Young lovers learn to dance calypso, down Trinidad way

The couples that dance together stay together," proclaims Eugene Joseph, founder of the Trinidad Dance Theater. And he should know: he and his wife, Jessica, have been partners for 30 years, ever since they started their company and school.

Hoping for some of the same good fortune, my wife, Jennifer, and I have come to Trinidad, off the northeast coast of Venezuela, to learn the calypso; more specifically, we've driven 40 minutes south of Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, to the Josephs' San Fernando studio. Eugene sits behind his desk. In a soft voice that bespeaks his own calm state of mind, he asks, "Have you ever studied dance?"

Jenn took ballet until she was 13, and Eugene says he can tell by the way she holds herself. Dancer posture. I can think only of junior high school physical education. Square dancing and the hustle. "No," I reply, though I'm sure my chronic slouch has given me away.

The studio has an archetypal feel. Well-worn hardwood floors. A mirrored wall. Ballet barre. "First we must take a moment to locate ourselves," Eugene says with a vaguely mystical air. "Close your eyes. Feel the air around you. Your feet against the floor. Listen to the sound of the birds outside." After a few seconds, we're ready to go.

"The secret of the calypso," he explains, "is in the knees." If there's a secret, then it will all be easier than I'd feared. I'll learn the secret and my lousy posture will right itself. Eugene bends one knee, then the other, as though he's walking in place, but without lifting his toes from the ground. "Let your hips follow the movement of your knees," he says. Jenn and I imitate the step, and in no time it's clear that I'm the problem. My knees lock when I come back up and the rhythm is lost; I'm a pre-oilcan Tin Man. Eugene has me concentrate my weight forward, never letting me fully stand up, so that I get more of a pedaling motion going. The step sinks in enough for us to proceed.

Eugene positions us in a traditional waltz pose. After a five-six-seven-eight Bob Fosse count-off, we promptly knock opposing knees with great force. My fault. More practice.

The origin of the term calypso remains in dispute. Most scholars link it to the West African word kaiso, meaning "bravo." Some claim it came from a phonetic likeness to Enrico Caruso's last name—to sing a calypso was to sing in a strong, full voice. Still others point to the Homeric legend of Atlas's daughter Calypso, who performed for Odysseus. The first calypsonians appeared on Trinidad in the late 1800's and sang in patois. The lyrics, just as they do today, centered on social and political commentary.

As a dance form, calypso was born out of early performances of the music, when audience members would imitate a calypsonian's movements. Through the years the dance incorporated merengue, Indian, and waltz influences. "Calypso is a very free-form dance," says Eugene. "You can improvise as much as you like, as long as you have the fundamental rhythm."

Satisfied with our progress, Eugene selects some soca music. A modern offshoot of calypso, soca is much more pulsing than its predecessor. Think of house or techno compared to early soul or disco. Fitting the walking-in-place groove to the music is not easy—the beat is much faster than what we rehearsed. Our knees have declared war.

To end the first lesson we learn a shuffle side-step. (Left for eight counts, and back eight counts to the right.) The mechanical structure puts me at ease; it's just like the hokey-pokey. All I have to do is memorize a few moves.

That evening, back in Port of Spain, we set out to find some undiluted calypso. It's early January, a time when the momentum leading up to Carnival is building to a fever pitch. Neighboring Tobago is by far the bigger tourist destination, but if you want calypso culture, you come here. The warm air is awash with the ambient sound of practicing steel bands. Colorful posters crowd telephone poles and shopwindows. Nearly every night in the month and a half before Ash Wednesday, there's an opportunity to hear live music.

We attend Lord Kitchener's Calypso Revue. Kitchener, a calypsonian for 67 years, is the music's most revered figure, and his annual showcase of performers is the best of what is now referred to as vintage calypso. We're treated to no fewer than 20 singers with stage names like Sugar Aloes, Cro Cro, Bomber, and Baron. The audience hangs on every word, exploding in laughter at each political joke. Topics range from high school textbook inaccuracies to the relationships between the island's East Indian and African populations. Jenn and I can only guess at many of the references, but there's another reason we're confused: no one is dancing.

"This is the calypsonians' time," Eugene explains at our second lesson. "They have a lot to say. If you want to dance, you have to go to a fête." We're at another of Eugene's four studios, this one in downtown Port of Spain (where he also works as a cultural officer for the government).

After reviewing yesterday's moves, we're shown a kind of stomping moonwalk, forward and back, called chipping. Eugene follows it with a 360- degree turn in eight counts that uses the same knee-and-hip movement as the basic step. It's a satisfying lesson, and we leave with the sense that we're amassing a repertoire.

We continue our education later that night at a fête, or dance party, at the Anchorage, an open-air club in the northern suburb of Chaguaramas. The multiracial crowd is decidedly well-to-do. A soca band takes the stage and everyone starts up with the knee action. Here the couples don't dance facing each other, but spoon in a not-so-subtle position known as wine and jam. We stick to the waltz position, which elicits more than a few glances and smiles. As we're leaving, a young man in a Chicago Bulls cap nods to us. "Not bad," he says. "Really."

By our final class I'm feeling confident. Eugene has brought Jessica along for assistance. I'm partnered with her; Jenn is with Eugene. The combination of a new partner and a new step overwhelms my feet. Jessica plants her hand firmly beneath my shoulder blade. "Use your hand to communicate where you want to go," she instructs. "Don't be afraid to be assertive."

My wife cuts in. "Much better," she says. Being assertive is just one secret I've learned on this trip, but even it will require a bit of time to work out completely. Maybe that's why dancing cultivates such long relationships—all those hours of practice. On the way to the airport we stock up on calypso CD's. We're both looking forward to a lot of rehearsal time when we get home.

How Low Can You Go?
Calypso may be the national music of Trinidad and Tobago, but limbo—yes, limbo—is the national dance. "You used to do it when a family member died," says Julia Edwards, a 65-year-old grandmother known locally as the Queen of the Limbo. "Back a hundred years ago they started with the bar low and slowly raised it. That way you helped the soul of the deceased rise to heaven." The first limbo bars, in fact, were pieces of wood cut right from the casket. Somewhere along the way the bar changed direction, and religious ritual mutated into the world's most popular beach party game.

For 45 years, Julia and her troupe have toured the world to promote Trinidadian dance. In 1964 she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show performing the limbo and a dance called Tempo, both of which rely on African drumming for accompaniment. Between trips abroad, she holds down a Monday-night gig at the Hilton in Port of Spain (Lady Young Rd.; 868/624-3211; $5 cover) and gives private lessons (868/622-6904; one-hour lesson $10 per person).

David Knowles's latest novel, The Third Eye, will be published by Nan Talese/Doubleday in February.

The Facts
Trinidad Dance Studio 24 Torrance St., Mon-Repos, San Fernando, and 30 Victoria Square, Port of Spain; 868/652-4826; one-hour lesson $6 per person.
Lord Kitchener's Calypso Revue will take place in January and February, but similar events are held year-round. To check out the local calypso scene, pick up a copy of the Trinidad Guardian for listings of fêtes and music performances. TIDCO (888/595-4868 or 868/623-1932), the Tourism & Industrial Development Co., is also a good source of information.
The Anchorage Pointe Gourde Rd., Hart's Cut, Chaguaramas; 868/634-4334.