This month we feature the work of Shola K. Roberts, a Grenadian dance practitioner, researcher, and cultural curator who launched an international dance festival in 2020. Shola Roberts is the founder and director of Dance Grenada and a professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre at Arizona State University.
Shola's earliest recollections of dance take place on the island of Grenada, a country that gained its independence from Britain in 1974. Those memories of dancing transmit the sounds and vibrations of the Soca music that accompanied her young dancing body. The prominent experiences would occur at her grandparents' home on the island during her formative years. In Grenada, dance is representative of socialization and community. It is a projection of cultural identity and a form of expression. For Shola, dancing speaks volumes and proclaims,"how we as a people continue to sustain who we are despite our challenges". Shola also shares the sentiments of many Grenadians who view dance as a conduit to their ancestors and their Gods.
"The art of dance has been my breath of air, my saving grace, and my foundation."
While Shola has embodied many dance styles, African-Diasporic dance forms have been at the helm of her practice. Shola earned her undergraduate degree at Howard University, an HBCU in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C. It was there that she used her studies to merge a love of dance, arts, and Caribbean culture. Shola was in a grant writing class when she envisioned a festival where international artists would travel to Grenada for workshops, dancing, and cultural exchange.
During my interview with Shola, she shared a dorm room memory of her passionately telling her peers that they must come to Grenada to experience "the music, the dance, the culture, and the life". Many of them had never embodied the movements of Bélé or participated in Jab Jab. Bélé is a dance that fosters socialization amongst its participants. It emerged in the Caribbean as an amalgamation of African, French, and other European dances. The dance is often executed during recreational and secular events and the songs that accompany it often include social commentary. Jab Jab or J'ouvert is a freedom party held on the streets of Grenada during the island's Carnival celebration. For Shola, these cultural practices have influenced her roles as a performer, educator, and researcher.
What is Dance Grenada and who's invited?
Founder/ Director, Shola K. Roberts refers to Dance Grenada as a calling and something larger than she ever imagined. The festival has allowed her to fuse two of her greatest passions– Grenadian Culture and the art of dance.
The organization is rooted in creating a network between Grenadian dance artists, cultural practitioners, and people who want to learn and engage in dance as a sociocultural practice. According to Shola,"Dance Grenada is for everyone", and just about everyone seems to be finding their way to this experience. Due to the global pandemic, the festival's inception commenced on a virtual platform. Yet, with just two years under its belt, the festival has merged scholars, community members, dancers, vocalists, musicians, yoga practitioners, and people from all walks of life.
While all of the attendees have been enamored by the experience, the festival has provided an opportunity for Grenadian residents to increase their awareness of artistic and cultural practices prevalent in other parts of the world. The 2022 festival theme was Finding Our Power in Joy & Resistance. A coveted group of Caribbean and African-Diasporic dance practitioners facilitated workshops in Caribbean Contemporary, Modern dance techniques, African dances, Hip-Hop dance, and Traditional Grenadian Folklore. The festival also gathered participants for panel discussions, meals, and an exploration of the island.
Day #3 of Dance Grenada opened up with a panel discussion moderated by Shawna Thomas-Cuffie, a Clinical Psychologist representing Grenada's Ministry of Education. The discussion included Dr. Jamila Codrington and Ed.D candidate Alana Andrews in an exploration of the Implications of the Arts within the Caribbean and Beyond.
The session dispelled ideas that the benefits of dance only cycle back to kinesthetic outcomes. Shola felt it was crucial to emphasize the correlation that dance and movement based practices have to aspects of spirituality and cognition. The discourse brought great insight to the outcomes of a mind–body–spirit connection and what they can do for those who embrace it.
"Dance is the entry point but the festival is about community."
Preservation and honor continue to be emergent in the planning and implementation of Dance Grenada. The festival is committed to sustaining and preserving Grenadian culture, while honoring its ancestors and elders.
Shola has spent most of her life traveling between the United States and Grenada and is proud of the brief stint of schooling she had in Grenada during her childhood. She often boasts of having the best of both worlds and believes that her proximity to Grenadian food, colloquialisms, traditions, and celebrations have kept her nestled in a culture she strives to honor and preserve.
Community engagement and teaching have also served as pathways to preservation and are a part of Shola's family legacy. Shola's grandfather was well known in his community for giving back and promoting a culture that valued education.
Culturally Relevant Teaching
Shola has been right in step with needed efforts to increase practices that are culturally relevant, responsive, and sustaining, in arts and education. Historically, African-Diasporic dance forms have been othered and relegated to positions that present them as inferior to Eurocentric dance forms. McCarthy Brown (2017) affirms that dance is a cultural, gendered, and racial experience and that a multicultural community is one that refrains from "de-legitimizing" the emergence of diversity. Culturally responsive teaching in any space is an explicit effort toward diverse entry points to learning and honoring the lived experiences of the learners.
As a former dance educator for the New York City Department of Education, Shola remains committed to cultivating perspectives of dance that are diverse and reflective of the rich cultural capital of Caribbean countries. She anticipates that her dissertation study Mo Bélé for Grenada': A Culturally Relevant Approach to Honoring Our Ancestors through Grenadian Folk Dances as an Offering for Education will a) illuminate the desire many Grenadians have to learn more about the dances of their lineage and b) inform policy makers about the benefits and cultural competencies that will emerge from the implementation of Grenadian dance practice in institutions on the island and globally.
Shola K. Roberts' Career Highlights
-Founder/ Executive Director of Dance Grenada
-Recently named a 2023 Caribbean Boss Lady #CBNBossLady. This recognition is given to inspirational women who demonstrate command of their life and business/ brand
-Former NYC DOE Dance Educator and Arts Liaison for MS 354- School of Integrated Learning in the Crown Heights region of Brooklyn
What's Next for Shola K. Roberts?
-Shola Roberts will be conducting research for her dissertation study 'Mo Bélé for Grenada': A Culturally Relevant Approach to Honoring Our Ancestors through Grenadian Folk Dances as an Offering for Education.
-On April 14 and 15 The Shola K. Roberts Dance Company will make its Arizona Debut as part of Arizona Trolley Dances at the Scottsdale Performing Arts Center.
-Dance Grenada 2023 will be held on the island October 20-23, 2023.
McCarthy-Brown, & Amin, T. N. (2017). Dance pedagogy for a diverse world : Culturally relevant teaching in theory, research and practice. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.
Beyond the Barre & Other Stories