Words by Emily Shapiro, Photos and Video by Terence Thomas—
While we’ve found lots of reasons to explore Trinidad, we haven’t had as many opportunities to spotlight it’s smaller sister island, Tobago. So when we met our super talented Tobagonian friend and Large Up supporter, dancer Lindsay Hall, we jumped at the chance to learn more about her and the culture on the island in which she was raised.
Lindsay arrived in New York a few years ago to study at Alvin Ailey, and she may be the only student ever from Tobago to study at the prestigious institution. While she spends much of her time performing modern dance, she has also begun to develop a career as a dancehall dancer. She has worked with choreographer Hanna Herbertson and is set to perform this summer with company Liberation Dance Theater at Central Park’s SummerStage, dancing in a variety of styles. The duality of her formal training and her rude gyal persona creates a unique style you don’t often see in dancehall. We sat down with Lindsay to learn more about all things Tobagonian, and her experiences as a dancer. Read our Q + A, and watch her hot it up to the tune of “Wine Di Best” from Orange Hill Productions (feat. Busy Signal, Kano and Fatman Scoop)’s in our exclusive video below. And look out for more of her skills on Large Up in the future.
Large Up: Start by giving us a little background on where you are from, and how you found dance and New York.
Lindsay Hall: I was born in Edmonton, Canada. My mom basically went up there to have me—she is from Canada but she was living in Trinidad at the time. I lived there for four months and went straight back to Tobago and lived there until I was 18. After high school, I went to Simon Franklin University for a year and studied dance and biology. I wanted to be a marine biologist, that was my thing, but I wanted to dance NOW so when I came back home that summer I applied to Ailey, got in and I graduated last year.
LU: We have spoken about how Trinidad and Tobago are different from one another. Trinidad is more hustle and bustle and Tobago is the sleepier of the two. How do you think training as a dancer in Tobago is different than in America? And is it different than training in Trinidad?
LH: We had the whole African influence that is just there automatically. I was training next to the company that was doing the folk dances and all that. So even though you are doing ballet and pirouettes and whatever, you’re still doing the djembe and all these traditional Tobago dances, the Tobago jig. My teacher was actually from Trinidad, so she would come over every week and teach us every Saturday, so the standard was kind of the same. But in terms of the folk stuff, Trinidad has an Indian influence that Tobago doesn’t have so I was less familiar with that.
LU: Here, dancehall is just developing legitimacy as a dance form the way that hip-hop styles were in the 80’s. Is that happening in Tobago?
LH: It’s still something on the side that you just do, you learn from videos and do at the club. It’s not quite established but people love doing it and it’s becoming more popular with young people. You’ll see it in school talent shows and stuff like that. When I was growing up, it was just something you did when dancehall came on. Nobody thought about it as anything more.
LU: At Alvin Ailey, how do you think the style of training in Tobago helped you, or didn’t help you? How did it affect you as a student?
LH: I wasn’t used to that dance world, just how it works, how different teachers come in. And then the whole “dancer” thing. People were always talking about their weight or what they ate that day. I never thought about that before. The typical things that you think about dancers like being too thin or too fat or having bad feet, people talked about that stuff a lot. When I first arrived in New York, I was sharing a room with two girls who were here to be ballet dancers. They were talking about how little they had had for dinner, or how they had just eaten frozen yogurt as a meal. It was crazy! In Tobago, I was one of two in my class by the time I left. Here, competition was crazy, people were fighting for attention from the teachers. That whole fight, I had to build, because I didn’t have that. Not that I wasn’t working hard but compared to other girls, who were in your face, teachers were encouraging that. I had to find a balance between what was me and what would get me the attention that I needed for my career.
LU: Have you met a lot of other dancers from the West Indies? I have been e-mailing with staff at Ailey and they say that they don’t have more than five students from Trinidad or Tobago in the past 20 years. There may have only been one or two from Tobago ever.
LH: There were a couple of other dancers who had West Indian roots at Ailey. Their parents or grandparents were from Trinidad or Jamaica or Haiti. I met a couple of people from French Guiana and one girl was at Ailey from Trinidad. There were a few but not many who were directly from the islands.
LU: Why do you think there aren’t more people becoming dancers from that part of the world? It’s often really ingrained in the culture so you might think a lot of people would be interested in pursuing it as a career…
LH: There are a few who do it and the talent is there but I think a lot of it is cultural, their parents don’t want them to do that, they want them to become doctors, and it’s expensive to move up here and do that. There are quite a bit of dancers in Trinidad but without the competition and the different levels of ability it’s hard to just join a company from Trinidad in New York City or in Europe. It’s happened though. There have been Trinidadians in the Ailey company, in every major company.
LU: When you were growing up, did you have role models as a dancer?
LH: No but there are lots of people ahead of me. I must give props where props are due. Beryl McBurny is the godmother of dance in Trinidad. She was one of the first who brought the folk dance into something that was not just done by the slaves. It was performed. It was something that people could appreciate and brought it to the wider world.
LU: We spoke about your interactions with the style in Tobago but how do you feel now that you are more formally studying dancehall here?
LH: For me, it’s a way to express myself that is through my culture. Dancehall isn’t really Trinidadian but it’s the closest thing, it’s popular, it’s fun. I actually started taking class in Vancouver. I met this Guyanese guy who took me and I thought “dancehall class? That is so weird.” And that’s how I started. The contemporary stuff is a way to express myself, yes, but it’s not culturally something that I intrinsically identify with. I grew up with dancehall since forever, I know it inside out. It makes sense.
LU: Do you think there will be a dancehall class in Trinidad?
LH: Actually, it is just starting. They are offering hip-hop more and more and dancehall is starting. I haven’t taken it yet but the videos look good.
LU: Do you feel it is helping you as a dancer in general?
LH: Definitely. My movement quality has changed, Ailey is very technique [oriented] and Horton and Graham and Ballet are very codified and classically modern. They’re not classical and they’re not post-modern so they are very linear. Taking dancehall is very different. You bend your back, it’s down and more stylized. When I go back to my contemporary stuff, I bring that with me. It’s a nice mix.
Lindsay’s mad dance skills have left us at Large Up in the mood for a good competition. We are launching a YouTube “Wine Di Best” contest. If you think you are the black, white, Spanish, skinny or fat gyal that Busy Signal is chatting about get your camera phones and waistlines ready to go. We will be announcing the details any day now!