Students Join Caribbean Dance

From a seat facing Monty Thompson's Caribbean dance class at The Yard, it is easy to distinguish the students from the members of the Caribbean Dance Company. They are separated by degrees of flexibility, of confidence versus hesitance - the difference between being on the beat or a fraction of a step behind.

After a time, however, three girls emerge as occupants of an undefined middle ground. During warm-up they stand in the front row, a spot others look to for guidance; but then Mr. Thompson corrects them - an adjustment of stance or rotation of hip. Before the end-of-class routine, they show a confused classmate the proper move; during the routine there are moments when one of them missteps, pauses and then falls back into the rhythm.

The impression of these three - Marissa Schoenfeld, Lily Morris and Emme Brown - is one of arms and legs, elastic in their exaggerated movements. Their faces are blank, their focus intense and interior. They demonstrate control of body and movement that most people cannot imagine. They are Islanders and they are dancers and they are good.

So good - and, perhaps more importantly, so dedicated - that they will join the Caribbean Dance Company during its performances tonight and tomorrow night at the Martha's Vineyard Performing Arts Center. To learn the style of dance and their part in the routine, they have been taking classes with Mr. Thompson, the company's artistic director, since last Tuesday.

At 18, Marissa is the oldest; she'll be a freshman next year at American University, where she plans to minor in dance. Lily, 14, is entering her freshman year of high school and Emme, 13, is in the eighth grade. They've all been dancing long enough that "how long" is a question difficult to answer. Despite the years of training, however many they are, none of them had encountered Caribbean dance before this summer.

Perhaps the best way to describe the style is through Mr. Thompson's directions, shouted over the beat of drums: "Don't control the steps. Loose! Everything is crazy and wild - the way you look, everything."

The in-class routine involves the swinging and pumping of arms, a marching step, turning and jumping in a move evocative of a sunburst. It is something entirely new, challenging, exhausting and exciting. Marissa, Lily and Emme welcome all of it.

"It's fun to do a new type of dance, especially on Island, where there isn't as much variety," says Marissa during a break between class and rehearsal. She crosses her legs and hugs her knees to her chest.

"Fun, but definitely hard," Lily says.

"We have no cultural dance here. We have ballet and hip hop, tap, modern - the basics," Emme says. "So it's rewarding to be doing something new."

"The rehearsals are tiring," Lily says. They have been at The Yard from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day since July 3. "As you get tired, the amount you can take diminishes. It reaches a point each day, when you can't learn anymore."

She considers what she has just said, then adds, "Working with them is interesting, and seeing them dance makes you want to push yourself harder and do better."

"All my dance teachers on the Island are amazing," Marissa says. "But the company members can explain what it's like to be a professional. The hours, the travel, being a part of a company.

"Some of the dancers are around my age, and they've been so nice, helpful and understanding -"

"They've been so patient with me," Lily breaks in. "So patient. We're in a dance with them - Marissa and I - that they knew before. And they had to keep showing us over and over." She hides her face in her arms and laughs. They all do.

Marissa and Lily are part of one routine, a mechanical dance in which they play voodoo dolls; Emme participates in a different one, more of a loose shuffle, as she puts it. She is supposed to be a watcher, hidden inside a haystack and making sure things are all right. But one dance each, they agree, is plenty:

"We couldn't be in more than one," Lily says. "The moves might seem simple, but there's a certain way you have to do it to complete a vision. The dances are created out of an idea -"

"You have to get in character," Emme says.

Lily nods. "There's no time to be shy and back in your own space. You have to put yourself out there."

At this point, Mr. Thompson joins the group. He lived here 22 years ago and says he knew, even then, the Island had potential and only needed someone to pull it together. "People don't think locally," he says. He cites Boston and New York as areas people think more of for breeding professionalism in dance.

"But it's about encouragement," he says, speaking generally of any interest in dance, and specifically of this opportunity for the girls. "And sharing. I want to emphasize that. If we sit down and talk, a lot of things happen for both of us."

Eight dancers initially tried out to join the company on stage. "But these girls stood out for their ability to come again and again," he says. "For their persistence. In life, that's important. If you don't have focus and attention, nothing works."

Mr. Thompson's philosophy of sharing evidences itself even in this conversation. He listens, questions and offers advice and stories. He engages the girls in a dialogue about dancing, what it means to them and what it has done for them.

Emme confesses to childhood clumsiness, which prompted her mother to enroll her in ballet class. "Within days," she says, "I was moving differently."

"Dancing gives you a feeling you can't find anywhere else," Lily says.

Marissa says, "It teaches you to deal with what you have, but also to improve. I'm not flexible - so it's something I've had to work on, and that translates to other things, like school. You have to take time and keep trying."

"Discipline," Lily says. "To go and go and not complain -"

"You feel good about it afterward," Emme says.

"Dance class is a place to let go. If you have a bad day, that stays outside class," says Marissa.

"Sanctuary," says Emme.

Mr. Thompson says, "It is a technique of not living outside yourself. It comes from within. Everything starts from you. You must remember, life is movement. No life is death."