Teaching a master class at ESUMS
The National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC) of Jamaica visited the Engineering and Science University Magnet School (ESUMS) in West Haven, Connecticut to teach a master class in the school’s cafeteria last weekend.
The NDTC brought their work to the Shubert Theatre, gracing New Haven for the first time in its 61-year history. The dance group was founded in 1962, the same year that Jamaica declared independence from British colonial rule.
Last Friday marked the first time in 19 years that NDTC was back in Connecticut with its dancers having last been there at the Bushnell’s Belden Theater for the Performing Arts in 2004. NDTC dance captain, Paul Newman commented, “[It’s] the fact that we can share our culture through dance, in person.” Newman, who hails from St. Catherine Parish and has been dancing seriously since he was nine.
Growing excitement and activity
Danielle Grant, who teaches at the school let her toes grip the ground beneath her feet, and started to reconnect with her roots step by step. The location was brought to life, as students filed into the cafeteria, kicked off their sneakers and began to warm up.
On stage, half of the class included middle and high school students in ESUMS’ after-school dance club, which Grant teaches each week after a full day of classes. The other half included third through sixth graders from C.R. and Co., a Hamden-based dance company helmed by Chelsea Hughes.
When Hughes isn’t dancing, she is a social worker at ESUMS, where she was originally a part-time dance teacher. Last Friday, she and fellow dance instructor, Talima Harris beamed as their students took the stage, ready to move.
Harris kept an eye on her nine-year-old daughter, who eased into warmups as dancer Phillip Earle called out instructions. Without ever needing the verbal cue, musicians Jesse Golding and Henry Miller came in on the congas, the sound singsong and resonant as dancers began to bounce.
On stage, NDTC members Tamara Noel and Joelle Flimn looked around, coaching dancers through what to do in a language of head nods, pointed toes and quick glances. Newman hopped onto the stage, weaving among dancers to inspect form.
ESUMS Principal got in on the act
As she entered the cafeteria, ESUMS Principal, Medria Blue-Ellis let herself sink into the sound, which wrapped around everything in its path. For Blue-Ellis, who has led ESUMS since 2011, it was a rare chance for the school’s focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education to become STEAM learning—that’s STEM with the addition of the arts for the day.
Back on stage, it felt as though the class was just getting started, and had already covered so much ground. Dancers carefully practised the steps to the Dinki Mini, a traditional folk dance that comes out of the history of the Afro-Caribbean slave trade.
As dancers split into four groups to work on choreography, multiple members of the company echoed the importance of preserving Jamaican culture through dance and music. In six decades, the NDTC has brought together Jamaican folk and cultural traditions, elements of the African and Afro-Caribbean diaspora, rich vocal and instrumental music, and a focus on new work.
In the cafeteria-turned-theatre, their classmates and teachers cheered them on, waiting for their turn to take the stage. With the second ensemble, intricate footwork carried a dozen young New Haveners hundreds of miles across the ocean, transforming the space into a Caribbean celebration.
Thundering applause greeted performance
By the third ensemble, cries of “Yes!” and “Get it!” joined applause. In a conversation after the class, several ESUMS students said they were grateful for the opportunity to ring in the weekend with movement, and hoped that more chances to dance would come through the school.
While there is an after-school dance club, the school’s focus on STEM means that arts electives are few and far between. Leilani Mieles, a seventh grader at the school, said that it marked the first time she had danced formally with her peers. While she was in the dance club for a short time, she ultimately dropped it to focus on her academic work and other extra-curricular activities.