-chair and fellow teacher Monica Bunton after practice.
In order to connect the concept of women’s universal struggle to students’ lives, she asked them to conjure their own families.
“Think of your grandmothers,” she directed her group of 6th, 7th and 8th-grade girls before they rehearsed the piece.
“I want them to feel the poetry of their lives,” she said, and to “connect to something that anchors them.”
She said the direction also aimed to give dancers a sense of meaning and purpose, so they weren’t just going through the moves.
“Say something. Don’t just fling your body around,” Whitaker directed.
The message stuck with Ursule Mirindi. Ursule, who’s 12, moved to the U.S. from Congo three years ago without speaking any English. (Fair Haven serves not only as the neighborhood school for kids who live in Fair Haven, but also as the official welcome center to all kids in grades K to 8 who just arrived to the U.S.)
The song “is about our grandmothers, and how they suffered,” how “it was hard for them,” Ursule said.
Ursule said she thought of her grandma, Taté, back in Congo. She said all she knows about her grandma is that she got married at age 16 and moved from a small village to a big city as an adult.
Yasmin Rivera (at right in photo) thought of her two grandmas, from the Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. They both live in New York. She said she can’t understand them because they speak mostly in Spanish.
Yasmin found a place on the school auditorium stage beside Ursule. Though they are in some ways opposites—short and tall, light-skinned and dark-skinned, hailing from two different worlds—they have become best friends.
Ursule put on a face of intensity as they began rehearsing the piece from the top.
The piece begins with closed fists, in a runner’s pose. The opening moves represent indigenous women running to “escape people who are trying to capture them,” Whitaker later explained.
Dancers then throw open their fists, as if releasing something down towards the ground. (Click on the play arrow to watch.)
They are “shaking off oppression,” Whitaker said.
She led dancers through formal ballet positions ….
… Latin cumbia steps …
…and more modern moves, fraught with burden, hope and despair.
Whitaker introduced a new sequence, in which dancers double over, as though wrought with fatigue.
“This is not sexual,” she explained as she arched and hollowed her back. The movement represents labored breathing, she said.
After a couple of giggles, students dived in. Then they snapped to attention in the more familiar ballerina’s first position. They added a twist to the traditional pose, wrapping their arms around their shoulders.
Whitaker led them through numerous practice rounds, counting aloud and offering advice.
“Strong! Con fuerza!” she directed. (“How’s my Spanish?” she whispered to a nearby dancer with a smile.)
The rehearsal took place two days before an audition. Those who made the cut will perform the piece for the public at Friday’s concert.
After teaching her dancers most of the three-minute-and-ten-second song, Whitaker recorded them on her iPad, and played back the video so they could watch how they looked.
“Not as bad as you think,” she told one timid dancer. She told her to be more confident with her head and shoulders.
The new dance resonated with 8th-grader Lipsis Marte (pictured in above photo, second from left, in seated row), who learned the entire dance in one day because of missed rehearsals.
Lipsis moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic a year and four months ago, leaving behind her beloved grandma, Doña Gloria, with whom she lived for most of her life. She said she misses her grandma, who taught her to make arepas and little coconut cookies. Lipsis said she has been dancing her whole life.
“I was disappointed when I came here,” because she thought the would have to stop. She said she was delighted to find Ballet Haven.
“I love the dance,” she said of the latest piece.
“I love the movement,” added Gabriella Marte, another 8th grader, who moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic three years ago. (She has no relation to Lipsis, though they share the same last name.) Gabriella said she was honoring her grandmas, Rose Marte and Margaret Castillo, who live in France and the Bronx.
And she was following the lead of her teacher.
“I know that Ms. Whitaker, she be so strong,” Gabriella said. “She wants us to be, too.”
Dancers from Ballet Haven will perform the piece at a Hispanic heritage concert on Friday, Oct. 18 at 1 p.m. at Fair Haven School at 164 Grand Ave. The event is free and open to the public.
Past Independent stories on Fair Haven School:
• Mr. Shen & Ms. Benicio Hit The Books
• Maneva & Co. Take On The ‘Burbs
• Aekrama & Ali Learn The Drill
• Fair Haven Makes Room For Newest Students
• From Burundi, A Heart Beats On
• As Death Nears, She Passes Down The Dance