“Dancing! It’s enjoyable, and I like to teach first and foremost…It gives you a sense of joy to see a child…when he/she becomes a teenager or young person, be able to move to the level of teaching or choreographing, and you know that you would’ve had a hand in it.”
By Dennis A. Nichols
You can say that she was born to dance! But you can also say a lot more this week’s
‘Special Person’, Linda Griffith – dancer, athlete, teacher, choreographer and Director of the National School of Dance. Qualify with a few adjectives – energetic, passionate, young-at-heart. Add also wife, mother, grandmother, and mentor to the hundreds, maybe thousands, of children and young people who have passed through her expressive hands over the past 40 years – an enduring legacy of the Terpsichorean art in Guyana.
Ms. Griffith grew up surrounded by music, dance and outdoor games at her West Ruimveldt home, in addition to athletic sports. Her father, Henry Griffith, was a professional ballroom dancer and distance runner and her mother Mildred, a housewife. She recalls a happy and contented childhood with her eight siblings, bolstered by her parents’ encouragement and exhortations to participate in home concerts and to play games such as table tennis and volleyball ‘right there in the yard’.
A typical day, she said, would begin with an early morning exercise run, after which the fowls and backyard plants were tended to before going to school. Then in the afternoons it was fun and games with both parents participating, followed by homework in the evenings. And, of course, Sunday-school. Ms. Griffith added that she was unaware of this blend of fun and discipline not being the norm in many other children’s homes, and sympathizes with those who didn’t have what she had.
Following her secondary education at the East Ruimveldt Secondary School, she did a stint of pupil teaching before entering the Teachers’ Training College in 1972. Upon graduation, she returned to her old school. It was there that she actually began teaching dance, as a follow-up to the church activities she and a close-knit group of girls had been involved in through the church’s Luther League youth arm. She noted that because of these activities, a closeness and camaraderie was fostered among herself and her teaching peers, as well as with the children they taught and coached.
But even before she started teaching, she remembers being taught dance moves and exercises at
home by her parents. However, during the primary school years, at concerts and events such as plaiting of the maypole, she could only observe other children dancing, as she was never chosen for such artistic expression, because of her short stature. However, due to her love of dance, she was not deterred, and soon found other ways of exuberantly expressing her latent talents.
“So what I would do, because I loved dancing, was that anytime there was anything concerning dance, I would go, look, and learn. I went to the Girl Guides Pavilion, and joined the Smith’s Memorial Brownies Club where there was a lady who taught ballet to the older girls . . . I would go and look on, and whatever I looked at and learnt, I would go home and teach my brothers and sisters, even neighbours,” she laughingly declared.
Alluding to the roundness of her upbringing, Linda revealed that as an athlete, she ran for her school and represented Guyana at the Inter-Guiana Games in Suriname. But dance was still the major attraction in her life, and her formal training in the art began in 1973 while at the Teachers’ Training College. There, she was encouraged to participate in a three-month Department of Culture Dance Workshop for teachers, under the direction of American/Haitian dance instructor, Madame Lavinia Williams, at the Umana Yana in Kingston.
This programme led to the establishment of the National School of Dance in 1974, but it was not until the next year that it officially opened its doors at its present location in the National Park, under the directorship of Williams. Over the years there have been several directors of the school including
Guyanese Phillip McClintock and of course, Linda Griffith, who succeeded him upon his death in 1986. Meanwhile, in 1979, the National Dance Company, the school’s professional arm, had been formed, comprising students from the advanced class of the school, which included Ms. Griffith.
Still teaching while being involved in both the Dance School and the Dance Company, (which she was also helping to manage) proved a difficult undertaking for her, making it nearly impossible to participate fully with the company. So in 1980 she decided to leave teaching and wholeheartedly pursue a career in dance with the company. It is a move she obviously hasn’t regretted, as that calling has led to her being able to realize the most tasteful and eloquent expression of her talents.
It also led to her travelling, visiting, teaching, and performing in numerous countries including Suriname, Barbados, Trinidad, Cuba, Dominica, St. Lucia, Canada and the United States, with her first major international exposure being at Carifesta IV in Barbados. But right here in Guyana, Ms. Griffith had her hands full with several annual engagements, including her direction of between 500 and 1000 performers at each year’s Independence Cultural Presentation. She and her dance troupe also participate in the Inter-Guyana Cultural Festival, a kind of regional mini-Carifesta involving artistes from Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.
“Dancing! It’s enjoyable, and I like to teach first and foremost,” she declares in an understated tone that belies her engrossment with the art form. She adds, “You get a chance to see people make progress, as youngsters growing up, because there are some who start from like four years old, and they ‘grow up in the school’ as one might say. It gives you a sense of joy to see a child … when he/she becomes a teenager
or young person, be able to move to the level of teaching or choreographing, and you know that you would’ve had a hand in it.”
She ruefully notes however, that not many reach this stage; nevertheless the discipline that is learned, because of dance, is something that they carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Ms. Griffith observes that she often runs into ‘Miss-you-remember-me’ persons on the street, who are now adults, and who would question if she recalls having taught them in either traditional school, or in the dance school. She says that many of these former students bring their own children for dance instruction, and in this way, her artistic vocation is simply an extension of her earlier school-teaching efforts, with her students over the years probably running ‘to the thousands.’ Not bad for the petite pirouetter who couldn’t get to dance at school because of her height.
She declared that since assuming the directorship of the school, she and other dance instructors, including resource persons from the Ministry of Education’s Allied Arts Unit, have travelled to several rural areas of the country as part of an outreach programme to establish arms of the dance school in various regions, including Two, Three, Five, Six and Ten, adding that some work has also been done in Region Seven.
She promised that the school/company would soon be expanding on these beginnings with a view to establishing full-fledged entities in these and other far-flung districts of Guyana. The dance instructor contended that it is not an easy task, as teachers would be needed who are dedicated to this calling, and to being trained to ‘go the extra mile with you’.
“It’s very hard work,” she confessed. “You have to have the staying power, because what happens is that a hundred people will start, but they don’t understand until they’re really in it, that it’s something you really have to work at, to perfect, in order to reach that level of excellence. Only those who are truly, really interested, who have that passion, will stay.” Her own passion and commitment to dance are clearly evident in the way she articulates these words.
Warming to the topic of the actual training and techniques, Ms. Griffith explained that the teaching of dance embraces daily training of the body, (just as it does for an athlete) to increase strength and flexibility, among other disciplines. Added to this are studies in the areas of music and drama, sound, lighting, costume-design, stagecraft, and choreography. Then there is the study of different dance forms which adds more theoretical and practical aspects.
“Now when you acquire this wide range of knowledge, then you’ll be able to create your own style of dance,” she concluded.
She revealed that she has received formal instruction in such forms as classical ballet, modern, contemporary, ethnic, ballroom, jazz, West African and Indian dance, which has served as a base for the furtherance of her art. Complementing these styles, she added, is the emergence in the school of a blend/fusion of modern dances, particularly of Indian and African origin. She has also immersed herself in the study of local folklore and dance, including Queh-Queh, Cumfa, and Masquerade-dancing, and has a special fondness for the masquerade, practically bubbling over with enthusiasm as she tells me about this.
“Yes, I loved it, and I learnt to dance it!” she enthused. “I produced a booklet on it, ‘An Introduction to Flouncing’. You know, we’re losing our folklore; we’re losing our music and our dances, so we need to capture it and have it recorded before all of our veterans pass away. So we (the Ministry of Culture, the Music Department and the National School of Dance) have done a video and an introductory booklet to this cultural expression, as well as for Steel Band.
Ms. Griffith pointed out that both she and the dance company are more inclined to be proficient in modern dance, whereby there is a tendency to ‘throw away the shoes’ of traditional classic dance such as the ballet, and engage the bare feet, adding more body movements (like expressive hand gestures, hugging the body and rolling on the floor) thus becoming freer than the more predictable moves of the classical dancers. She was however quick to indicate that the children at the dance school all learn classical techniques, which, she said, form a good base, especially if they will be going to a company outside of Guyana which requires such a foundation.
Touching on highlights of her 40-year career, Ms. Griffith revealed that one of them has to be the part she played in a production called ‘Our World’ by the Cuban dancer/choreographer, Anastacio Maderes, in which she had to actually learn acrobatics, including back flips. Another would be her selection, out of some 30 artistes from around the world, for an international choreographers’ workshop, to perform and teach as part of an American Dance Festival held in North Carolina in 1990. There she met and worked with many famous choreographers, and got the opportunity to conduct two master classes.
Two other highlights were her receipt of a national award, the Medal of Service (MS) in 1991, and her participation in Carifesta X in 2008, the first in Guyana since the inaugural event in 1972.
And with all of this going on in her life, what about family? Yes, she has a husband, Aubrey Dos Santos, who is a spray-painter and refrigerator technician, a son, Alonzo, who is a doctor, a daughter, Jerusha, who teaches dance, and a grand-daughter, who, guess what – also dances. What about the future? She wants to study Labanotation – a system for recording and analyzing dance movements. Oh, by the way, in her spare time she loves to paint. Don’t ask how she manages it all? She simply does.
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