They Wanted To Write So I Told Them To Dance by Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
In this passionate and joyful article – accompanied by an exclusive poem from her debut collection Cane, Corn & Gully – poet, dancer, and choreographer Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa explores her experience teaching writing through movement, and the complicated nuances of Barbadian culture and identity. It’s a celebration of learning, listening, and moving as a community.
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As Barbados prepared to become a republic, I contemplated what the decolonisation of an education in poetics might feel like in a country whose moniker is ‘Little England’. Every Caribbean island is unique, full of its own peculiar treasures, but the collective consciousness in Barbados mediates between a desire for progression and an idealisation of English twentieth century middle-class elitism. I do not blame my people, for this is a logical reality after centuries of imperialist pressure. I too have been raised with the same conflicts; I have carried both agendas like a silk wrap, letting the tail occasionally commune with bone in the sand. I would offer up sugarcane during emancipation remembrance festivities, then listen diligently to my grandfather’s lessons on code-switching, which involved mimicking British phrases in received pronunciation. I is a mix-up mix-up woman, part of a proud paradoxical people.
Therefore, I believe writing the authentic self should involve a language as nuanced and exciting as we are: the language of the body. Dance professor Benita Brown explains: ‘spirit thrives on emotive responses from human beings; thus, it reveals itself as a result of physical stimuli from within the surrounding environment…’. Spiritual sustenance can easily be derived from dance and music. Our physical reactions, whether they are intimate hand gestures or vociferous kicks against invisible boarders, reveal conscious and subconscious thoughts and emotions. These responses to environment may be ushered by appealing stimuli such as misbehaving rhythms. Sometimes we do not openly express how we are truly feeling: when someone asks us if we are ‘okay’ it may not be appropriate to offer a breakdown of a mid-morning crisis, featuring burnt toast, a bruck down washing machine and an empty bank account. We may respond by forcing our heads to nod but with clenched fists, and tight shoulders like scrunched socks. De body doan lie because de spirit doan lie. In Barbados I watched my kin grapple with the notion of identity, so I decided to offer safe spaces for Barbadians to explore useful questions on the page using movement. The work so far has been awe-inspiring: I have witnessed members of a strange diaspora rewrite narratives which have threatened their wellbeing like a hurricane ready to cut across de land like a grasshopper.
What form best translates little sleep after liming till early morning? What does it mean to write using the pacing of our thoughts on our crush? These are examples of questions posed to participants during some sessions I held. My classes were composed of a variety of ages and experience. In the first simple writing ‘ice-breakers’ everyone was eager to impress me with rhyme, romanticisms, and grandiloquent uses of language. I immediately set out to decolonise and demystify what they thought poetry should be and offer them the freedom to ask what they would like it to be. At first there was a reluctance to use alternative techniques to find their voice, but if we use iambic pentameter to match our heartbeat, why can we not play with rhythm to address the cadence in our laughter, or the breaths we take in drinking a glass of water? Movement as expression and language is part of our heritage, especially pertaining to the Black diaspora. When the enslaved were forbidden from communicating vocally, they used body language, and in Barbados we have a legacy of dances from satirical themes to courtship. So, I asked my students to simply move, and when they began to feel more comfortable trusting their physicality, the old English literary styles transformed into mosaics of nation language, intriguing metaphors, and exciting narratives. Here are some of many examples:
You are not a primitive animal
One of my first students was determined to write a poem with bullets for teeth. He described himself as a spoken word artist who mainly focused on social commentary. The original piece he presented to the group was heavily influenced by American slam culture, yet his voice did not feature any gravel or glass, and his hand gestures moved like bubbles on a beer, poised and cheeky. He was not the only one. He admitted writing what he considered popular as opposed to genuine. He was from St Michael, the capital of Barbados, and lived in a cul-de-sac not necessarily known for being a welcoming community; however, a lovely lady lives there who always gave my gran gran extra okra at market. I believe in finding the beauty in everything. There is something crude about generalisations. A person need not become dictated by someone else’s opinion.
Cultural historian and choreographer Brenda Dixon Gottschild explains that ‘underneath white critique of the black body lurks sexual innuendo and physical danger’. Within the Black experience it is common to face these ideas, and even more common to subconsciously absorb them. I asked the poet to move without speaking; to read the poem only in his mind and still perform it. He moved as though frangipani buds were growing from his elbows and kneecaps. His shifts from one foot to the other were subtle and sometimes he rose to his tiptoes. When he finished, I asked him and the rest of the class what poem they were more interested in hearing and reading, and all agreed it was the poem within him. Through some guided exercises, a new poem emerged far greater than its predecessor. The darkest alleys in Barbados were transformed into gateways between fantasy realms, and the American terms and slangs were swapped for Bajan sayings. My intentions are never to draw the poet away from their original subject matter; I do not believe it ethical to dictate what someone should and should not write about in their work. I understand my job as a facilitator is to offer tools to encourage exploration into language.
You does repeat everything or it does feel familiar?
During an exercise, a lady from St George decided to use repetition within her prose piece, but wanted help to make the repetition impactful; I decided we should all dance the quadrille. The quadrille originates from the French Caribbean and is stylised on colonial couple dances from the nineteenth century. In Barbados, the dance is still performed today and is often taught to children from an early age. It’s repetitive, with many formalities, but at heart it’s a social dance, and we had fun. Not a word was spoken from the mouth, but we paraded and greeted each other, sometimes with respect, sometimes in a mocking fashion. I asked the class to observe how the same types of movements were being performed, but each interaction arrived with a shift in nuance. When the lady from St George returned to the page, the first thing she did (without direction) was remove chunks from the paragraphs as though they were slices of cake. Her poem morphed into a hybrid between a duplex and sonnet sequence with bop-like refrains. Before dancing, she spent five minutes explaining what her poem was about and her grammatical choices. After the dance, however, she did not explain herself, nor did she ask for permission. She went about she business with stupsed lips. I could not have been prouder.
Find de dawn, like you do in your movement
My main reason for returning to Barbados was to continue writing my first poetry collection Cane, Corn & Gully. My ambition was to revive the voices of enslaved women through dance and move towards literature which is not entirely submerged beneath trauma. There is a rude fetish for Black trauma. I am not saying the descendants of enslaved people should never talk about their painful inheritance; I am saying that is not all we were given. A short walk from my family home there is a sugarcane plantation with once-shackled bodies buried beneath it. But, if you twirl a little among de stalks during the high season, they may split de sun with you. The presence of trauma is not the absence of hope: this is the message I shared with a small group of poets as I noticed the way they unravelled themselves from cocoon-like shapes. In this class, the poetry was mainly focused on sombre themes, and our conclusion was: if you can release yourself from positions which connote sadness with such ease – without removing the experience of that sadness – then why can’t you do the same with your poetry? In this class we wrote into history, but though there were references to shackles and cowskin whips, there were also feathers, grapeseed oil, lively tempos, and sugar cakes.
It will take many generations to heal from the oppressive colonial structures of our history, and I believe the decolonisation of any education system cannot happen while using a framework established through an imperialist agenda. We are a nation who has historically used movement as a political tool, and I have already witnessed the remarkable shift which happens when any student returns to themself. My ideas, though still developing and emerging, are not radical. At the end of each session, each student expressed that they had produced (or were on their way to writing) their best pieces. And most importantly, they left with their confidence as sturdy as cou cou sticks.
Dance is at the heart of every piece I write and every class I teach, and the development process of this technique continues. One minute I may meditate on my relationship with gravity, and the next I might try to write a sonnet about a riot based on the shapes of my arching back. The process excites me: everything feels sincere and empowering. To be a republic is to be independent of the crown, and I cannot help but fantasise about writing and learning which embodies disobedience and remembers its origins.
12 Shots Who Warned Me ‘Sweet’ Was Dangerous
12. i first witness a shootin at a corner shop. i was five. heard men carvin tantrums outside den BANG!
cashier gone street gone – jus a man lyin
widdout a pillow.
i approach de fella, ask if he was okay
but de man was so transfix on de sky,
he neva mine he life drainin down a pothole,
i was too fraid tuh see what he was starin at.
no one was around tuh explain wa appen
so i walk back tuh my elders alone widdout my sweets.
i need a hug most ah de time now.
11. whenever de ice-cream van song play i would quarrel wit my stamina
tuh run quicker tuh de van,
but every stinkin day my Bico Sandwiches
were outta stock.
den one day, mid-song mid-run BANG!
police say he was fillin de cones wit crack.
10. mosquitos did not suck fuh two weeks after a man
who sniff crack lick me –
he took he shot. i became aware ah de gaps i had,
& de gaps i wanted.
9. i was sixteen years old
when i started lovin de sound ah de ball escaping
from de iron tunnel, a fella i liked neva miss a shot.
second time i watch he play,
he took me back tuh he house.
neva ask me tuh watch again. was neva my game.
8. now dis man in de club had no game whatsoeva –
couldn’t unstan de word no.
i was eighteen when i try an beat he wit a shot glass.
7. da same night i salute Sean Paul
wit gun fingers ready tuh pull de trigger
if he diluted de sun – he did.
was it so wrong fuh me tuh ask fuh a Jamaica
so thick it was a Xaymaca
dat would need tuh be stop an search
before enterin de club?
i ben my hand – squint my eye an BANG!
6. violence is not de answer:
when i was eight dis was de sermon ah de day,
durin communion i suggested better tastin wine
knowin nobody cud beat me.
a clergy member shot me a scorn – dat scorn was
5. same week, i shot a scorn at a white woman who push
gran gran in de supermarket. dat scorn was not enough
shudda kick a grapefruit at she head. clean up on aisle
five. 4. dere is no need fuh drama.
an de shot mummy catch ah me squeezin de life outta
teddy when i was two proves dis – only de need tuh
protect wunna kin. or 3. yourself.
de year i met my father was de same year
a Bajan man use a cricket bat on me.
tried tuh claw my way out im breath.
i scream fuh mummy. i scream fuh kindness.
my head catch glass
an wit glass i exile nuff manhood tuh escape.
shud ave gone fuh de jugular. shud ave tekken dat shot.
2. sometime after dat i went into exile. do you know wat
it means tuh pull a country from yah chest tru yah
walk widdout a home believin
you is a good fuh nuttin girl?
a betta man ask fuh a shot dat same year
but i was still holin de las. 1.
in 1994 Tropical Storm Debby fire a warning shot
in a cloud. de odda clouds jus kep movin like dey ain
care dem cud get hurt.
dey are wat dey are, an i always admired dem stamina.
Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa is a British-born Barbadian-raised poet, dancer, and choreographer. Her interdisciplinary art braids dance and poetry on the page and stage. Safiya is currently a PhD student in Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. She is an Obsidian Foundation fellow and an Apples & Snakes/Jerwood Arts Poetry in Performance recipient. In 2020 Safiya won the Culture Recordings New Voice in Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Out-Spoken Page Poetry Prize and Creative Future Writer’s Award. In 2022 she was awarded third place in The London Magazine Poetry Prize. Safiya is also a national and international spoken word champion. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals including The Caribbean Writer, Poetry Review, Poetry London. Her debut collection Cane, Corn & Gully was published in 2022.
Edited by Darren Chetty, Angelique Golding, and Nicola Rollock, Wasafiri 112: Reimagining Education considers what education means within and beyond the classroom, investigating government intervention and the reclamation and exploration of decolonisation, and addressing the forces of change and continuity in Britain today. Featuring interviews with Inua Ellams, Gary Younge, and Steve Garner; fiction from Durre Shawar and Jade E Bradford; poetry from Salena Godden; life writing from Diane Leedham, and much more, this is an issue not to be missed.