They say the 3rd time is a charm…and our most recent trip to Trinidad and Tobago was indeed charmed in so many incredible ways…yet it was also the biggest challenge that I, and my performance collective Daring Arts Movement, have faced since our formation. The dream was enormous to begin with…and compared with the 2 months we spent on the island last year, 3 weeks was a very short period in which to execute it all!
The planning started months ahead of time…Claire and I found super cheap tickets in the Fall and that spurred me to really start organizing. I had been communicating with Val, the Artistic Director for The Lost Tribe since we left last year, as well as Kes’ (one of the biggest Soca music artists on the island) brother after meeting him at their show through our friend Dexter. As we had learned in the previous years, communication with Trinidadians is often vague at best unless you’re in front of them, and this was no exception. We knew there was a chance we could perform with Kes the Band on stilts for their annual Tuesday on the Rocks show, and definitely potential to collaborate in a bigger way with The Lost Tribe, who’s theme this year told the story of 7 sisters and a wandering traveler who touched their lives before breaking the youngest’s heart and leaving the sisters to support each other, but details were hard to come by in advance.
We had proposed representing the 7 sisters on stilts and Val suggested we could collaborate with the dancers from Metamorphosis Dance company, so I set to work to prepare 6 ladies to perform with us. Claire and Tica were in from the start. Our dear friends Rian and Dominque from Trinidad expressed interest and I linked them up with our friend Adrian from the Touch D’ Skye/Future Jumbies stilt group on the island to make the stilts and help train them. That left us with two spaces to fill. Aimee, who I had been collaborating with on dance projects for most of the year, and who had already started learning to stilt, seemed like a natural fit. Through one of her dancehall workshops I reconnected with Kafi, who owns two beautiful dance studios in the bay and who’s family is from Guyana and Trinidad, and she lit up at the mention of our endeavor and upon seeing the costumes. I started training both of them (along with the amazing Stella, who wanted to learn even though she couldn’t go on the trip) and our dear friend David Hanson at Stilt Factory began building them their own stilts. We adapted the Samba Reggae stilt choreography Aimee and I had created to work with Soca, and I choreographed a more dancehall-based stilt piece that incorporated moves I learned from Aimee’s classes. It was challenging to get everyone to rehearse together but we trained hard and sent videos to Dominique and Rian in Trinidad so they could start learning the choreography too. Granted, we didn’t know how or if we would even use them (what Val had in mind for us for the carnival parades was more theatrical and formational and less dance based), but I wanted to be prepared for anything and it payed off! We also started working on our costumes for Carnival Monday, which we had to provide ourselves, and which needed to fit the Red/Love theme. We basically all bought red monokini bases and then I made us black and white accessories to tie us together and give a nod to the Trinidadian Flag. I was worried we would have to create stilt covers to match all of the 7 sisters costumes, but luckily I decided to hold off until things were confirmed, which was a good decision because about 2 weeks before the trip everything changed.
Val had been pretty out of touch after losing his mother, and when we did start to talk again the vision had shifted. Instead of representing the sisters, he wanted us to represent the blooming Poui trees that surround the Savannah and the buildings who's architecture had inspired the sisters’ costume designs, and he planned to design special costumes for us and have us collaborate with the dancers on the ground who would represent the sisters. While this was a little disappointing because we had spent a lot of time deciding who would be what sister and imagining ourselves in that role, it made more sense visually, and it was also a relief because we didn’t have to provide the stilt covers (or so we thought), and it gave us more flexibility in case someone got injured or couldn’t participate because having 7 stilters was no longer as significant. This turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise.
The two weeks leading up to the trip were a bit of a shitshow for me personally. I had been convinced that doing an Athlete’s transformation cleanse through a superfood company called Purium was a good idea, and I was hoping it would strengthen my immune system and body and set me up for a healthy trip. It did completely the opposite. I had a strange reaction to it that caused mysterious, painful, itchy bruising all over one leg, severe sciatic nerve pain, fatigue, and a rash that my doctors couldn’t explain. My acupuncturist thought maybe it was the shingles virus and I still think that may be possible. My blood tests showed slight iron and Vit D deficiency so I started taking those supplements and avoided the intense pain killers my doctor tried to put me on in the absence of real answers. Everyone was skeptical about me going on the trip and it was hard to explain just how much had gone into it and how essential it was that I go, given all the people I was coordinating. My energy and my spirits were low but I had to trust that the tropical air, warm salt water, and sunshine would save me, and thankfully that was entirely true. I felt much better as soon as we arrived, but DAM if it wasn’t a terrible way to start a trip with so much in the works! Of course I completely wore myself out and depleted my system again during Carnival, so now I’m recovering again, but at least the mysterious symptoms have disappeared.
That was the first punch. Two more came right on its tail before we even touched down in Trinidad. I received text messages from Kafi and then Aimee saying they would not be able to follow through with the trip due to commitments at home. This wasn’t terribly surprising coming from Kafi because I was already under the impression that her heart wasn’t in it and she had expressed that it was beginning to feel too much like work given her other commitments (it IS work for me!), but not until about a week before we left. I should have done a better job at checking in sooner, but in retrospect I can’t help but feel like her backing out opened the door for others to not take their commitments seriously either. Aimee’s message came a day or two later and was much more of a surprise. I knew she was having a hard time getting comfortable on stilts and was dealing with a mental block around safety, but I had spent a ton of time working with her to overcome this and it felt like we were getting there. Alas she was involved in a court case about black mold in her previous home and they told her she had to be present to move the lawsuit forward! Terrible timing! I feel like the performance anxiety may have been more of a factor than either of them let on, but what was really upsetting was that neither one of them apologized or acknowledged in their initial messages that they knew how this would affect the whole group and the trip in general. And it did…every single day. Not only had I made commitments for us and offered a certain amount of stilt walkers for performances, I had also made decisions for a group of 5 foreigners that I would not have made if I’d known it would just be the 3 of us (renting an Air BnB that would accommodate all of us farther away from the action than I would have liked, making plans to rent a car, creating costume pieces for all of us, and spending lots of time on choreography, formations, and training). We managed to roll with the punches and luckily everyone in Trinidad was super understanding (I think they are used to people flaking a lot!), but now that it’s all behind me I feel like my biggest challenge is to not get down on collaborating (which I love and want to continue doing) and instead trying to find better ways to protect myself and those who do follow through in the future. You live and learn right?
Getting to go to Army Fete and Jam Nation Fete (a crazy party where you get sprayed with paint, water, and powder from like 3 am until late morning and the vibes are so high and ecstatic that all you can do is surrender to whatever gets thrown at you and dance your heart out until you drop) and then “Down De Islands” on a catamaran with our friend Dexter to celebrate his birthday definitely lifted our spirits tho. Of course the boat ride involved a lot of the hurry-up-and-wait reality we’ve started to get used to, but it was such an epic and beautiful day filled with awesome people, non-stop dancing and shenanigans, and swimming in beautiful coves (the captain was dedicated to leaving the more beautiful than he found them so we helped him with a beach cleanup at one of our stops). We met some amazing characters, including Andrew Friday (a super fun Trini personality who goes by FRIES and entertained us all day with his MC antics on board), an undercover salsa dancer who surprised us with all his moves out of nowhere, and some badass ladies who were so sweet and fun to have along!
Getting the opportunity to perform on stage with Kes a couple days later was definitely a highlight of the trip! Nothing was really figured out until rehearsal the day before the show (there had been some talk of having us in the crowd, which I was not excited about given the slanted amphitheater set up and the amount of trash and drunken patrons that usually litter the ground at the end of a fete, and Hans had only given me the live recording of the songs a day or two before, and of course it’s completely different than the studio version so we had to re-work the choreographies), and that in itself was quite an experience. I had been put in touch with the stage manager, Wendell, who had a reputation for being rather strict and timely, and he asked us to come at 9. Of course they weren’t ready for us until after midnight, but we got to meet the Kes dancers backstage (Kes himself was only present for a small part of the rehearsal, it was more about the band and dancers) and coordinate with Naila, the dance lead of many years. They were so sweet and welcoming and liked the choreography we showed them. Naila suggested we take the stage for the last song “People” and then come out with them again for Hello for the encore. It also turned out that our costumes looked awesome with their red ones...they changed like 8 times during the show....
We waited and rehearsed and tried to figure out when to get on stilts. We thought we had plenty of time but as soon as we started Wendell rushed back to hurry us up and next thing we knew we were running it on stage once and that was it! And no one really knew how much of Hello they would play for the encore as it depended on timing, so we were still left with a lot of questions but at least we got to practice on the actual stage! The rest of the band seemed to have no idea what we were doing so it was fun to see the awe on their faces! Naila asked us to change part of the choreography that had us more centered on stage so we ended up having to combine the two choreographies into one and make more last minute changes (cheers to Claire for putting up with that—its extra hard when you’re a newer dancer!), so I was really glad we had prepared so well! Unfortunately they could only afford 3 of us (trying to figure out what to charge was a challenge, and I ended up researching local moko jumbie rates and staying in that range out of respect for our friends in the industry) so Rian and Dominque didn’t get to perform with us but they were awesome backstage handlers and supporters all the way through!
The night of the performance started off a little rough as we got there after the show had started due to another rehearsal commitment with The Lost Tribe, and the security wouldn’t let us use our parking pass so we had to haul our stuff in and park far away. But once we made it backstage the energy was so high and positive and beautiful! It was a little hard to enjoy the show from backstage and because it was hard to tell how soon we needed to be ready, but we met some awesome people (including Soca Star Allison Hinds and Red Rat from Jamaica, and Machel Montano, who we almost got a picture with but he got bombarded) and did a fun interview with Fries for his media channel (above).
The choreography went off well (it’s kinda funny performing behind someone you haven’t even officially met) and we managed to get a picture with Kes afterward and hang out with the band, who were super excited and loved our contribution!
I connected with their other manager Simon, who we will be collaborating with for a show in LA later this month, and we also met a couple named Adrian and Nicole who own the dance studio right next to our Air BnB and who dance with some of the best dancers on the island! The positive vibes and energy were tangible and it was such a blessing to be involved in a truly epic production! Still working on getting the rest of the footage from our friend Mandela, but here’s a little teaser for now! We come out at 1:15.
After the Kes show we didn’t really stop again until after Carnival! Our big rehearsal on the actual Savannah stage with The Lost Tribe was on Wednesday, and our friend Andre invited us to be in his Music Video (below) right before in the same location. Rian and Dom could only make it for the rehearsal so they didn’t make it into the video unfortunately, but Claire and Tica and I rocked it. The two kind of bled into each other so it got a little chaotic at one point and Rian ended up taking her first stilt fall in between runs. She wasn’t picking up her feet enough (a common mistake when you’re learning) and tripped and fell pretty hard, hitting her chin and splitting it open. It was pretty scary and bloody but she took it like a champ and Claire drove her to the hospital while I stayed to continue the rehearsal and the filming as best I could.
We were all a bit shaken up after the fall, especially Dominique (it’s often scarier to watch a fall then to experience one), and it was hard to keep the energy up. We had bought expensive tickets to a big Fete in the south of the island featuring Bunji and Cardi B, and it was a struggle to rally for it. When we finally got there (Thanks to Claire for being such a pro driver-it was not easy to navigate all the potholes, driving on the other side of the road, and the lack of respect for the rules, not to mention our piece of shit car we had rented for cheap from a friend of a friend, and pounding rain/foggy windows, but she handled it so well and it really made a difference to be mobile and independent and not constantly waiting on other people for rides) it was rather empty and before long it started pouring so hard that it was just completely miserable and we left soon after. Not the best night…but they can’t all be epic right? Two days later we ended up having an amazing time with our whole crew at the Blue Range Cooler Fete. There are all-inclusive fetes, which are more expensive and drinks and sometimes food are included, but in our experiences the cooler fetes are much more fun--you basically haul in a cooler full of all your drinks and post up in the crowd and dance around and on and over it all night).
Luckily Rian was ok and her chin healed pretty quickly…and she got right back on stilts like such a pro and I spent a lot of time training her over the weekend to make sure she felt comfortable and confident for Carnival. Unfortunately Dominque wasn’t able to make these trainings and was still pretty shaken up from Rian’s fall. I stayed home from another boat ride we’d been invited on over the weekend to rest and get her stronger straps for her stilts to make them more secure (they came with only ripped pieces of fabric tied together to make a long wrapping strip for the knee brace, which seemed so unsafe to me and it was really hard to get it tight enough), but she ended up having issues with her knee (she’s been training to get on the Trinidad pro volleyball team) and finally admitting to me, just one day before the Carnival parades, that she didn’t think she could do it safely, despite my gengle daily pressure to get her to make a decision one way or another so we could move forward. This was pretty frustrating since I’d been checking in with her since the beginning to make sure she had everything she needed to be successful and she kept reassuring me she felt ready and confident. The Lost Tribe had also made special costumes for us and we had choreographed the presentation with all 5 of us so we had to change the choreography last minute, but luckily they were understanding and our part in the choreography was pretty simple. I actually started weeping the first time we saw the dancers rehearse it. Bridgett, the choreographer of Metamorphosis dance, had such a beautiful clear vision of how to tell the story of the 7 sisters through movement! It felt really special and healing to be part of it and she was an absolute joy to work with!
Unfortunately our costumes were another challenging piece of our already disjointed puzzle. We knew they were supposed to represent the pink Poui trees, but beyond that we hadn’t seen much more than a sketch, and we weren’t able to actually pick them up until Sunday, the day before Carnival. Val had told us he would also make the stilt covers, but then had a hard time getting a seamstress last minute so we ended up hiring Jody to make them for us with whatever fabric she could find (there wasn't much available so they barely made it through the day in one piece). We thought they would be pink or brown and if we’d known they would be white we could have easily brought more of our own (although I’d left my extra ones with Aimee so that would have backfired too), so that was the first frustrating piece. The second was that the material they decided to use (sort of a sheer textured fabric painted pink and orange) didn’t flow well and was super scratchy. We were given a big backpack, wings, and a sort of dress thing but that ended up being super uncomfortable and not fitting well with the other pieces. We tried adding it to the stilt covers but were too worried it would catch, and so instead ended up making head wraps out of it. And because our bodies were supposed to be (semi) covered with the dresses, the bases were super simple-basically they just gave us a bag of plain white bras and bikini bottoms, but none of them were the sizes we had provided, so we ended up having to scrounge what they had left from other costumes and put together our own white bases (which again we could have done a better job of bringing from home if we’d known that was needed). But we made the most of it with Jody’s help (we kept laughing that we felt like Orange Sherbet Trolls) and were able to give her Dominque’s bracelet so she could accompany us on the ground on Tuesday and at least get to do something fun for all her efforts!
After solving the costume crisis to the best of our abilities we tried to settle into the mattresses Mike and Jody had so generously set up for us on the ground in the dance studio (traffic is so bad and we had to be up so early that it didn’t make sense to stay at our place in Curepe for those few days), but it was rather hard to get real rest because Nalini had been hired to create costumes for another band so the studio was full of people crafting and coming in and out to get makeup done. We got a couple hours at least lying down and then headed out at about 3 AM in our ridiculous Flintstones costumes to play Jouvert with Paprika again!
It was too much fun and we met an awesome crew of Trinidadian boys who had a similar vibe and we got pretty wild dancing with them. It was awesome to be able to invite Mike and Jody again—we always have a great time with them and it’s one of the few times we see mike really let loose! At the end of the morning (well after sunrise) we encountered a small crew with an MC on the truck who kept prompting us to show him how we did it in Cali and I drunkenly did a split in the street and my old quad injury popped a little again. It was a little sore after but I was really lucky it wasn’t worse because last year it was such an issue!
Then we came back to the studio to shower and try to scrub off the paint and mud and rest a little.
Rian had to pick up her cousin Keon so they were a little late but we headed out in our Black White and Red, perhaps still a little buzzed from Jouvert, and caught a shuttle that helped us catch up with the band cause they were already on the move. Monday we had just agreed to be on stilts for an hour at some point so we hung out on the ground again and enjoyed dancing to the Laventile Rhythm Section and all their amazing live drums—what a treat to have them on the road with us again! We were all tired and it was very hot and we probably drank a little too much early on. At some point Tica and I went to the bathroom and then lost Claire and Rian because the bathroom and drink trucks take a separate route when you get to the stages and the band had just entered the Savannah (the park where the main stage is). It took a long time to find Claire and Rian and when we finally did they were on stilts and ours had taken the other route on our truck. I wanted to go get them before we crossed the stage but Tica was not in good shape. I’m not sure exactly what was going on but I think the combination of fatigue and booze and sun was working against her and affected her outlook too. The year before she had a challenging experience on Monday and felt like people weren’t very receptive to her on stilts and that was coming back to haunt her. She didn’t feel like she could safely stilt and I felt like I needed to stay with her and support her but that made me sad because I really wanted to be up there with them for Rian’s first time on stilts in a crowd. But it ended up being a good thing we were there to support on the ground because the energy before we crossed the stage got really crazy and it felt like they might get plowed over by people trying to rush through the human barrier. With the help of Keon’s amazing friend Stefan, who ended up being a great handler and helper for us both days, Tica and I made a little circle around Claire and Rian on Stilts to keep them safe. Rian did so incredibly well and handled the stress like such a pro! I was so proud of her and glad we had taken the time for the extra training because it really paid off!
After we crossed the stage Tica’s emotions were heightened and we all came together to console her on the gear truck. I was still upset that we didn’t get on stilts but I put that aside because she was clearly dealing with something bigger. It’s an interesting experience being a foreigner here and doing an art form that has so much cultural history. For the most part I always feel like we are really well received but I’ve also felt like an imposter too. She was getting down on herself for feeling sad and lonely amidst all the joy and revelry and we did our best to remind her that Carnival is a microcosm of the full spectrum of human emotions, and when they come to the surface they hit hard and you can’t escape them. Most people only see the sparkly, joyful, playful side, but anyone who has survived a carnival of this magnitude knows there are also many moments you want to cry, scream, give up, and escape as well and it’s important to find a place for them and accept them. Things got better after lunch (she was probably hungry too) and her and I planned to get up for the next stage, but then the driver of our gear truck told us the truck was leaving and we had to get our stuff off. We had already walked a long way dragging stilts and were far from home and only getting farther, so we decided to just head back. The walk was brutal in the heat and trying to navigate the crowds in the wrong direction was tough, so by the time we finally reached the studio we were all a wreck.
We rested and showered and then I called us to the back of the studio outside the tiny apartment we had occupied the past two years for a little re-set. We decided to burn the raggedy little ties Dominique and Rian had been given with their stilts since we had gotten better straps, and because to me they represented insecurity and doubt and I wanted to dispel that before Tuesday. We had a little ceremony and helped each other let go of whatever we didn't need moving forward and it ended up being super important to have that time together. I realized that even though it was frustrating to lose 3 people so late in the game, everyone who was supposed to be there was right there, living the experience fully with me and supporting each other in such a beautiful and positive way. It was exactly as it needed to be.
We tried to rest that night but there was a lot of activity in the studio until late and then Nalini came early in to get makeup started and had a lot to say so we decided to just start getting ready. It’s a good thing we did because getting the fabric wrapped around our heads and doing big makeup without a plan took a lot of time.
We reached the band just in time as they were starting to move, and found the truck from the day before and put our stilts on it, not realizing that we were meant to have them on a different truck at the front of the band, and this one was in the middle. It was pretty hard to figure out what was going on and when we needed to be where at first, so we grabbed some doubles for breakfast and had to get on stilts pretty fast, as we were told the first stage was close. Of course it ended up being a hurry-up-and-wait situation, which was the case all day. We were a little late for the second stage because by that point we really had to pee and it took forever to make our way all the way back through the band. Luckily for the first few stages we just had to cross and freestyle and didn’t have to do the whole presentation.
The savannah stage was the first time we did the whole piece. We met some of the owners of one of the little food booths who generously let us use their table to get back on our stilts and get out of the sun. We were also so happy to have help from Stefan, who was technically there to be the handler for Keon (who was playing the part of the wanderer in a huge silver costume) but who was also so helpful to us.
A couple of the other staff members were also instrumental in helping us out (thank you Nigel!), but we realized that next year we really need dedicated handlers to help it all go more smoothly. We had to cross over to the other side of the stage (below the side of the stage where the music trucks pass), but unfortunately they wouldn’t let us go until the band before us was completely off the stage, so that meant we had to book it to get over there in time for our entrance. But the presentation went off beautifully, and it felt awesome to be part of something so creative and visually stunning, especially compared to the sea of repetitive feathers and rhinestones that make up most of carnival. At lunch we were careful not to have any rum popsicles (they totally destroyed us last year) and to refuel as best we could. We were so happy to be joined by Jody and Mike at the lunch stop and they were super helpful in getting us through the rest of the day.
We did the presentation two more times, at the huge Socadrome Stadium, and then on the street, which was one of the most challenging because it was the end of the day, and the energy of the crowd got really crazy once the sun went down. There weren’t many people out to watch early on because it was so hot, but it felt like everyone came out with their whole family, and lots of booze, in the evening. After we crossed that last stage we were finally done with our commitments and that gave us a second wind because it had been such an incredibly long day on and off stilts!
Rian’s brother was a life saver and came to meet us to take away our stilts so that we could stay and dance and finally make it to Las Lap (where several of the Tribe affiliated bands meet for one last lime in a park). On the way we found a crazy number of discarded costume items (Tica was a pro at this) including two huge white headpieces. We didn’t even end up going into the park because the headpieces were too huge for the entrance and it seemed crowded inside. So we made our own party on the outside, as we are prone to doing, and we ran into some friends totally randomly. While we were dancing someone walked off with one of the headpieces, but so it goes…easy come easy go…
When we finally made it back to the studio we were all a wreck and I had a little breakdown of my own when Claire and Tica went to get the car and left me alone at the dance studio for what felt like forever in my exhausted state. I did my best to sweep up the glitter and dust but I was seriously crashing. It was a long drive back to Curepe and Claire handled driving through the crowds like such a champ and was super sweet to let me fall asleep while she took Tica to the airport later on. I can’t believe she flew home in that state!
I had completely worn myself thin again and for the next couple days I was pretty useless. Claire dragged me to the beach the next day, but it rained almost the entire time (it was a very unusually rainy season) and I was pretty miserable. Something was definitely still not right with my health and though I’d tried to take care of myself I had definitely pushed my limits and was struggling to stay positive. We thought about going to Tobago but it was just too much and I’m glad we didn’t.
We were rested enough by Saturday to go to Las Jam (one last fete where they bring out drink and music trucks and you basically make laps around the Socadrome and then cross the stage one last time and pretend it’s still Carnival. It’s all pretty silly but we had an awesome time and finally got to see some friends we had missed, like the amazing Jamaal from last year!
And then we planned a going away party on the beach that we ended up combining with our friend Khary’s bday party. It was chill but sweet to have some more time with everyone and we met an awesome couple, Janine and Kyle and their adorable child, who may end up being a great connection for doing more events in Trini next year. We also got to check out Adrian and Nicole’s new dance studio, which is gorgeous and super centrally located and has a 2 bedroom apartment in the back that they are fixing up…we asked if we could put a down payment on it for next year! It would be so perfect! We had a great follow up conversation with Val about how everything worked out for us and he was so sweet and receptive to our ideas for next year, so we are excited to see how things continue to develop and improve! We may even try to make a trip down in July for the Band Launch, where everyone presents their costume prototypes for the first time.
We didn’t do as good of a job this year at connecting with women (we had a lot more time last year to make that happen), but it did feel like certain cultural issues were starting to shift in a positive way and that was awesome to see. While homophobia is still a big problem (especially for men), it felt like we got to witness many more people expressing themselves freely, especially in the Lost Tribe community, which is known for being more open minded and accepting, and that was so inspiring! We also encountered a lot of badass women making their voices heard through events like the Vagina Monologues (unfortunately we didn’t get to go) and through the Lost Tribe platform. And we definitely had a lot more conversations with men who are starting to see the value in asking permission to wine on the dance floor and on the road, which translates into a bigger conversation about consent that seems more commonly spoken on than ever before. It’s always hard as a foreigner to figure out what your place is in speaking about these issues. Even though it feels like we are taking a lot of steps backward as a country in the US right now, we have made a lot of progress too and it’s important to remember that other countries are in different places in that journey. It’s not our job to force our standards in places that have different cultural values (god knows we’ve done enough of that colonizer shit as a country and it clearly doesn’t work well). I just hope it continues to get easier for people to express themselves and feel free and safe and respected because Trinidadian culture has so much beauty and joy to offer the world! We can’t seem to stay away, so stay tuned for the next installment, because each time it seems to get bigger and better!