In step with history of dance

  • Advertisement in the Gazette, February 16, 1793 (Image supplied)

Speaking passionately to a group of young students, Conchita Ming’s stories were met with a blank response.

Although she was talking about the island’s most influential dancers, they did not know who she meant.

Worried that their legacies would “disappear” she started writing their biography, Dance Bermuda.

As it turned out, her concerns were well-founded.

Among her peers, there was a commonly held belief that the island had no dance scene before the 1950s.

Through her interviews with directors of the island’s major dance schools and in sifting through the very first issues of The Royal Gazette and the Bermuda Recorder, however, she found that “people were dancing a lot”.

“I went through every single newspaper from 1784 up to the 1960s. Every single one. It’s amazing what you can find in the newspaper,” she said.

“To discover that there were 14 dance schools from the 1700s to the 1900s — who knew that? I didn’t.

“I’m very interested in Bermuda culture so that was a real opportunity for me to work in that area.

“Both sides of my family have been integrally involved in the community and doing this book has been important for me because it’s good to know who we are and where we came from and how things developed.”

She started researching in 2003, taking a break when she became chairwoman for Bermuda’s 400th anniversary celebrations in 2009.

“As I started talking to people, I realised I had to make it a bit broader,” the 69-year-old said.

“Looking at the history is more than just classical dance, but also our cultural dance — the Gombeys, the liberation dancers, the highland dancers and salsa dancers.”

The book also celebrates the heyday of the island’s hotel industry.

“It was the golden era of performers in the Fifties and Six-ties,” she said.

Because Bermuda was segregated up until the Fifties, there is no record of black dance schools, but Mrs Ming suspects they existed.

“Blacks definitely danced. We had tap dancers Arthur and May Smith who actually went on tour in the Caribbean in the Fifties.

“Where did they learn? They would emulate what they saw and then they would go and have their own dance groups or dance performances, but they were not advertised in the newspaper.”

Gregory Gordon’s Boat in a Bottle was “huge” news for that time. The choreographer was brought to the island by the Bermuda High School before putting together the first major black production.

“He actually started a school for black students,” Mrs Ming said.

“It’s really very exciting for me just what there has been and that we do have a curriculum for dance that will hopefully be revived within our education system.”

Publisher Paul Shapiro of Brimstone Media held her hand through it. The chapters are punctuated by Sharon Wilson’s paintings of dance and dancers.

“I’m really grateful to her because I think it adds such a special viewing and they are of Bermudians. That was her raison-d’être. She wanted to show how Bermudians can be involved in this wonderful genre,” Mrs Ming said.

One painting shows the author with her granddaughter Arielle Lee Ming who attends California’s Idyllwild Arts Academy.

“She wants to dance. When I was coming along, dance was a hobby — not a real job. I’m really excited for our young dancers now who have the opportunity to get a degree in dance and are able to forge a career as a dancer. “That’s not something that would have been sanctioned for me, but on the other hand I’ve been able to do a lot with dance.”

She began dancing at nine, studying classical ballet and jazz, a passion further ignited when she discovered modern dance at college.

After graduate school she was asked to join contemporary dancers in Winnipeg, Canada.

“I was actually dancing professionally. It was amazing,” she recalled.

She returned to the island and taught modern dance. Together with Louise Jackson and Barbara Frith, she created the island’s first dance company, The National Dance Theatre of Bermuda.

They dissolved the company in 2000 when newer schools started incorporating their own.

Dance Bermuda is available in the Bookmart at Brown & Co, The Bermuda Bookstore and Robertson’s