Council on Latin American and Iberian Studies

Receptivity and Humility in Haitian Dance Ethnography: Moving Through Vodou’s Corporeal Technologies in Haitian Dance Pedagogy with Dr. Dasha Chapman

April 27, 2020
Dr. Dasha Chapman, Visiting Professor of Dance at Davidson College leads participants in “Approaching Haitian Dance” through the movements of Yanvalou as a part of the Caribbean Studies Working Group’s Spring 2020 Embodied Interventions Series. Photographs by Teanu Reid, Ph.D. Candidate in African American Studies and History.

The Caribbean Studies Working Group is an interdisciplinary group of scholars dedicated to the study of Caribbean culture, identity and society. We do not limit our study solely to the geographical area of the Caribbean Basin, but encourage the study of Caribbean histories, mobilities, and diasporas. Our bi-weekly meetings are a space for participants to engage foundational texts and ongoing and contemporary research, receive feedback on work-in-progress, and theorize the contours and futures of the field. We welcome anyone interested in furthering their understanding of the practice of Caribbean studies. With the support of the Council for Latin American and Iberian Studies and The Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund; the Theater and Performance Studies and the Dance Studies curriculum with support from the Yale Dance Lab and Robert Wallace Fund for Dance Studies; and The Center for Race, Indigeneity & Transnational Migration we were able to host the “Embodied Interventions” series and are very excited about the conversation, connections, and research possibilities that have emerged through this series.

“Haiti is a site of dance ethnography that requires receptivity and humility.”

Dr. Dasha Chapman articulated, and then lead us through, this stance of receptive humility during her public talk and movement workshop on March 2nd. The second scholar in the Embodied Interventions series, Dr. Chapman gave a public talk titled “Grounding Practice: Vodou’s Corporeal Technologies in Haitian Dance Pedagogy” during which she shared her journey and research with, through, and about Haitian dance. Using interdisciplinary methods routed through Vodou epistemes and Africana theory, Dr. Chapman has spent the last decade working in community with dance artists on the island and in the diaspora. Her research and artistic work explores the connections between place, performance, and practice and the central role dance and collective movement in understanding Haiti’s past, present, and future.

She began her talk with a scene of the role of dance practice in the uprising that would become the Haitian Revolution. Working at the intersection of the spiritual, political, and the embodied, Dr. Chapman’s work helps us understand the connection between embodied practice and social transformation.

As Dr. Chapman states, Haitian dance practitioners “shepherd worlds that cannot take place without collective dance practice. Dance brings worlds into presence through embodied memory.” This came into focus as she explored the connections and overlaps between folkloric dance practitioners and gender/sexuality. By centering the creative and pedagogic practices of artists such as Jean Appolon - a Haitian dance artist who lives in the U.S. and teaches an annual summer institute in Haiti, and [what she terms] his Black queer feminist Haitian dance pedagogy - Dr. Chapman’s research explores how folkloric dance can “make space for movement that is both culturally meaningful and at times transgressive.” In the work of the dance artists with whom she collaborates, and in the Vodou cosmology, the past and present are coterminous, the ancestors are always with us, and dance is how we honor our past and build our future.

Dr. Chapman ended her talk thinking about the connection of this kind of work to the legacies and ongoing struggle for revolution and transformation in and beyond Haiti, asking “How can one construct a body that can labor to build different worlds?”

Dr. Dasha Chapman leads participants through the movement repertoire of Yanvalou.

We had the opportunity to engage those questions in our own bodies during the movement workshop “Approaching Haitian Dance.” Participants included students from Yale College and graduate students in African American Studies, the Divinity School, and visiting scholars and artists. Dr. Chapman invited us all to engage the receptive humility of Yanvalou, a Haitian Vodou rhythm, and dance. The concept of Yanvalou is more capacious and complex than can be explained in a 90-minute dance class, but by guiding us through the qualities of the movement - our knees softly bent so we could stay connected to and feel the vibrations of the earth, our torso hinged at the waist in reverence to the earth and then lifting up to open our arms to the sky, our spines and arms gently undulating with the quality of water or a snake - we began to feel the ways that this rhythm and series of movement opened us up. As Dr. Chapman explained, Yanvalou is used to begin ceremonies and to open the communication between the physical and spiritual realms.

During the movement workshop, Dr. Chapman used a playlist compiled of artists from the island and the Haitian diaspora. While it would have been ideal to have live music, Chapman gifted us with carefully selected music and offered bits of the history and role of each musician in celebrating and sharing Haitian culture.

We are grateful to Dr. Chapman for sharing her time, space, and practice with us and expanding our understandings of dance ethnography, ethical research practice, and Haitian dance practice.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this was unexpectedly our last Embodied Interventions event of the year. The Caribbean Studies Working Group plans to continue the Embodied Interventions conversations and workshops.  We look forward to welcoming Dr. Maya Berry and Tina Vazquez to campus to engage their work on Black feminist rumbera practices when we can once again gather, dance, and move together.

Read about the first Embodied Interventions event with Dr. Adanna Kai Jones, here.

Written by Alison Kibbe, PhD Student in American Studies and African American Studies and Teanu Reid, PhD Candidate in History and African American Studies. Photos and videos by Teanu Reid.

Embodied Interventions is an initiative coordinated by the Caribbean Studies Working Group that explores embodied interventions to interdisciplinary research methodologies, scholarly and creative production, and theoretical terrains. We have invited three incredible scholars working on embodied research methodologies in and across the Caribbean and its diasporas – Dr. Adanna Kai Jones, Dr. Dasha Chapman, and Dr. Maya Berry. Each scholar gives a public talk on their research and leads a movement workshop, offering participants a chance to engage in the multiple facets of embodied research and praxis.

The Caribbean Studies Working Group is an interdisciplinary group of scholars dedicated to the study of Caribbean culture, identity and society. We do not limit our study solely to the geographical area of the Caribbean Basin, but encourage the study of Caribbean histories, mobilities, and diasporas. Our bi-weekly meetings are a space for participants to engage foundational texts and ongoing and contemporary research, receive feedback on work-in-progress, and theorize the contours and futures of the field. We welcome anyone interested in furthering their understanding of the practice of Caribbean studies. While various iterations of a Caribbean studies working group have existed at Yale over the years, we launched this group in 2018-2019 and decided to plan a speaker series for 2019-20 to expand interdisciplinary Caribbean studies conversations on campus. With the support of the Council for Latin American and Iberian Studies and The Edward J. and Dorothy Clarke Kempf Memorial Fund; the Theater and Performance Studies and the Dance Studies curriculum with support from the Yale Dance Lab and Robert Wallace Fund for Dance Studies; and The Center for Race, Indigeneity & Transnational Migration we were able to host the “Embodied Interventions” series and are very excited about the conversation, connections, and research possibilities that have emerged through this series.

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