Folk Dance Superstars go for Gold

I was born with a baton in my hand. My mom started her baton and dance studio the year I was born and I have been dancing and twirling since I could walk. I twirled competitively my entire childhood, I twirled at my university, and when I was done twirling and dancing I began coaching. It’s easy to say that baton twirling and dancing is a major part of who I am. I wasn’t entirely sure if I was ready to give it up completely when I decided to join the Peace Corps, but I soon learned that I wouldn’t have to.

Me twirling for the school

My mom came to visit me in Jamaica in October and brought with her lots of old batons donated by some of my former students and even some of the girls I used to compete against. My mom taught a few after-school baton classes during her visit and we were surprised at how much the students enjoyed it. My fellow teachers were surprised to see what I can do. This sparked a conversation about my background before joining Peace Corps. I knew that I wanted to bring something that I love to my service, but I didn’t think for a second that baton and dance was something that I would be able to. You can imagine my delight when my counterpart suggested that we attend a JCDC (Jamaica Cultural Development Commission) workshop for dance!

We spent hours laughing and learning all kinds of moves with other dance teachers from our parish. After the workshop, we were eager to get started on forming our own dance team for the upcoming season.

We quickly hosted after-school auditions and had over 70 students show up. We chose 20 students, boys and girls, and began rehearsals right away. We had less than three months to learn a creative Jamaican folk dance and perfect it before auditioning for the competition. Endless hours were spent watching online videos of Jamaican Folk dances until I finally felt ready to begin choreographing the dance. My counterpart and the students had a lot of great ideas for moves that helped shape the routine. Their knowledge of Jamaican-style dancing paired with my background in choreographing and coaching – and my online research – seemed to be the perfect combination.

Tryouts

For over two months, our students attended after-school practices 2-3 times per week and even during their Christmas break. My counterpart worked hard on all of the logistical aspects for the team: permission slips, collecting money, and securing the bus to carry us to the competition. Competition day quickly crept up on us and all of the students were excited to show off their dancing skills. We loaded up in a bus and made our way to the competition in our school uniforms because we did not have costumes to dance in. The team got on the staged and shined! With a lot of hard work and a little luck, they passed the audition! However, it was clear to all of us that their routine was very different than the others. We had a lot of work to do.

Practice during Christmas break
After the parish-level auditions

Shortly after the auditions, I had a trip scheduled to visit home for, you guessed it, a baton and dance competition. I was lucky enough to get to visit my former studio and teach the Jamaican folk dance to the students there. It was such a fun experience to teach them something that they had never seen before and see their faces light up when I told them that it was the same dance that my students in Jamaica learned. We created a wonderful partnership and now both teams are called “Superstars,” named after my former studio in Florida.

Teaching the Jamaican folk dance to students at my old dance studio at home in Florida
They loved learning Jamaican dance moves!

When I returned to Jamaica, we spent the next few weeks making changes to our routine, practicing, fundraising, and preparing for the Parish finals. The teachers hosted “Crazy Hat Day” and “Crazy Sock Day” to raise the money that we needed. With a few donations and our school fundraisers, we were able to purchase material and have costumes made.

Crazy Sock Day fundraiser

By the time finals came around, they were ready to show the judges how much they had improved. As they dressed in their new costumes and we began decorating their faces with rhinestones and eye shadow, you could see the excitement welling up inside of them. It was almost time.

Right before the competition

As they stepped on the stage, I was holding back a few tears as I watched this team come to life right before my eyes. And they crushed it! They performed with confidence and smiles on their faces. It was one of the best moments of my Peace Corps service so far. Most of these students had never taken a dance class before and here they were performing their hearts out on stage. Our likl but tallawah (small but mighty) dance team was rewarded with a SILVER MEDAL! They even received special recognition for the improvements that they had made over the last month since the auditions. The head judge took the time to big them up for taking the comments from the audition and what they had seen and turn it into a great performance.

After winning a SILVER MEDAL!
Me with one of our dancers and our prize

Next year, we are hoping to start earlier and have weekly dance classes in which the students can learn all kind of dance skills, ranging from folk to contemporary, from hip hop to baton twirling. We plan on having a community member begin choreographing and coaching to ensure that the program is poised to continue for many years after my service.

Celebrating their victory with more dancing

This post was written by Leah Stoffel, Education Volunteer, Group 87, ’16-’18.

Battle of the Bees: A Guide to Jamaican Honey

Written & Photos by Group 87 Volunteer Sarah Cash

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Our three contenders, from left-right: St. Thomas, St. Andrew, St. Elizabeth

Every morning I wake up to a chilly breeze silently, invisibly, invading my room. I curl my toes and shrug the blankets up to my chin. I stretch out my body, and think of my awaiting bowl of steaming oatmeal. Like clockwork, I fill up the kettle with water, flick my thumb across the lighter so the flames catch and the water boils, and add cinnamon to my bowl of instant oats. Before the kettle’s shrill cry alerts me to add the water, I pause. Bending down to grab the rum sized bottle of honey, I tip it so the golden liquid eases onto my spoon, forming an amber pool that gleams when it catches the sun. Without honey, my oatmeal would be an insipid mush.

After learning one year ago that I could get honey from local beekeepers, I vowed to get it nowhere else, and that has been one of the easiest promises to keep in Jamaica. More difficult has been deciding which honey to buy. Should I buy the esteemed logwood honey from St. Elizabeth, supposedly sweeter and more coveted than the others? Should I buy uber-local honey, from the woman across the hill in St. Andrew whose bees could very well pollinate my host family’s coffee blossoms? Or should I buy honey from the first place I purchased it in Jamaica in St. Thomas, where I trained to become a Peace Corps Volunteer? Decisions, decisions.

So like any lusty glutton, I decided to purchase all three bottles and conduct a taste test.

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Finger lickin’ good 😀

Before buckling down and tucking in, I spoke to fellow Peace Corps Volunteer and beekeeper extraordinaire Alec Bramel, who lives in St. Thomas, and helped process one of the bottles I will be tasting. He works with farmers in the area to maintain a community apiary with the goal of educating locals about the environmental and economic vitality of beekeeping. Because people are often afraid of bees, Alec first gives presentations to local groups about their benefits, then invites participants to the apiary for a hands-on lesson.

Honey is in high demand in Jamaica, so there’s money to be made in this quietly up and coming market. In 2013, the St. Thomas Bee Farmer’s Association went through six weeks of training and received equipment to create their own apiary, which they did in 2014. In 2015, they doubled the size of their apiary, changing site and producing pollen, honey, and honey water. Since then, Alec has worked with his fellow beekeepers to sell their products across St. Thomas and Jamaica, from small meetings and events to a Kingston-based farmer’s market that attracts an upscale crowd.

In order to ensure this work continues after Alec finishes his service, he has worked with his community to build a storage/work facility that houses necessary equipment when not in use. It used to be exposed to the elements, but in a hurricane prone country like Jamaica, one storm could irreparably damage all their beekeeping equipment. Fortunately, the building will soon be completed, and their work safeguarded from any mischievous weather.

Alec has been busy as a bee*, working to create a better future for his community’s residents, insect and human alike. But how does his community’s honey compare to mine and St. Elizabeth’s? It is time to crown a winner (Queen Bee?) in this Battle of the Bees. In contemplating the diverse tastes and aromas of the following honey, I researched the bee’s terroir in an attempt to discover what makes the perfect honey. Alec told me that bees will travel two-five miles, so their honey could come from any flowers in that vicinity.

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Who will be crowned Queen Bee?

First up, St. Elizabeth. This honey comes from logwood blossoms, said to be the best source of food for the highest quality Jamaican honey. It had the lightest color, almost clear when the sun poured in and washed away its pale golden hue. When I licked my finger, I thought of gentle summer breezes, braiding flowers into crowns, and picnics on soft grass with cucumber sandwiches. If sunlight could be honey, St. Elizabeth made it happen. Though I didn’t find this honey as sweet as the other two, I liked its freshness and think it would be perfect on fruit, in granola, and even by the spoonful.

The honey from St. Thomas tasted light at first, but the second lick brought to mind butterscotch, and those too sweet hard candies I still avoid. When accidentally added to my tea, however, the cinnamon tea was sweetened to perfection. The St. Thomas bees feast on flowers from breadfruit, mango, and coconut trees, as well as some logwood. This multi-floral honey is perfect to add to any recipe needing a shock of sugar.

The St. Andrew honey was the darkest in color, and had partially congealed, making it impossible to drip languorously from the bottle onto my outstretched finger. The coffee blossoms and wildflowers in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains produce a honey richer and thicker than our other contenders. Nevertheless, when I tasted it, I was instantly transported to Quebec, a sugar hut covered in fresh snow, and maple syrup freezing on a block of ice. St. Andrew’s honey is sweet like candy, just enough to make you want to lick the spoon for a while with eyes closed, imagining mornings with pancakes and bacon on the stove, and the smell of coffee slipping in from the kitchen. I recommend this honey with any and everything.

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I don’t cry over spilled honey (‘cuz I eat it)

Enough with the Proustian flashbacks, you think. Who won? Well you might call me biased, but I have to pick the parish in which I reside- St. Andrew!

It’s almost sunset, which means dinner time. After hours at my keyboard tapping away, on the phone chatting about bees, and on the internet googling things like “why does some honey congeal, but not others?”**, I feel tired, but more importantly, hungry. And there is only one thing I want to eat…

*pun intended

**There are many different kinds of honey, and each has a slightly different crystallization point, depending on the flowers and region in which the honey was produced. For more, read this article.

Yankunku Style: What it Means to be a Maroon

Written & Photos by Group 87 Volunteer Jules Ashe

The culture of the Maroons and their history epitomizes Black History Month and all that it stands for, highlighting the lost archives of powerful, meaningful, Black history stories that were omitted and diluted through decades of “white-washing.” To the Maroons, Black History Month is just another passing page on the calendar, because when you live in a Maroon community, every month is Black History Month; everyday, Blackness, its history, and all that it stands for, is celebrated.

When the Spanish arrived in Jamaica during the 15th century to colonize the island, they did not arrive alone. With them came many stolen slaves from West Africa, who were known to be extremely rebellious to the unjust colonial system they were up against. Those who fought upon arrival and rebelled received the title “cimarrón,” a Spanish word which translates to “wild,” “untamed,” and “fugitive.” Later, becoming more commonly known as “Maroon.” While the original title was used in a derogatory manner, today, anyone with Maroon ancestry will proudly claim the title.

The rebellious slaves that managed to escape fled high up in the mountains to some of the most remote and physically isolated areas of Jamaica.  Maroon communities turned the severity of their environments to their advantage, making the communities nearly inaccessible to outsiders and intruders. Pathways were easily disguised by thick, bushy, flora, and false trails were created to lead intruders astray into naturally camouflaged traps.

They had to be somewhat nomadic to avoid raids by the Spanish, and later the British, and they often relied on hunting and foraging wild plants as a means of sustenance. Today these foods, such as jerked wild hog, cacoon, bussu, and cray fish are still eaten and prepared as traditional Maroon cuisine. The history of Jamaican Jerk is known to have started in Maroon communities long ago when salty jerk seasonings were used to preserve the wild hog.

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Ackee, callaloo, shredded vegetable, and rice and peas served in a traditional calabash bowl in Asafu Yard, Charles Town.
The Maroons in these newly formed, remote, rebel communities were also able to hold on to their West African roots and returned to their cultural and spiritual practices, making African, specifically Kromanti, retention another key aspect of their culture. Kromanti drum and dance is still performed today as a way to invoke ancestral spirits and honor them.

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A traditional Kromanti drum in Charles Town Maroon Village, etched with a symbolic Sankofa bird.
A bit of chaos ensued when the British arrived in 1655 to fight the Spanish for control over the island. The Maroons took advantage of the disorder and helped even more runaway slaves seek refuge amongst their mountainous communities, ultimately strengthening them. Leaders emerged, and amongst them was Jamaican National Heroine, Queen Nanny – who later became known as the head Cheiftainess of the Maroons.

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A mural of Queen Nanny. “Akwaaba” translates to “Welcome” in the Kromanti language
Nanny was feared by the British. She was seen to posses mystical and healing powers, more commonly referred to as Obeah in Jamaican tradition, an image she created herself as a strategy to scare off colonial forces. She taught the Maroon army how to camouflage themselves by wrapping up fully in cacoon vine leaves to achieve successful ambush. Different rhythmic patterns and pitches were blown in the Abeng, an African horn, to notify the Maroon communities of intruders or different calls of action, and verbal communication was done through the Kromanti language so that colonial forces could not understand them. The Maroon army captured more and more runaway slaves to join them, growing in numbers and power, and successfully raided plantations, burned crops, stole livestock, and implemented strategic guerrilla warfare tactics, all in the fight for freedom.

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Official Abeng blower and drummer of the Granny Nanny Cultural Group, Deshawn Robinson, blows the Abeng as a call to his ancestors. (For booking and more group information visit GrannyNannyMaroons.com)
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The group of Windward (eastern) Maroons led by Queen Nanny, whose ancestors now occupy the Maroon sites of Moore Town, Charles Town, and Scotts Hall on the eastern side of the island, became the biggest threat to the British out of all the Maroon communities. This ultimately led to the signing of a Peace Treaty between Queen Nanny and the Brittish Army, granting the Maroons their own independent communities, the right to govern themselves, and the full rights over designated land territories, all of which still remains.

The Kromanti customs and traditions are still very much alive today, and to be a Maroon means to carry them with you, ensuring their vitality. Maroon communities today continue to be self-governed and relatively peaceful, with an elected Maroon Council and head Colonel who oversee all community development and disputes. In keeping with the Maroon spirit, in order to receive this information from the Maroon community members of where I reside, a material exchange had to take place, because traditionally a Maroon would never just give away valuable information without receiving something to their benefit in return. A brief exchange of rum and gratitude occurred before the interview, just for the record.

“There is a lot of privilege that comes with living in a Maroon community like Moore Town,” said official Abeng played of the Granny Nanny Cultural Group Deshawn Robinson. “Because of the lengths my ancestors went to fight for that freedom, and for the privilege we have received today because of it, I must celebrate it daily, and make sure the youth continue to carry the tradition on.”

Robinson explained that living in Moore Town is a relatively crime-free place, and he attributes this to its Maroon ancestry and the way the town is self-governed. The mountainous location scouted out by Maroon communities also located them within close proximity to fresh water, and the community is never short on that supply. Most areas of Jamaica have been facing extreme drought conditions in the past few years, an issue that has yet to and is unlikely to affect Moore Town. Additionally natural spring water is free to all residents and pumped to their homes. Robinson continued to explain the opportunities he has been given because of his Maroon ancestry.

“The culture has given us so much opportunity to explore. It was because of my culture that I was able to go to the States to perform the Kromanti drum and dance. With these opportunities, I can spread the Maroon message and empower other young people, other people in general, to live right and live lovingly. I try to tell them not to hate one another, the way the British hated the Maroons. We are all one people, and we need to come together in the world in unity and in love to make it a better place. I have been given the privilege to spread this message through my cultural expression, and that is what it means to me to be a Maroon. I am so proud to be a Maroon.”

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