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Dancing and chatting with Nicole de Weever

nicole_1“I feel like this is just the beginning for me!”

By Lisa Davis-Burnett

Last Saturday was the kind of blank canvas on which anything might be painted. With no real plans, I made my way down to the St. Maarten Book Fair at University of St. Martin (USM) to take part in a free workshop on Afro Caribbean Dance. I was excited because Nicole de Weever would be the leader of the workshop. This young lady, who began her dance career with Arlene Halley and Cees van Doldren at Motiance Dance School in Philipsburg, has successfully made her way into what is arguably the most competitive arena of dance in the world: Broadway. Nicole is a cast member of the award winning musical theatre production Fela!, which is now on tour, performing in Houston this weekend.

Nicole de Weever is a slim woman, what we used to call a “wisp of a girl” but her vibrant personality can easily fill a room. When she dances, everyone is transfixed, smiling and clapping along. Her love for dance is overshadowed only by her enthusiasm for people, as evidenced by her joyous smile.

DURING THE hour and a half session at USM, Nicole introduced a group of East African dancers from theWashingtonD.C. area that helped her to direct the movements of the participants. Some 25 people turned out for this chance to dance with Nicole. The mood was jovial and joyful; the music was loud and rhythmic. Nicole told the group, “Don’t sit, just enjoy it and let go!” And so we did, and it was really fun! There was an attitude of acceptance of everyone’s ability-levels and gratitude for the openness of spirit. Thank goodness for that openness! Speaking for myself, the style of dancing was challenging both for its grounded rhythms and high energy levels. Much was familiar, though, and Nicole made several efforts to demonstrate bridges betweenCaribbean dance moves and the East African story-based routines. “You can see the direct relationship between reggae, hip hop, dancehall and these moves.” We were birds, cows, hunters and flirtatious young girls taunting boys that were soon to be circumcised. The traditional dances came fromUganda,Zaire and other regions from the East of Africa.

After the workshop, I had the chance to sit (whew!) and chat with Nicole about how things are going in her life these days. We started with the topic of the show and its huge success. “Fela! is going so well,” she shared. “We’ve been on tour for a year. We went toNigeria, which was an incredible experience for me because it was my first time going toAfrica, and to be performing such a politically-charged piece, so historically, it was nice to be able to present the show to the people there. We used the conference hall in the Eko Hotel onVictoria Avenue inLagos,” she enthused. “It was incredible! It was actually bigger than our theatre in Broadway. We were performing on a huge massive stage in front of thousands of people. They had to completely rebuild our entire set, so it was made to look the same as if it was on Broadway.”

That trip meant a lot to her personally, as she explained, “It was an incredible experience because it changed a lot of my perspective aboutAfrica. You know you get a lot of these warnings about how dangerous it is, but I felt very safe where we were.”

Fela!’s run is set to end on June 17 but Nicole admitted she is actually ready for a new challenge. “I love the show, but artistically I am ready to do something else. I’ve met so many amazing people; I’ve networked with so many people that are doing great things in the community, as well as in entertainment.” Nicole says she is looking forward to her next project, but for now, things are up in the air. “I feel like this is just the beginning for me.”

HER PATH to such success reflects her determination, vision and natural abilities. She shared that dance was always a part of her family’s cultural fabric; she and her sister went to dance classes and she had a cousin who attendedAmsterdamTheatreSchool. “Dance has always been very present in our culture, so as young kids, we just went to dance class. I decided to do it professionally because it’s my passion.”

She studied dance with Motiance Dance Studio and moved toFairfax,Virginia, to live with family for three years while attending high school. That is where her desire to become a professional dancer took on a new level of intensity. She focused on contemporary, modern dance and classical ballet there and she danced with Fairfax Ballet Company. “I trained intensely there and then I applied toNew YorkUniversity. I was accepted there and I studied atTischSchoolof the Arts. I graduated from there in three years and then I was out into the reality of working as an artist. I feel I have been really blessed because I have been able to work consistently, and that is a very difficult thing to do as an artist.”

Regarding her big city lifestyle, she said, “I loveNew York; I’ve been there 15 years. I feel like of course St. Maarten in my home, but I also feel I have a sense of community inNew York. Especially since coming from such a small island, the big city is such a different environment and such a different pace. But it’s wonderful to feel that sense of community and a circle of friends that is like family.”

 

I HAD READ and heard much about this young lady who is often referred to as a kind of ambassador for the island. We could not have picked a better one, it seems. Talented, intelligent, well-spoken and optimistic, yet realistic, Nicole can be seen in a short clip on the Fela! Website, saying she is from the “beautifulisland ofSt. Maarten,” and then saying that, in a word, the story of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti is, to her, one of bravery.

Holding her to make a one word comment must have been quite an editing job. In person, she has quite a lot more to say, especially regarding opportunities for young people. When asked if she had advice for the youth out there that aspire to follow in her footsteps, she says the next generation should go for it. “I feel like they are going to follow me and go beyond me. I know it’s possible. There is so much talent here, it’s incredible. I am so excited about the buzz about theCharlotteBrooksonAcademyfor the Performing Arts. I hope the government supports it, I hope it really happens. I think it is definitely necessary for our youth.

“We constantly talk about the fact that the youth are lost and that’s because they need guidance. We talk about the problems, but we need to stop talking and focus on what we can do to make a difference. I think it’s crucial to the development of our community. Let’s stop talking about it and be the action. There are many kids that I see that may act out, and it’s like they are just screaming to say, ‘I need to do something; I need to be able to express myself; I need art; I need creativity; I need culture, music, dance, not only books.’ I think that’s the restless energy that people see, and it just shows they need to channel that energy.

“We need to provide a space, a school and a real education for that. I really stress that point because not everyone can leave the island and travel. Not everyone has the opportunity and the funds to see and explore outside of this island. We need to provide that here. It’s definitely important to move from your direct environment to grow as an individual, but it’s also important to be nurtured at home and have the opportunity to pursue your dreams and have a foundation that is stable. So I think it’s so important that we implement that; and it’s important that the government focus on the arts and focus on having a school that nurtures kids that potentially could become the next Nicole, or the next ‘beyond-Nicole,’ which is totally possible. You can talk about dreams all you want, but how do we proactively make those dreams become real?”

NICOLE’S PASSION extends beyond the world of dance, as she emphasized her point even further. “We talk about the youth being our future, you know, it is the truth. What are we doing to help them, to nurture them, to guide them? We see all these hotels and all these developments going up that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and what are we doing with the taxes? Where is the money going? How are we investing in our future? The children are screaming, and you see it. They are searching; we are not making it easy for them; all we are doing is complaining. I always say, ‘Be the change.’ Let’s do it!”

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