yanvalou haitian times

By Sam Bojarski and Leonardo March

Yanvalou, the traditional Afro-Haitian dance, has defined Vodou rituals and ceremonies for centuries.

The Haitian-led dance group La Troupe Zetwal, in partnership with Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Arts Council and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs held an educational event dedicated to the sacred dance in Prospect Park, on Sept. 19. “Yanvalou: A Sacred Dance of Ayiti,” convened Haitian musicians, dancers and sociologists from across New York City.

Dancers and musicians from La Troupe Zetwal honor the tradition of Yanvalou in Prospect Park. Video by Leonardo March

“The dance is basically the foundation of the rhythms of Haitian folklore,” said Sherley Davilmar, La Troupe Zetwal’s co-founder and artistic director. “We just wanted to educate the community on the rhythm, because that rhythm, Yanvalou, is similar to other rhythms in the African diaspora.”

Yanvalou honors the spirit Danbala, the primordial creator of life in the Vodou tradition.

According to Maxine Hamilton-Alexander, who developed the program through the Brooklyn Public Library’s Caribbean Literary and Cultural Center, the Sept. 19 event was supported by a folk arts grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council. The $5,000 grant, she said, will fund subsequent programs highlighting the cultural traditions of the African diaspora.

The event began with a panel discussion tracing the origins and cultural importance of Yanvalou. Panelists included renowned guitarist Paul Beaubrun, Dr. Marie Lily Cerat, a professor of Africana Studies at Brooklyn College, Sky Menesky of the Haitian dance troupe Imamou Lele and drummer Morgan Zwerlein.

Yanvalou traces its origins to Benin, West Africa, and serves as the foundation of the Rada rite within the voudou tradition. The dance, itself a fusion of multiple ethnic traditions, served to unite a similarly diverse group of people in the fight against slavery. Its spinning, undulating movements resemble waves on the ocean, panelists said.

“To survive, you have to be flexible, to adapt,” the Haiti-born Menesky said of Yanvalou. “It’s a form of resistance.”

The Manhattan-based Beaubrun concluded the panel with an acoustic rendition of his song, “Legba Blues.”

Performers, mostly dressed in white to symbolize the life-giving spirit of Danbala, commanded the program’s second segment. This segment opened with a dance exploring the various contexts of Yanvalou. The second dance was a salutation to Legba, another component of the Rada rite.

The tradition of Yanvalou originated among the ancestors of those former slaves who earned Haiti its independence in 1804. According to Cerat, the dance has allowed Haitians to affirm their humanity in the face of slavery, colonialism and cultural erasure.

“What they brilliantly accomplished was using what they brought in their memories, in their souvenirs, as a rallying force,” Cerat said, about Yanvalou’s West African origins. “They fused what they brought into these unifying [practices] of which Vodou dances represent one of the major pillars.”

Sam is a reporter for Go West Now and a 2020 Report for America corps member. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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