Stronach Prize Letters Archive: Cherie Hill

Irie Dance presented "Remembering the Ancestors" by choreographer Cherie Hill at San Francisco’s Shotwell Studios on June 22–23, 2007. The piece had its world premiere at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theatre on December 15, 2006.  

Below is a description of Cherie's first encounter with the sacred Kumina ritual and her other research on Jamaican dance forms that served as the basis for her project. Next, Cherie’s letters outline the progression of her Jamaican field research and her creation of Remembering the Ancestors in 2006.

Letters: July 25   August 25    Sepember. 25    October 25    November 25

My first encounter with Kumina ritual

The Kumina people of Jamaica trace their ancestry back to the Congo people of Africa. Claiming never to have been enslaved, this sovereign community performs a series of dance rituals to commemorate significant rites of passage, including deaths, births, ancestor celebrations, and healing events. The rituals are said to embody immitosa, which is old African saying for “everything is one.”

I was very nervous while learning the Kumina dance steps, which felt foreign to me and intended for indigenous people instead of a trained, modern dancer. The entire dance was quite complicated and polyrhythmic in nature. The drummers rang out rhythms and calls that were like nothing I had ever heard before and reminded me of being in the midst of a tropical jungle. Part of my conscience felt guilty at one point when I wanted to agree with the European explorers who had proclaimed indigenous African ceremonies to be wild and savage. The drumming, dancing, sexual provocations, and perspiring made me think back to those writings and wonder if they were true.

The Percussionist At least I wondered this until one evening we attended a ceremony that was being held for an initiate who had recently passed away. As we pulled up to the village around 6 p.m., I sensed an enormous amount of energy followed by sounds of intense drumming. The percussionist playing that night was known to be the best drummer in town, and it was said that his rhythms were so vibrant that they would force you to dance. At first I had my doubts about entering the crowd, however, there seemed to be a safe wall of energy separating me from the metaphysical realm and the drums accompanied by the beautiful sound of an elderly woman’s voice called to me. I had my baby fast asleep in the sling on my front side, and I decided to take a risk and enter the Kumina circle. Smiling and familiar faces greeted me. Many of my peers surrounded the drummer and there was a passionate, warm energy; the people sweated from all the dancing and singing. To the left of me was an ancient-looking woman who was very dark and comely. Her body was slim with wrinkled skin and her eyes were piercingly deep. She was the Queen of that community and when her voice rang out it seemed to penetrate far into the heavenly planes. The songs were in a foreign language, but at one point I could sense that a particular song was asking the ancestors to protect the deceased initiate. As the night went on, I practiced the dance steps I had learned and sang in response to the Queen’s songs. Finally, the movement, drumming, and words all made sense to me and I felt that I understood the ceremony, perhaps not conceptually, but spiritually. The celebration was not wild or savage, but rather it felt civilized and progressive. The ritual gathered people from all over the village, from various segments of the island and from the world. Together we participated in giving thanks to God and remembering those who had passed before us in a peaceful manner. Everyone’s faces were lit up with smiles that communicated friendly thoughts and actions, offering an example of how different cultures can be diplomatic and compassionate.   

Toward the end of the night I took a deep breath and closed my eyes while a powerful euphoria filled my body instantly. I could feel my soul being pulled towards the heavens. I had felt sensations similar to this before due to my practice of meditation, though the sensation had never happened so swiftly. A force from above seemed to open up and I could see bright lights inside of me. About a minute later my mind’s alarm began to ring reminding me of the baby at my bosom [whom, I was warned, would be vulnerable to spirit possession until a practitioner debunked this superstition]. I opened my eyes and was back at the ceremony, but now felt charges of power throughout my body. 

On the way home I was so charged with energy I could not sleep. I felt such bliss inside of me. The drive home was extreme: dance-hall music blared from the speakers and the bus driver drove at a ridiculous speed through the glowing tropics. My eyes felt large and I watched the roads as if an external force moved behind them. My head moved in all directions very quickly to scout out the island, and I had no control over this sensation. The feeling of possession had not left my body and I still felt as if a great power was inside of me. When I returned to my apartment, I stayed up the whole morning to reflect on my experience and meditate. I was so happy that I had experienced a glimpse of the possession that activated the God-power inside of me. I concluded that true possession wasn’t about foaming at the mouth or losing bodily control, but allowing us to tap into our inner selves by acknowledging the powers that guide and unite all of us. I knew that I would attend my next Kumina ceremony without the fear of closing my eyes and becoming possessed.

Cherie's Letters Home

July 25, 2006

Dear friends,

I have been in Jamaica for exactly 21 days now and have observed and experienced three unique ways dance is used to remember ancestors and maintain identities.

The first event I attended was the sacred Kumina festival. Kumina is practiced in many parts of the island, largely in St. Thomas. The Kumina people claim never to have been slaves and trace their ancestry back to the Congo people of Africa. Their ritual is similar to other African Diaspora religions, such as Vodun in Haiti, and involves dance, drumming, and call-and-response. The second event I attended was much more secular and contemporary: Pasa Pasa held in downtown Kingston from about 3 to 7 a.m. as mostly young adults danced in the streets to the music of a selector (DJ). The dancing took place in a ghetto that prior to the event was very dangerous, but then grew peaceful. The third event was a Nyabinghi Groundation held by the Rastafarians at a camp in the Blue Mountains. It involved chanting, drumming, singing, and dancing. These events shared many attributes but what was most interesting, especially in regard to my project, was the role of the black woman.

At the Kumina, a black woman known as "the Kumina princess" dictated the ceremony. She called out the chants, led the dancing, and told stories about her people.

In Jamaica there is a very popular dance called the “Dirty Wind,” which involves winding the buttocks and hips very low to the ground in various positions while the head circles repeatedly. Only women perform this dance, and dancehall queens at Pasa Pasa get an opportunity to show off their skills by dancing for a chance to win money. The winner of the dance last week was a black woman wearing a bikini and skirt with the U.S. flag on it. While she was performing, a few men tried to step in and make sexual motions from behind only to be thrown out by other women who insisted the dance be done alone. This supports my theory that popular dances utilizing feminine parts should be performed without men, as to not appear hypersexual. Even though when performed alone the dance still appears overtly sexual, I would like to test my theory that the motions would suggest a different meaning if performed within an African aesthetic. The woman who performed this dance won 2000 JMD and was the queen of the dirty whine for that week—another example of the black woman gaining power through dance.

The role of the black woman was slightly different at the Rastafarian Nyabinghi. The Rastas believe that both a king and a queen should rule so that power is distributed more equally, but it seemed to me that the men, or high priests, were in charge of the chanting, drumming, and singing, whereas the elderly women controlled the dances.

My next steps for the project are to look more into the Dirty Wind dance and its traditional roots. The movement of the legs resembles the masquerade dances of Jonkunnu, although I’m told the dance has more specific roots in West Africa. The dance also has similarities to the popular butterfly and tootsie roll dances in America. I believe this dance will be a good starting point for my choreography.

What has been most helpful so far is the chance to see how movements using the hips and pelvis are performed at sacred rituals, such as the Kumina and Rasta gatherings, and how my generation has developed their own ritualized events like Pasa Pasa.

Until next month,
Cherie Hill

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August 25, 2006

Remembering Burial

Dear friends,

These are my last three days in Jamaica. I am very excited because this weekend I plan to rent a car and finally be free from depending on my driver or a local taxi to take me around the island. I plan to drive from Kingston to Negril, passing through Manchester, Westmoreland, and the greater western half of the country. My driver has been very worried about me driving the roads myself because he says they are very tough and dangerous, but luckily our neighbor, Kevin, who knows the roads well has offered to accompany us. It is very important for me to pass through Manchester because it is where my great-grandfather and grandmother are from, and I have been hoping for the past three weeks that I could meet some relatives.

My grandmother’s parents are from Manchester. One of the reasons Remembering the Ancestors is based in Jamaican folk dance is to pay respect to my Jamaican heritage. When my grandmother married and moved to the United States, she did not keep in contact with any of her relatives and knows little regarding her family history. The only information she has now is that her father, William Tomlin, was born in Manchester and her mother, Minie Johnston, was from St. Anne’s Bay.

My grandma and I share a strange relationship. I have always viewed her to be somewhat crazy since when I was younger she would speak to people who physically did not exist. In places like the kitchen and the car, she would suddenly become frantic while shouting at invisible figures, even swearing at them to leave her alone. At first my cousin and I were frightened when she acted this way, but over time we became accustomed to it except for in the car. Those episodes were the most embarrassing because she’d honk the horn and scream blasphemies as people drove by. My cousin and I would crouch down in the backseat, duck our heads, and hope that no one would see us. I tried telling my parents about my grandmother’s rampages, however, they would not believe me. She behaved this way only in front of my cousin and me until my grandfather passed.

Two years ago my grandfather’s soul left the physical plane and my grandmother began talking to ghosts again, this time in front of other family members who were shocked by her explosions. I knew that when I found some family in Jamaica, I would ask them if my grandmother was cursed. The first person I asked was the airport customs officer who questioned me about the reasons for my visit. He said that he didn’t know anyone with the surname “Tomlin,” and that I should at least know which district they lived in or their phone number. He also said finding them would be like “finding a needle in a haystack.” Over the weeks I received the same type of response from other local Jamaicans, but God was on my side last Saturday morning when the manger of a car rental agency had a good friend who worked at the airport and her name happened to be “Ava Tomlin.”

Ava Tomlin is an engineer at the Kingston Airport and a distant cousin of mine. When I told her what I knew about my great-grandfather, she directed me to a community in Manchester called Boxborough. She told me to ask around town for a Donny Tomlin, whom she believed to be an uncle of mine. There happened to be a good number of Tomlins living in various parishes throughout Manchester, and because the name was so exclusive, it was said that they were all related. My uncle lived on top of a beautiful, luscious, green hill that was covered with tropical vegetation. When I first arrived at his house, I took a moment to plow my hands into the earth, which resembled red, fertile clay. I gave thanks to the ancestors for leading me closer to my history and to the earth that they had walked on before me. My uncle and his daughter were very surprised to meet us, and compared us to a lady on the Oprah Winfrey Show who was also trying to find out more about her ancestry.

I asked my uncle and cousin to tell me more about the Tomlin family. They said that the name “Tomlin” came from an English soldier who fathered a son with a Maroon woman named Burial. My cousin was not sure about the dates, but it seems probable that this union occurred around 1795, the year of the second Maroon War.  I told my cousin about my grandmother’s incidents and asked if she knew about any curses on the family. She laughed and said no, but what my grandmother was experiencing was not a curse, rather a gift that she did not know how to control. The gift was the ability to communicate with spirits and was inherited from the Maroons. My great ancestor was named “Burial” because she had the power to communicate with the dead, a power my cousin and uncle also claimed to possess.

In her published journal Journey to Accompong (1946), Katherine Dunham writes about her experiences living amongst the Maroon people and her concern that their practices were endangered due to the government outlawing rituals considered to be “obeah.” According to the Rough Guide to Jamaica:

Obeah is the belief in a form of spiritual power … from curing disease to providing good fortune or wreaking revenge  … that also manifests itself in individual ghosts or duppies. Though dismissed by many … obeah … is taken seriously, and it’s not uncommon for Jamaicans … to call upon the services of an obeah practitioner. 

During her last few days in Accompong, Dunham experienced a Koromantee celebration and accompanied a Maroon naturopath to a burial ground where he communicated with some ancestors to ask for her protection. I assume that Dunham’s account of this man’s powers is similar to the type of gift that my ancestor Burial is said to have had.

My Jamaican cousin felt that I needed to help my grandma by telling her to pray and ask for God’s strength to handle communication with the spirits. I plan to help her as much as I can. So my project has grown from a dance that pays reverence to the ancestors and creates positive, self-identified images of the black woman, to include discovering specific details regarding my ancestry. I am looking forward to incorporating this new information into my artistic work, and plan to look more in depth into the Maroons’ history and religious ceremonies.


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September 25, 2006

Dear friends,

At the Edna Manley College in Kingston, I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by the Honorable Rex Nettleford, the founder and artistic director of the National Dance Theater Company of Jamaica. During his talk he stated that: “Dance has become the departure for introducing one’s identity.” Two American dances, krump and turf, are examples of this theory, and the movements performed in these dances reflect their social environments.

After returning from the Caribbean, I participated in a national dance contest called the Move Tour. The Move Tour is a new all-style dance competition where dancers battle for the chance to win $500 and a trip to Hawaii. The dancers perform in an array of styles: from break dancing, B-bop, and interpretive dance to the more concert-type genres of jazz and modern dance. The women I saw perform krump and turf styles were the top finalists, most likely due to the dances’ raw nature.

A fairly new dance style created in South Central Los Angeles, krump is highlighted in David La Chapelle’s documentary, Rize. Turf is a style of dance that originated in Oakland around the same time as krump. Both dance styles are considered underground, and have yet to be done in mainstream gatherings. In both dances the women differ from the men in the way the pelvis is utilized. In krump, the chest and pelvis isolate rapidly back and forth, stopping aggressively at the end of each cycle for fractions of a second. The energy behind the dance is forceful, and each movement is done vigorously. Turf, on the other hand, is locomotive and requires the dancer to travel through space smoothly, but while traveling the pelvis moves in the same manner as krump, that is, assertively back and forth or side to side, appearing somewhat standoffish.

See here a a video of turf dancing published by the San Francisco Chronicle, entitled “Turf Dance Battle at Oakland’s Youth Uprising.”

When comparing krump and turf, I realized that the motion of the pelvis is quite opposite to the Jamaican dance Etu (a dance that celebrates fertility), in which the pelvis moves smoothly and circularly. By contrast, the motion of the pelvis in krump and turf is most like the movement of the pelvis in war dances, such as Ibo, where it is strongly contracted. Since krump and turf dances stem from communities where the rates of crime and poverty are extraordinarily high, it is not surprising that the pelvic movement in both dances resembles war-like, African movements. If Professor Nettleford’s statement proves correct—that dance is “the departure of one’s identity”—then it is permissible to say that these styles of dance reflect the communities’ identities. By performing krump and turf dance styles, young adults of color are kinesthetically expressing the conditions of their environment through African-movement aesthetics.


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October 25, 2006

Dear friends,

October is the month for remembering the ancestors in various cultures. In the United States, we participate in Halloween, in Mexico they celebrate Dia de los Muertos, and in Haiti they observe Fet Gede. Fet Gede, aka “The Trickster,” is an old male spirit that hangs around graveyards. Throughout October and November, Haitians acknowledge his presence through dance, song, and drums. Legend says that funny things happen around this time because Gede loves to start trouble. Of course, Gede will be remembered in my dance project, which is now in its kinesthetic process.

Rehearsing "Remembering the Ancestors"In late September I held auditions for dancers by advertising through Craigslist, local dance studios, and colleges. I clearly stated that I was looking for female dancers of color trained in modern and African dance styles. Twenty-one females showed up to audition and four were cast. Since then the dancers and I have been rehearsing twice a week by learning the Jamaican folk dances Buru, Etu, and Dinki Mini, and by engaging in improvisational exercises, writing journal entries, and getting to know each other and our female ancestors.

Our first showing and a chance to watch and comment on the piece so far will be Saturday, November 4, 2006 at 7:30 p.m. We will be showcased with five other works in Works in the Works, a performance concert hosted by Eighth Street Studios on Eighth Street and Dwight Way in Berkeley. The performance will be a great opportunity to see the piece so far and to participate in a moderated discussion with myself and the other dancers after the show. Throughout November, I will continue to develop the piece’s raw dance material by focusing on specific movement concepts and the relationship the dancers have with each other and the material. In mid-November we will host two workshops for middle-school students, one in Oakland with Girls Inc. and one in Richmond (to be confirmed).

December is the month for our final performance and, unfortunately, I am still searching for a suitable and affordable space to have the premiere. My target dates are December 15 and 16th. I am looking for a small theatrical space (or one that can easily be converted) in the Berkeley area that is somewhat rustic with great acoustics. Currently, I am trying to contact the Hillside Club on Cedar Street (if anyone on the Stronach committee is a member, please let me know) and the Little Oak Theater off Shattuck Avenue. If anyone has any ideas or leads about another great performance space, please let me know ASAP.

To my fellow Stronach peers living indigenously out in the wilderness, I say, "Stay safe and please learn some dance steps for me!"

Until next month,

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November 25, 2006

Dear friends,

In my meditation practice Sant Mat, we are taught that the universe is divided into regions that can be penetrated by meditating on the higher power. This same idea is practiced in African and Diaspora religions, which permit access to metaphysical planes through the power of the drum and dance. Remembering the Ancestors works to display this philosophy through movement, props, and text.

Physical exhaustion is a significant part of ancient Jamaican Kumina rituals. The ritual begins around 5 p.m. before sunset and lasts until about 6 in the morning. Continuous dancing is performed in order to cause the mind to exert such a great amount of energy that when it finally finds release, it permits the body to go on autopilot. Once the body becomes vulnerable, it opens itself up for possession by ancestral spirits. I implemented this form of physical exhaustion into my work by utilizing the concept of  time. The dancers perform high-energy movements at various speeds, which cause the body to let go and become vulnerable. Instead of choreographing movement to specific counts or tempos, I ask the dancers to perform a phrase as quickly or slowly as possible to the point where the movement would be obstructed if they “thought” too much.

A second theme apparent in African Diaspora religions is the “crossroads.” The crossroads (also referred to as the “bridge”) is the gate between the physical and metaphysical realms. Legba, the gatekeeper, is called upon during rituals to open the gate and let ancestral deities through. An ancestral table left on stage throughout my piece represents the crossroads. This table resembles the same offering tables found in Dahomey, Vodun, and Kumina rituals, but we cover it with personal remnants of our own female ancestors. I dedicate the space upstage of the table to the crossroads. While watching the piece, you can take notice of each time a dancer crosses behind the table and how the choreography changes. African Diaspora rituals are considered successful based on the outcome and the degree of spiritual possession. Some partakers end up fully possessed, leaving the physical plane and allowing a deity to overtake their bodies. This is evident in the dancers’ sporadic movements and their fainting at the end of a dance. Others are possessed with the higher power’s spirit to the point where their souls leave the physical world, though they stay in control of their physical bodies, warding off any deities. Examples of the latter can be seen most readily in today’s black churches where congregational members will exalt “I feel the spirit,” while allowing their bodies to sway and contract in reverence to the Holy Ghost.

In my piece, the ancestral deities are called on through remembrance. Each dancer shares a story through text and movement associated with a great-grandmother who has passed away. It is my intention that through use of the drum, a table offering, and textual remembrance, these great ancestors will be called. Remembering the Ancestors will premiere December 15 and 16 at the Live Oak Theatre. It will be a piece of its own kind, not to be missed.

Calling on the ancestors.  



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