Pioneers in dance celebrated at Toronto festival

Jean Sheen’s passion for dance began some five decades ago at the then Fyzabad Intermediate School (now Fyzabad Anglican Secondary) in her native Trinidad & Tobago and led her to the legendary Beryl McBurnie – one of the greatest influences on her country’s modern popular culture – and the Little Carib Theatre where she danced and choreographed.

Influenced also by T & T dance icon, Molly Ahye, Sheen taught a West Indian Folk Dance course at the University of the West Indies and collaborated with late Nigerian drummer and recording artist, Babatunde Olatunji, and renowned New York choreographer and modern dancer/teacher, Charles Wideman, before coming to Canada 41 years ago.

In 1975, she founded Chissamba Chiyuka Arts Inc., a dance and drumming company dedicated to Afro-Caribbean dance forms.

The retired insurance executive was recognized at a dinner tribute in Toronto last weekend which honoured African-Canadian dance pioneers.

“This is a proud moment for me because I passed on the torch to Vivine (Scarlett) and she has done an amazing job,” said Sheen who, with her husband, Garnet Neblette, splits their time between Toronto and T & T.

Scarlett founded Dance Immersion and headed the local organizing committee which was responsible for hosting the 24th annual International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) conference and festival.

Sharlene Thomas, who was also born in T & T, formed Western Canada’s first Black dance company – Afro-Caribbean Dance Ensemble – on the same day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990.

“When I wanted to start a dance company out West, I went to every White establishment to find out how I should start and they told me to go back to my community and figure it out,” she said. “Well, 21 years later, I am here in a room with my peers and I am in a position to pass on to those coming after me what I never had given to me. That’s special, along with this award.”

Thelma Gibson-Towns and her siblings, Austin Gibson and Sylvester Risby, accepted an award on behalf of self-taught tap dancer, Len Gibson, who passed away four years ago. The first classically trained African-Canadian ballet dancer, Gibson choreographed Bamboula, the first Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s musical variety television series, in 1954.

“Our mother (Leona) put us in theatre and the arts at a very young age,” said Gibson-Towns. “She would be so proud to know Len is receiving this award.”

Also honoured were the late Charles “Dindi” Lidge and Paul Pettiford, Dr. Jeni LeGon, Kevin Pugh, George Randolph and Zab Maboungou.

Born in Buffalo, the versatile Lidge – who came to Toronto in 1974 – was an actor, dancer, dance instructor, choreographer, director, producer, business manager and writer. The guest artist with the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre died in 1996 after a brief illness.

Pettiford, who is remembered most for his work with the Harriet Tubman Centre and young people, taught himself to dance by watching Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

“Paul was strong mentally and physically and a very disciplined person,” said community worker, Ken Jeffers. “He did a lot in this community for young people who, along with their mothers, adored him.”

Vancouver-based, 95-year-old Dr. LeGon, who was unable to travel to the city for her award, was the first Black woman to sign an extended contract with MGM and the only Black woman to dance with Bojangles on screen.

Pugh is one of the most admired ballet dancers in Canada while Randolph – who was recently elected to Dance Ontario’s board of directors – is the president of the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts and co-founder of Show Choir Canada which produces this country’s only national show choir competition.

Montreal-based Maboungou founded Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata in 1986 and has taught Western Philosophy at Laval College Montmorency since 1982.

“It’s good that we are saluting the elders and trailblazers in dance, but young people in the industry have a responsibility to build on that foundation,” said Maboungou who, in 1995, presented the premiere of her solo, Reverdanse, at New York’s Lincoln Center.


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