Trina Parks — Dunham Stellar

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Trina Parks

Vocalist | Actor | Principal Dancer | Dunham Technique

Trina Parks was born on (December 26) in Brooklyn, New York. Her father Charles Frazier, was a renowned tenor saxophonist with Cab Calloway’s orchestra. Parks majored in modern dance at the New York High School of Performing Arts.

She also studied with Katherine Dunham and subsequently joined Dunham’s professional dance company in 1964. Additional concert dance credits include Donald McKayle, Anna Sokolow, Talley Beatty, Geoffrey Holder, Eleo Pomare and Rod Rodgers. Parks performed in numerous Broadway productions as a vocalist and dancer, including a lead role in the 10th anniversary touring production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies.

She was the first African American Bond girl Thumper in the 1971 James Bond classic Diamonds are Forever.

Source:  Out & About (O&A) NYC Magazine (Aug. 2014)

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Lagya

KATHERINE DUNHAM:

Dancer-Choreographer-Anthropologist-Activist

A Personal Remembrance by Trina Parks

I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Dunham in 1963 in New York City, at her dance studio. I was attending the New York High School of Performing Arts, which was on 46thSt. near Broadway. At “P.A.” [Performing Arts] I majored in Modern Dance (Graham technique).

A few days a week, after school, I would walk up to the Dunham School at 42nd and 9th and take classes taught by Ms. Dunham or one of her original company members. Vanoye Aikens, her dance partner since the 1930s, was also one of my main teachers. Vanoye is now in his nineties and was still teaching up until about two years ago. I would also take class, mostly on the weekends, with Syvilla Fort, who was in Ms. Dunham’s original company. Ms. Fort’s studio was very near Ms. Dunham’s.

'DANZA' PHOTO

‘Danza’, choreographed by Syvilla Fort (40′s-50′s)

Ms. Dunham not only taught us her technique, but always taught where the technique originated. Throughout her class she would speak about the execution of each step and what it meant, explaining that her technique originated in the African and Caribbean countries. She always insisted that we should feel that we were in those countries, not in a dance studio with a hard floor. She would say that we should feel the “earth” under our feet (of course we were dancing in bare feet) because this was the way the dancers in those countries danced.

Also, Ms. Dunham would say that we should feel the fresh outside air, see the sky above us, and see the clouds, the stars and the animals around us. We should feel the trees, and of course we should understand what we were dancing about. She would sometimes take a wicker basket, hold it in front of each dancer and tell us to hit it, with strength, as we were going across the floor, but not so hard so that we would put a dent in it or our hands. That was part of Karate exercises that she taught us.

(This is one reason I was cast as the first African American “James Bond Girl,” playing the character Thumper in the movie Diamonds Are Forever, with Sean Connery as James Bond. The character, who was a body guard/villain, had to know karate and also know how to dance, because the movements they wanted called for that. It was Ms. Dunham who taught me how to do these movements and gave me the strength to execute them.)

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One of Ms. Dunham’s Caribbean-inspired dances was called the L’Ag’Ya (pronounced, “Laaugya”), meaning the Fighting Dance, in which two men fight as in kickboxing, showing the Karate style. This form, which the Martinicans created, is done without gloves and in bare feet; the dancers execute kicks, turns, and falls.

Ms. Dunham later choreographed a 25-minute piece called L’Ag’Ya, with a story line about two men, one good and one bad, eventually fighting over a woman. The “bad” one goes to the witch doctor to get a potion to make the girl fall in love with him. The good man finds out that he has done this to his girlfriend and challenges him to a fight. The good man eventually wins. The fight scene, or the la’ag’ya, is the highlight of the piece.

Every single piece that Ms. Dunham choreographed has a specific meaning, a specific story, and it is always true to life. She never just used some music or drums and put steps to it. Most of the pieces that she choreographed for her company were performed with live drummers, who came from various islands in the Caribbean. Better known as Congo drummers (pronounced “kunga”), they became permanent drummers for her company and herself.

One drummer, whose name was Julio, spoke no English, but he was the best drummer I have ever worked with, seen or heard since. He was also like a father to me (I have a photo of Julio and myself, when I was in Paris with Ms. Dunham). Julio had the best personality, and understood everything that Ms. Dunham said, and when she would show the movement, he and the other drummers knew exactly what beat she wanted.

Ms. Dunham, at the end of her anthropology trip, settled in the country of Haiti. She lived with the peoples of Haiti and learned their customs and their religious customs. Ms. Dunham studied their religion and subsequently they allowed her to become what they call a “Mambo” which is like a minister in Christian churches.

The Haitian people allowed Ms. Dunham to learn their dances, even their most sacred ritual dances. She was allowed to use their steps and their original dance-moves, which their ancestors developed centuries ago, and these came to be included in the creation of the Dunham Technique.

Dancing in Donnie's piece with 3others

The Haitian people continue to preserve their form of dance, which is very much derived from their religion, with many movements depicting the animals that are prevalent in their country. For instance, the “snake,” which is a very adamant movement, is used very much in the Haitian dance called the Yanvalu. It is the rolling of the back, imitating the movement of the snake. All movements in the Haitian dance are done with pliés (bent knees). Every movement is directed toward the earth or honoring the sprit Damballa.

This is a Voodun ritual dance (the correct word is ‘voodun’ not ‘voodoo’, as the Americans re-named it), and it is a very important part of their religious ceremony.

The Haitian people were never trained dancers. They dance about their life, they dance about the way they worship, they just Dance! Their dance speaks from and about the way they feel. But every feeling, every step, has a certain meaning and tells a certain story.

Seeing and learning this from the Haitians, Ms. Dunham created the Dunham Technique, combining all of those feelings with the African and other Caribbean styles of dance. But the base of her technique is the Haitian form of dance.

DVD

Ms. Dunham was initially a ballet and a modern classical dancer. When she went to the African and Caribbean countries she wanted to study, through anthropology, the history of Black people in dance from the peoples of those countries, themselves. Ms. Dunham combined her ballet and modern techniques with the traditional movements of the African and Caribbean dances, mainly the Haitian dance.

The Dunham barre is one of the most intense and specialized barre exercises. It can last over an hour and still not complete all the different movements that Ms. Dunham has created. I was taught the Dunham barre by Ms. Dunham herself. I always took Ms. Dunham’s class and also studied with one of her dancers. Mr. Walter Nicks was another of her original dancers and was my teacher. (I subsequently worked with Walter when I came back from Paris with the Dunham company. We also performed together at the Apollo show in 1964, described below.)

Some of the Dunham barre exercises include: isolations, leg stretches, barre push-ups, flat-back-stretches, Yanvalus (body rolls), lunges (back & front), and leg-lifts (which are held & done on flat foot & on half-toe). That is just a few!

In 1964 Ms. Dunham asked me if I would like to perform with the company at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, in New York City. Of cause I was overjoyed to be asked to join the company. I was 15 years of age at the time, the youngest member of the company, and was still a junior at the Performing Arts High School.

I performed two pieces, including one main piece that Ms. Dunham choreographed, which was called Shango! It is the actual ritual dance, derived from the Santería religious ceremony. That piece was about thirty minutes long. An actual ritual can last as long as twelve hours, or all night.

Ms. Dunham captured all of the actual ritual and dance in those thirty minutes. I have never done a dance as long that in all my 50+ years of dancing, and I will never forget it. The piece encompassed all of the Dunham technique and more. Yanvalus were prevalent; along with twists (while in plié and holding the wide skirts on each end, twisting from the waist, right and left, with the head, also while in a semi-flat back position); jumps, turns, leg-lifts, and turns with the leg in fourth position in front. To dance for almost thirty minutes straight was a feat in itself. We were also told to study what the dance was about. You had to, or else it would not mean anything to you as you danced, and Ms. Dunham would know, by the way we performed, if we actually knew and felt the meaning of the piece.

We had to know about every dance we were performing, what the history of it was. You had to feel that you were in an actual ritual, and I certainly did while dancing Shango. That was one of Ms. Dunham’s classic pieces, which she choreographed in the 1940s.

In 1965, Ms. Dunham asked me to join the company in Paris, France. After graduating that summer, I joined the Dunham Company. We were guest dancers, and I was the lead female dancer, in a play called Deux Anges Sont Venu (“Two Angels Have Come”) at the Theatre De Paris. Ms. Dunham, after choreographing the play in 1966, closed her school in New York City and opened one in East St. Louis (The Performing Arts Training Center). PATC is also a museum with all her costumes, photos, drums and other articles that she brought from the African and Caribbean countries.

Ms. Dunham insisted we be strong dancers. She wanted the female dancers to do all the steps and exercises that were given to the male dancers. We were also to understudy the male sections of the dances. She wanted us (female) dancers to be as strong as the male dancers. Besides lifting other female dancers, we Dunham dancers turned out to be very strong, and this carried over to all of our other talents, especially for me as a singer and actress. This was also true for Ms. Eartha Kitt (whom I performed with in the 1980s and became friends with until her death in 2010). She was a Dunham dancer in the 1940s and ’50s, and she looked good and was still strong even in her eighties.

EKitt

Being so young when I was taught by and performed with Ms. Dunham, I am the one left, of Ms. Dunham’s last professional company, who can still teach her original technique to the students in Ms. Dunham’s school in East St. Louis, where she taught from 1966 until about 2000. Now teachers mainly teach Dunham technique on the East Coast. I am the last of the Dunham dancers teaching her classic technique in California.

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I also continue to teach a Dunham workshop, which is about two hours long, all over the U.S. I have been teaching it in public schools, colleges, universities, and private dance schools since 1970. It includes the Dunham barre, the isolations, standing in the middle of the floor with no barre, and the across-the-floor exercises, the way Ms. Dunham taught me. It is a technique I will never ever forget. A technique that many other chorographers have used, some not even knowing where it actually originated. You can always tell, in someone’s dancing or choreography, if they have learned the Katherine Dunham Technique. It is a technique I will teach as long as I can walk, or even if I have to sit, as Ms. Dunham did in her last years of teaching.

Source:  http://danceheritage.org/ (Artist provided, Aug. 8, 2014)