Tales from the Archive: Fire Dancing in the Ballroom

Sometimes the line between the lurid and the divine is not so apparent. So I didn’t know how to react when Frisner told me we were doing a “voodoo” midnight show at a West Indian ballroom in Flatbush, that the presenter wanted something sensational, and that he, Frisner, was eager to take the gig. Makandal, named after one of Haiti’s most feared revolutionaries—an infamous magician who triumphed over death at the stake—had first made its mark in New York with such specialties as eating broken glass and dancing with fire. But by the late summer of 1990 most of the dancers who arrived with Makandal in 1981 had left the group, and we hadn’t replaced them with magicians. We cultivated a more polished image now. Or did we?

If we drummed and danced anywhere, it was on that fine line between sensationalism and the sensational. Yes, Haitian Vodou is sensational. Some of the best theater in the world happens anba peristil (beneath the peristyle), and Makandal had developed a theatrical approach that evoked Vodou’s mystery while trying to avoid such negative clichés as voodoo dolls and zonbi (walking dead). The audience, of course, was free to interpret as it wished. We knew that, and maybe we experienced some of the forbidden thrill, too.

150902_Flyer_144Now, just after midnight, we found ourselves in Tilden Ballroom on Tilden Avenue in Flatbush—our own backyard and home to one of the largest Caribbean communities outside the islands. It was the wee hours of September 9, 1990, and the neighborhood was one where you had to watch your back. As Saxon Baird reported for LargeUp.com, “In dire need of a taste of home and a haven from the rough environment that lurked just outside the entrance doors, places like the Biltmore Ballroom (along with Tilden Ballroom, Starlite and and Flamingo Ballroom) were go-to spaces to hear and dance to the newest hits out of Jamaica (as well as New York) or to see the island’s hottest new deejays perform late into the night with the best local acts.” We arrived around midnight and noted an audience largely from Jamaica and Guyana, waiting to “witness the Vodhoo rituals” (see flyer image).

Frisner had it under control. He took his time laying out his ritual paraphernalia: an enamel basin, candles, a bottle of rum, a whip, two cattle horns stuffed with pinewood drenched in lighter fluid, and a copy of his latest LP—for luck, no doubt. His costume— satiny red pants with matching chest harness and armband, and a sequined red headband—set him radically apart from drummers Jean Alphonse and Luc Richard. It wasn’t until the third or fourth number that we saw what he was up to. He left his drum behind with Alphonse, exited with dancers Nicole Attaway and Caroline Webb, and led them back onto the floor to the beat of nago, the warrior dance. The threesome worked its way through a few standard formations, and then the two women set the cattle-horn torches ablaze and handed them to Frisner. It was all I could do to stay still behind the camera. The rest is for your delight below.

The fire dance is sensational. On the stage it is theatricalized, and doing it properly often involves some measure of misdirection and illusion. In the Vodou temple, where one continues to see it today, the dans dife re-enacts a very real struggle from the past, where mind over matter won the day, not to mention a remarkable revolution. Frisner danced that night in the liminal zone between the lurid and the divine, delivering a thrill while honoring the resistance and subversion of his ancestors. Maybe these perspectives are not so different as we think.

In the years that followed I nearly forgot Frisner’s fire dance—the one and only time I ever saw him perform it. Thanks to documentation, I can re-live a rare and telling experience, one that will soon be part of the Frisner Augustin Memorial Archive. If you want to join Makandal in bridging the past and the future, please follow the progress of the Archive and keep your eyes open for our upcoming crowdfunding campaign. Until next week…


Flyer by Terry Bacchus Presents

Video shot and edited by Doctor Loïs, Brooklyn, September 9, 1990

Featured image: Detail from Makandal, the Rebel Slave with Magical Power Leaps from Fire, by Wilson Anacreon, 1991

About makandal1758

Makandal channels multiple media to educate and enlighten the public about Haiti, the Haitian diaspora, and all those touched by the rich legacy of Haiti. The company's activities include research, archiving, theatrical productions, and the promotion of artists.
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4 Responses to Tales from the Archive: Fire Dancing in the Ballroom

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Wonder: One Haitian Worm | Welcome to Makandal

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