The islands and cultures of the Caribbean Sea are reflective of a melting pot of ethnic and religious backgrounds that have, over the centuries, been combined to create their own unique creole culture. In this vibrant and lively corner of the world, people take a different approach to life. Music, dance, and celebration fill the air even in the dreariest of times and from this cultural hotbed a number of gifted artists have arisen to share their culture with the world.
Makeda Thomas is one such artist who has strived for years to spread her creole and Caribbean culture to the rest of the world. Additionally, she has sought to put her own twist on the culture and help bring it to others around the world to not only share the creole culture with the world, but give them a venue for expressing themselves in a unique fashion.
Thomas is now a world-renowned dancer, choreographer, and artistic director with humble roots in the Caribbean. She was born in Trinidad and traces all her inspiration back to her childhood in the Caribbean. Thomas began her love affair with dance at the age of seven when she would perform in her own impromptu, informal dances. From the first performance she was hooked on how dance could allow her to express her creole and Caribbean heritage in a way nothing else could.
Her creole heritage and upbringing in the Caribbean in Trinidad played a big role in the kind of artist that Thomas would become later in life. Thomas recently recalled a story from her childhood that she credits with defining her life experience and cultural background:
“My mother began teaching me to cook when I was about 9 years old. It was through these cooking lessons with my mother that I remained connected to home. She would tell me stories of her mother, my grandmother who passed away from breast cancer when my mother was 9 years old. The stories, the back door flung open to let in the warm summer breeze and light, the smell of burning garlic for the curry…”
Thomas uses this story to explain what reminds her of her creole heritage. It is these memories, among others, that she tries to express through her dance and choreography. These experiences from her childhood shaped the dancer she became in the future as well as the programs she would develop for others.
As Thomas grew up, she combined her homegrown education in dance with a formal education in the United States. Thomas first earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and Dance from Hofstra University in New York, and concluded her formal education with a Master in Fine Arts in Dance at Hollins University in Virginia.
It was during the course of her MFA studies at Hollins University that she launched her first tour to spread the culture of Trinidad to the world. Her practice-based research program was entitled “Fresh Water – Myth, Mas, and Movement.” She conducted a solo tour under her own direction through Mexico, Zimbabwe, and US cities like Seattle and New York. The Mas portion of her performances are particularly representative of her Trinidadian and creole culture.
Mas is a performance art representative of a key portion of Carnival in Trinidad. It shows of the folklore, songs, vernacular, sounds, and gestures of creole culture in Trinidad. When Thomas performs she views her expression as a combination of her culture and her life experiences.
Over the years Thomas has taken her unique dance and artistry around the world to spread her vision of creole and Trinidadian culture. In addition to performances in her native Trinidad in Port of Spain, Thomas has performed in locations including:
- Symphony Space in New York City
- Brooklyn Academy of Music
- BRIC Arts
- Chicago Women’s Performance Arts Festival
- Maputo’s Teatro Africa
- Zimbabwe’s 7 Arts Centre
- Seattle’s Broadway Performance Hall
- Southern Theater in Minneapolis
- Teatro de la Ciudad in Mexico
Thomas has been chosen as a Cultural Envoy for the U.S. State Department due to her tireless efforts through dance and choreography. Her avant-garde approach to dance has led some to label her a pioneer, and in fact she was chosen as a cultural envoy because of her efforts to create performances that seek to address social, economic, political, and personal issues. It is through her own experiences and beliefs that she tries to encourage others to perform, express themselves, and seek to influence changes.
For all the success she’s had in developing her own style and form, nothing Thomas has done as a dancer, artist director, or choreographer can surpass her efforts to help cultivate a sense of expression and cultural respect in other dancers. She accomplishes this feat through her Makeda Thomas Dance and Performance Institute.
Held at the National Academy of the Performing Arts in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Thomas has set out to inspire, educate, and encourage dancers and other artists through artistic expression and passion. Her “New Waves” program is held annually at the institute, with the most recent program running from 18 July to 1 August 2012, to cultivate individual forms of expression among participants.
Makeda Thomas will continue to share her love of creole and Caribbean culture in the coming years. Through her own performances and the growth of participants at the Makeda Thomas Dance and Performance Institute, the world will get a feel for her vision of her creole culture. Wherever she goes the Caribbean is with her. When asked what makes the Caribbean important to her she simply responded “The Caribbean means home. It is my family, the landscape, the smells, the tastes, sounds, memories. It is a rhythm, a sense of humour, a way of thought.”