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Ringing in the Holidays to a Caribbean Beat

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By Stephanie Martin | Dec 20, 2013

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Listen to Stephanie Martin’s report on Dance Kaiso.

Half a dozen teenagers sit in a computer lab in a building next door to San Francisco’s Juvenile Court. Each holds a pair of bamboo sticks. Their heads bow and brows furrow as they clap out the jambalasse, a Caribbean carnival rhythm developed by African slaves and their descendants. The kids — some fresh out of juvenile detention — are working to get their GEDs through a transitional school program in San Francisco.

On this day, they’re rehearsing with a local dance company called Dance Kaiso for a performance next week marking the first night of Kwanzaa, the seven-day holiday celebrating the history and culture of the African diaspora. For 26 years, Dance Kaiso co-founders Wilfred Mark and Robbin Frey have worked with young people to preserve Caribbean cultural traditions.

“This part is a little tricky,” says Mark, who patiently teaches this group the traditional rhythms of Trinidad, his island homeland off the coast of Venezuela. The students don’t say much, but once they get the hang of a calypso groove on the bongo drums, even the most stoic kids break into smiles.

Monae Ballard, 17, says she spent three weeks shivering in San Francisco’s juvenile hall for her role in a robbery. She says she learned her lesson and is excited to be out. She joins the group on a large drum with a mallet and sways side to side through the rest of class. “Once you get the beat down, you start moving with it,” Ballard says. “You have fun with it.”


Dance Kaiso co-founders Mark and Frey have devoted themselves to keeping San Francisco’s established Afro-Caribbean dance scene thriving. Mark was a principal dancer with The Astor Johnson Repertory Dance Theater of Trinidad and Tobago. Frey was a professional actor and dancer before she met Mark while earning a Master’s in Dance Ethnology from San Francisco State.

Mark says they are just as serious about working with teens and small children as they are adult professionals. “They’re creative in their own right,” Mark explains. “I respect that. I don’t differentiate working with them from any seasoned artist.” That philosophy is tested a bit with another group Dance Kaiso is training for the Kwanzaa performance.

The some two dozen preschoolers gathered at an empty gallery in the city’s Western Addition neighborhood come from several community-enrichment programs. They giggle and stumble over their shoe laces as they learn their roles. Mark and Frey take turns marching them down the floor to the jambalasse rhythm, clawing the air with curled fingers.

The footwork is pretty complex for these novice dancers. So, for the show, most will line up under a long, shaggy dragon costume made of multicolored rags and prance to a calypso piece by famous Trinidadian musician Lord Kitchener. A few days later, Dance Kaiso heads to the Meadows Livingstone School, a tiny, private elementary school tucked behind a gate in the city’s Mission District. Mark and Frey have been artists-in-residence here for about 15 years. Before they begin the dance class, the kids take turns standing before the Kwanzaa altar to remember their ancestors.

Then they stomp, jump and swing their arms all together and in time to a bongo beat used at wake ceremonies in Trinidad. Mark and Frey often stop the music to let the kids reflect on what they’re doing and how it relates to them. “My dad’s family is from the Caribbean and Trinidad,” says one young boy. “My grandpa’s father,” he clarifies.

Principal Gail Meadows says working with Dance Kaiso helps the kids better understand and celebrate their African roots. “Plus, if you can accomplish something as a child, as a person in general, you feel good about yourself,” Meadows says. “You know, you can take your place in this world.”

Kids from all three groups will take their places onstage Thursday, December 26, 2013 for the Kwanzaa celebration at the West Bay Conference Center on Fillmore Street. Mark and Frey say above all, they want the kids to have fun and infuse their own creativity into the performance.

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