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Pioneer Joyce Kirton recalls: An awakening to dance

Published: 
Sunday, October 9, 2016
From left, writer/director Tony Hall, dance educator Joyce Kirton and dancer/choreographer Sonja Dumas, at the Monday Night Theatre Forum in July 2016. Photo: Paula Lindo

Dance pioneer, choreographer and teacher Joyce Kirton began her arts career at age 19 when she entered Government Teachers’ College in 1951. She told the Monday Night Theatre Forum in July that she had always been interested in what happened on stage as well as in film and musicals.

The principal at the college was an Englishman, Luther Kenworthy, who introduced the students to classical music and theatre; his wife, Gwyneth, taught dance, physical education and games.

“That gave a side of myself I didn’t know I had. I didn’t know I could create movement, I thought it was something you had to be taught. I don’t know if our children and even our teachers feel that kind of experience, that kind of awakening in yourself when you discover that you are a creative. She produced in me the kind of dance that changes you as a person. It was not the performing of the dance, but the way the dance made you feel as a person.”

After the Kenworthys left, Sydney Hill from the British Council taught drama and Beryl McBurnie taught dance, although she annoyed the students at first by talking too much. “It dawned on us that this was another kind of education. She taught us to look at Trinidad and see the heritage we had as a people, and so we began to discover that there are different kinds of dance.”

After leaving school, Kirton joined the St Paul’s Choir and the San Fernando Lady’s Choir, before moving on to the Carnegie Players, where she did plays like Dark of the Moon, Misbegotten and Christopher Fry’s The Firstborn, with 14-year-old Patrick Manning. 

She became a founding member of the Arawaks Dance Group in 1955, after the St Paul’s parish priest asked Beryl McBurnie to form a group. Here Kirton met Albert Laveau, who she said was the bright dramatic light of the group before he was enticed away to Port-of-Spain. “That is a process that has repeated itself over the years. Your talent blossoms in San Fernando, then it becomes national and people in the North want you to forget where you came from.”

Kirton then went abroad to study physical education at Chelsea College in Sussex, as this was the only way she could get to do dance. “I began to learn a lot more about choreography. 

“That gave me my Laban base—(Rudolf) Laban (was) a thinker or researcher whose work has influenced dance in education ever since World War Two. You analysed how your body moved and all the things that made movement and we were encouraged to be creative within those boundaries.”

She then returned to San Fernando and began teaching at Anstey Memorial Girls’ Anglican School, where she started Les Enfants Dance Co after the children she was teaching asked to form a dance group. 

The group was invited to perform publicly for the first time in 1962 at an Independence concert in the newly opened Naparima Bowl. Following this, Les Enfants performed for different charitable organisations, as well as having fund-raisers to support itself. Kirton said the group became a family, so it hurt when Port-of-Spain dance groups would lure away her dancers, particularly the boys.

An important part of Les Enfants, Kirton said, was the research they did. One such project was into the saraca dance, which was a number of African nation dances put together. She said this dance came to T&T from Carricou and Grenada where it began. 

In 1973, the group went to places like Quarry Village, Marac and Couva to research the dance, as well as Pembroke in Tobago to research the Congo Nation dance. They used this research to create a production called Roots, which came about mainly through the work of four male dancers: Wilfred Mark, Ridge Rodney, Dennis Noel and Leonard Jack. The production toured all over Trinidad and in Guyana.

Kirton again went abroad to study in her late 30s, obtaining a bachelor’s in education from Sussex University. She was amazed to see the wider variety of dance in schools, ranging from aerobics with music to theatrical/contemporary to dance targeted towards children and teenagers. She said the choreographic programme was taken very seriously but there was a greater focus on theatre and teaching practice, rather than dancing in the studio.

Kirton said these two experiences informed her teaching of dance and her creative process, which was partially instinctive and partially taught. She said she was also influenced by her experience in drama, especially with regards to how people looked on stage.

There are three projects that Kirton would like to see happen: the establishment of a small theatre in San Fernando for some of the smaller groups to be able to put on performances; a homework centre for young people where they can get help if they are struggling with subjects, learn life skills and the arts and play games; and “a secondary school in San Fernando that will cater for all the black children who get good marks in Common Entrance who can’t get into the best schools.”

“I think we can do so much more for our children in schools, but successive governments have not gotten the dance message. If children had dance experiences, they would be more comfortable in their own skin, be more self-aware with a sense of self-worth and self-control. 

“We’re losing what dance can do for the person, the dancer. We teach dance not necessarily to make dancers, but to make better people.”

The Monday Night Theatre Forum has featured speakers from T&T’s drama community, including Albert Laveau, the late Freddie Kissoon, and Belinda Barnes. The series runs at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, corner Jerningham Avenue and Norfolk Street, Belmont.

More info: Call 681-7475.

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