"Haiti has given me a lot of great lessons"

  • Posted by Marina Vatav
  • September 26, 2014 6:50 AM EDT

Jean Appolon Expressions - a dancing company based in Boston is putting on amazing shows for the world to enjoy. Many of them are inspired by the Haitian folklore. They have dancers and drummers on stage, and breathtaking performances that tell stories of courage, of hardship, and of human strength.

The shows bring an amalgam of feelings, but you would never guess what is the story behind the choreography, what is the story behind this dance company, and what drives it forward.

The answer lies in the following questions:

Can a Haitian child who dreams of becoming a dancer conquer the world? Can that child protect his dream in a culture where being a dancer is not what a family would normally approve, especially for a boy? Can he overcome his conditions and build a new life?

Fighting for his dream

As a child, Jean Appolon has always loved to dance as he saw his grandmother, aunt, and cousin perform. He became totally fascinated by it when he saw on the Haitian television Lavinia Williams, a renown African American dancer that was teaching dance in Haiti.

"I was maybe 7 or 8 years old and I was fascinated by her. I used to watch her on TV and I was pretty much taken by the movement," remembers Jean.

When he was 14, he received a scholarship for the Folkloric Ballet of Haiti. He was the only boy in the class who raised his hand when they asked, “Who wants to study dancing?”.

As it often happens in Haiti, Jean's family was against him pursuing this path. They feared that as a dancer he would not be able to make a living out of it and that his live would be chaotic. After eight months of heavy pressure from his family, he had to quit the ballet school and return to a normal school. But he did not quit on his dream.

The breakdown

Jean says that Haiti taught him lessons on strength. And it did. The hard way.
Times were getting tough in Haiti, and fighting for your dream was not a priority. Survival became the priority.

In 1991, during the first coup that overthrew President Aristide, Jean's father was killed and burned. "It was very tragic because they also came to burn our house and to also kill us," says Jean.

Jean and his brothers had to deal with their new lives. Jean has found his peace in dancing.

"After three months of my father's death, I went back to my dance school at Viviane Gauthier [Dance Company] and that's pretty much what saved me. I can still see the pain in my brothers' eyes and body. Every time they have a problem, they really don't know how to deal with it too much; I'm glad I had dance to give me that therapy. If it wasn't for dance I would not be able to talk to you today."

Back on track

After three years the family moved to the US where Jean continued to study dance. This time he had to convince his mother that dancing is what he will be doing and that he can make a living with it. He even had a teacher talk to his mother to explain how he can be successful as a dancer.

"I think my mother gave me the chance to do it at the age of 17 when she came to see me in a show in Boston. She was completely moved by" shares Jean.

Later he studied dance at the Harvard and Radcliffe Dance Program, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and the Joffrey American Ballet School where he graduated with a B.A. from a joint program offered by The New School in New York.

Jean Appolon Expressions

Five years ago, after working with a number of dance companies, Jean has decided to create Jean Appolon Expressions - a dance company that derives its inspiration from the Haitian folklore dance, music, Haitian way of live, and human condition overall. They have performed at major venues in the US and at many schools and colleges, as well as private events. The company also does workshops in the US and abroad.

As a way to bring hope, every summer Jean and his group travel to Port-au-Prince to teach dance classes to youth with a project called "Dance Haiti". The program serves young, aspiring Haitian dancers who do not have regular access to dance training.

Haiti is not the most stable environment to live in, but this can also be the secret of one's character. Jean believes that growing up in Haiti has made him stronger.

"I've been through revolutions, I've been running, hiding in trees with my family, hiding in many other places in Haiti, so I do understand that Haiti has given me a lot of strength and I think that's what Haiti really showed to the world. They are resilient, they are very strong and they are very hopeful. I'm hoping in the future that Haiti can really give us stability when it comes to education, when it comes to work, when it comes to health care," shared Jean.

Focus, Persistence, and having a major Goal

Jean believes that life is about focus, persistence, and having a major goal for yourself and for your community.

"If I was never focused, I would not be able to do the work that I'm doing now. If I was not persistent I would never be where I am now. And if I did not have any major goal, I think I would be a very sad person," noted Jean.

His focus now is to grow his dance company, and to continue accomplishing its mission "to promote and preserve Haitian culture through dance".

He also believes that there's a lot of value in Haitian culture that the country can capitalize on because it's authentic, rich, and beautiful.