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Through Dance, Haitians Process Their Pain03:01
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Jean Appolon, center, leads a recent Haitian dancing class in Cambridge's Central Square. (Chris Burrell for WBUR)
Jean Appolon, center, leads a recent Haitian dancing class in Cambridge's Central Square. (Chris Burrell for WBUR)

Drumming provides background to the command: "And 1,2,3,4, the arms forward. Stretch!"

More than 65 dancers crowd into a Central Square studio no bigger than a basketball court as instructor Jean Appolon gives their muscles a calisthenic preview of the action about to unfold.

"I always start with a warm-up," he says. "Haitian dance is very grounded. Always in a bent knee, always do high jumps."

As Appolon models the traditional Haitian dance moves with a deep dip of a shoulder or a thrust of hips and legs, his face glistens with sweat and seems to radiate happiness.

But Appolon has plenty of reason to feel sad because of one simple fact: Many of his family members were in Port-au-Prince on January 12.

The first day I went and see drums in front of me and they started to play. It was like you went straight to heaven. It was a house of joy."

--Instructor Jean Appolon

"I still cannot get over it," he says. "I lost a lot of people, 11 people in one house — aunts, nephews and nieces — and I have family in the street end up with malaria and typhoid."

Appolon hasn’t been back to Haiti since the earthquake. But this summer he’ll go to Port-au-Prince to see if he can revive the project he started in his native city three years ago — to teach traditional Haitian dance to young people, for free.

"The school where we used to teach is completely crushed," he says. "The leftover kids are waiting for us very desperately. We still have 21 kids still alive. We know some definitely died. Just too terrible for me to explain."

When Appolon was himself a boy in Port-au-Prince, dance was already a passion. He even won a scholarship to a dance program but had to sneak off to take it because his parents wanted him to pursue sports.

"I told them I was going to volleyball practice," Appolon says, "so I’d take a pile of dance clothes and hide it in my bag."

What he saw and felt there as a 10-year-old hooked him for life.

"The first day I went and see drums in front of me and they started to play," Appolon says. "It was like you went straight to heaven. It was a house of joy."

Just a few years later, when Appolon was 14, that joy was tested by tragedy. It was a January morning in 1991 when a military coup toppled former leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Appolon’s father walked out of their house to see if the streets were safe enough to take Jean and his siblings off to school. They weren’t.

Feet move fast at Appolon's dance class. (Chris Burrell for WBUR)
Feet move fast at Appolon's dance class. (Chris Burrell for WBUR)

"Suddenly we saw hundreds of people coming with machetes, saw body parts in their hand," he says. "We didn’t know if it was my father. Neighbors said, ‘They’re killing your father. You got to do something.’ But we were scared. We didn’t know where to go."

Back in the Cambridge studio — more than 1,000 miles from Haiti and the old and newly painful memories it awakens — Appolon reaches up his arms then folds over at the waist as he limbers up his students for a dance called the Ibo, which is all about breaking the chains of slavery.

“Music, music, let’s go," he shouts over drums.

Class regular and Haitian-born Ricardo Desire says this is the way Haitians process their pain — not just now, but for hundreds of years.

"Oh my god, you feel like you’re back home. Your roots, all the good vibes, the spirits," Desire says. "It takes you back to the history, the slavery. They dance when they feel sad. That’s the way you feel the joy. Yeah."

Such resiliency in the face of sadness might just be what draws so many people to the Saturday class. Dancers like Laura Grego say the class does more than get the heart racing — it offers a view of Haiti that's different from the images most Americans know.

"The culture of Haiti is one of its most valuable aspects," she says. "We recognize that it’s so materially poor — especially now so — but to come celebrate what is powerful about Haiti and salute that spirit, I think is good for us as a community."

Class ends and many dancers reach out to hug Appolon before a final ritual: They stop, face the five musicians who have filled this room with an infectious rhythm for the last 90 minutes, and bow.

This program aired on May 31, 2010.

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