Spirits Of Dance

with his five-member troupe, Christopher Obas is moved to spread the tru word about Haitian Vodou

July 17, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

The spirits first came to him 15 years ago, says Christopher Obas, creeping into his dreams and whispering to him as he lay in bed at night.

As the 10-year-old Obas slept one night, the Haitian Vodou peasant god Cuzin appeared before him in his trademark blue jeans and straw hat, gently but firmly instructing him to dance. The god told the boy to start a troupe to perform dances based on Vodou rituals to teach people outside of Haiti about the storied religion.

And so Obas began dancing the next day in the basement of his aunt's home in Queens, New York. It is a calling that Obas, a Haitian-American who now lives in Woodlawn, has taken seriously ever since.

Today, Obas heads a five-member dance troupe, Anba's Lakay. In Creole, it means "underneath the house," a nod to his beginnings as a dancer in that basement

The soft-spoken, delicate-looking 25-year-old wants his group to showcase Haitian folklore through dance, but also feels the spirits have given him and his dancers a higher mission - to spread the true word about Haitian Vodou culture in the United States, where many associate the religion with evil and spells. Vodou, in fact, is one of several religions combining West African deity worship and elements of Roman Catholicism practiced in the Caribbean and Brazil today.

"This is something that the spirits want me to be a part of," says Obas, who has a day job cutting hair and doing hair weaves at Total Image Hair Salon in Woodlawn. "It's a beautiful religion, but for those that don't know about it, they let Hollywood take over and tell them that it's devil worship, it's satanic. It's very hard for us."

To begin with, Americans have spelled the religion as "voodoo" for decades - a spelling Haiti scholars and immigrants now associate with the negative stereotypes of the religion and are hoping to change to "Vodou" in the vernacular. And movies and shows featuring "voodoo" dolls, zombies, spells and possessions have tainted the religion with associations with sorcery, Obas said.

"The voodoo dolls are just not true," Obas says, wringing his hands in exasperation. "And not all people who do Vodou are bad. We use it for good."

Dancing from dreams

Obas tries to get this message across through his dances, which he choreographs from memories of watching Vodou ceremonies in Haiti and from dreams of performances that he says the spirits show him in his sleep.

Performed to rhythmic drumbeats, his dances are sensual movements complete with hip and shoulder thrusts and lyrical chanting in Creole. A trademark dance is the Yanvalou, a performance to start a celebration for the serpent god where the dancers gather in a circle to chant and salute the four corners of the stage, blessing the area before the festivities begin.

Another, which he performed during last month's Juneteenth Festival in Baltimore, featured him and three female dancers welcoming the goddess Erzulie into the home.

With white satin scarves tied around their heads and large, frilly, pink- and purple-striped skirts flying about them, the female dancers surrounded Obas, grinding their hips to the drumbeat and pacing the stage. The group chanted in Creole: "Good morning to my son. Good morning to my mother. Good morning to the God who represents my house."

Vodou originated in Haiti in the mid-1700s, when colonists brought West African slaves to the French-occupied island and forbade them to practice their ancestral religions. When slave owners forced their Catholic beliefs and saints on them, slaves continued their worship in secret, linking each saint to an African deity and praying to them.

"The slave owners wanted to suppress the religion because they were afraid of the supernatural," said Carrol F. Coates, a professor of French and comparative literature at the State University of New York in Binghamton who translates Haitian books into English. "They feared to some extent that the spirits could actually have an impact in their world."

Coates said during Haiti's colonial times, weekend slave parties that lasted all night often were Vodou ceremonies in disguise. In 1791, Haitian slaves staged a revolt against their masters, and some versions of the uprising attribute its success to a ceremony by a Vodou priest who called on the oppressed to band together and rebel. Though Vodou has been the dominant religion in Haiti for centuries, it wasn't until 1987 that officials lifted the country's ban on the practice.

Heineken for the gods

The Vodou religion focuses on honoring the "lwa," the hundreds of thousands of gods and spirits who watch over worshipers. These deities are categorized in three groups - the Rada, who are cool spirits; the Petwo, or fiery spirits; and the Bizango, the spirits of death and procreation. Many are African deities in the form of Catholic saints. Erzulie, for example, is a black Virgin Mary adapted as the goddess of strength, luck and fire, while Lazarus is Legba, the gatekeeper in the Vodou religion.

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