FOR COMMON GOOD - Stories of Us. LEGACY (Part One of Two) by Kamille-Ann Lynch-Griffith
By Kamille-Ann Lynch-Griffith
As she stared out onto the stage that is devoid of light and started visualising the dance steps that had to be performed, she takes a deep breath to quiet her pounding heart that is both excited and nervous at the same time. Calming the mind just before stepping out on stage has been a ritual of hers for every performance. The announcer quiets the murmurs of the audience by giving an introduction and then the national anthem of Trinidad and Tobago was sung. The curtains rise, the drummers begin to play to signal the start of the show. Emelda took a final deep breath and leaped out onto the stage to meet her fellow dancer Trevor Redhead to begin the performance.
This performance is different though. This is the debut performance for the first folk ballet to be performed in Trinidad and Tobago in November 1971 called ‘The Mating of Erzulie’ produced and choreographed by the late Jean Coggins Simmons and held at the Grand Dame of the Performing Arts, Queen’s Hall.
Picture #1: Trevor Redhead and Emelda Lynch-Griffith in ‘The Mating of Erzulie’ performance | Picture #2 Newspaper clipping about ‘The mating of Erzulie’
Emelda Lynch-Griffith started dancing at the age of thirteen at a center located on La Fantsie Road, St. Ann’s which was close to Cascade where she grew up with her mother who was a domestic servant for the Pulver family. Kenneth McPherson was the dance teacher at the centre and her mother, Doris would often meet her after dance rehearsal or a dance show if it went past 6 p.m. In those days, Doris didn’t play when it came to Emelda and made sure that her daughter was always in good hands and well protected. Emelda met Jean Coggins at the age of fourteen as Jean’s group also practised at the centre. This meeting would be the beginning of a relationship that would have a significant impact on Emelda’s dance career.
Kenneth left the centre which left the door open for Emelda to start dancing with the Jean Coggins Dance Company. Auntie Jean as she was affectionately called started her dance career under the tutelage of Ms. Beryl Mc Burnie. Ms. Mc Burnie was known as ‘La Belle Rosette’ and the Mother of Dance in Trinidad and Tobago because of her work in the preservation of dance folklore and her dance company The Little Carib Theatre.’ This company is responsible for several dance pioneers in Trinidad and Tobago which included Jean Coggins. Auntie Jean eventually struck out on her own to continue to preserve the folklore of Trinidad and Tobago and by extension the different folk dance styles from neighbouring Caribbean countries.
Auntie Jean often worked with fellow ‘Little Carib Theatre’ alum Aubrey Adams who had his own company called ‘Trinidad Folk Performing Company.’ Aubrey had a flair for creating folk productions and oftentimes he would ask Auntie Jean to choreograph and have her dancers be a part of these productions. In 1969, Aubrey produced the Ambakaila Folk Production and as was customary the Jean Coggins Dance Company would dance the choreography created by Auntie Jean to tour the Caribbean Island of Antigua, Toronto, and Carnegie Hall in New York City. It was also on this tour that Emelda was allowed to choreograph alongside fellow dance company member, Felix Harrington.
Picture #1: Emelda Lynch-Griffith in full makeup for ‘The Mating of Erzulie’ | Picture #2: Emelda performing in New York
Allowing Emelda the opportunity to flex her talent for choreography gave rise to her choreographing on numerous occasions with Auntie Jean’s dance company. These choreographic opportunities also extended to the first folk ballet ‘The Mating of Erzulie’ where Emelda was the title character of ‘Erzulie.’ Elma Romano of the Barataria Community Council required a new dance teacher as Gene Toney left the Council for other pursuits. Mrs Romano also happened to be first cousins with Auntie Jean, naturally, Emelda was her recommendation to Mrs. Romano to take over dance in the Barataria community centre in late 1971.
The Barataria Community Council was one of the top groups that participated in the Prime Minister’s Best Village Trophy Competition. It was Emelda’s participation as a choreographer that led to her being awarded a national scholarship to attend New York University (NYU) along with ten other individuals from the annual national competition. While all these strides were taking place in her dance career, it was still deemed a hobby as you could not earn a living from it, thus Emelda was a Clerical Officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by day and a dancer/dance choreographer by night.
In April 1974, Emelda left Trinidad to take up her post at the Trinidad and Tobago Consulate in New York. In August of the same year, Emelda got married and changed her name from Emelda Lynch to Emelda Lynch-Griffith. She would enrol in NYU in 1978, where she would be the first member of her family to achieve tertiary-level education. Doris, her mother, made the sacrifice to pay for her to go to Secondary School while working on a modest salary as a live-in Domestic Servant. In that period, secondary school education was not universal hence Doris had to pay for Emelda in every term for her to complete her secondary school education.
In a cruel twist of fate, Emelda’s husband was tragically killed in Brooklyn, New York and that left her grieving and inconsolable. By chance, a fellow Trinidadian who was a dancer, poet, and writer and someone that she knew from Trinidad reconnected with her. It was through their connection that she was able to overcome her grief and graduate from NYU. In a happy circumstance, Emelda found out she was pregnant with her first child whom she named Kamille.
Picture #1: Emelda Lynch-Griffith graduating from NYU | Picture #2: Emelda with her daughter Kamille
After graduating, she moved back to Trinidad in 1983. As a recipient of a national scholarship, it was expected that she would use the knowledge gained to elevate the dance artform. As part of her education at NYU, she was afforded the opportunity to dance at the famed ‘Juilliard School’ and these experiences broadened her dance eye which she used when she returned to her dance home of Barataria Community Council.
Dance in Trinidad and Tobago at this time was vibrant and very competitive. The Prime Minister’s Best Village Trophy Competition was the cultural event of the annual calendar. Along with the talents of playwright Ronald Amoroso and Emelda choreographing, Barataria was one of the top groups to beat. Their pairing led to numerous top prizes in the Best Village Competition and Emelda won the best choreographer award in the years; 1985, 1987 and 1989. In 1987, she welcomed her second baby girl whom she called Dawnn (with two n’s). In the following year, she lost her mother, Doris which was another devastating blow.
Picture#1: Emelda in front of the ‘Little Carib Theatre’ at one of the Barataria Community Council’s productions. | Picture #2: Doris Lynch with Emelda and baby Dawnn.
With her mother’s passing, dance was her solace. In 1991 there were whispers that the National Dance Association of Trinidad and Tobago (NDA) would start the National Dance Theatre Company of Trinidad and Tobago (NDTC). Emelda was tapped to not only choose the dancers as part of a panel; she was also named Artistic Director. She would reunite with Felix Harrington as well as several other choreographers to choreograph different pieces for the official debut of the NDTC and its first dance production called ‘Pathfinder.’ While Felix’s piece became the title piece of the production, Emelda’s choreographic piece called ‘Nuff Respect’ closed out the show.
The newly formed National Dance Theatre Company’s debut performance was so successful, that it led to the company being chosen to represent Trinidad and Tobago as the official contingent for Carifesta V which was held in Trinidad and Tobago in 1992.
The company was tapped again to represent Trinidad and Tobago for Carifesta VI where Emelda would produce and choreograph one of her most notable bodies of work called ‘Echo of Africa.’ Mr. Patrick Manning, Prime Minister of the country at that time, gave the company a standing ovation when an excerpt of the dance production was performed for the closing ceremony. With the highs, came the lows, Emelda hung up the Artistic Director post due to differences in opinions with members of the company and decided it was time to strike out on her own. She started her own dance company and school called ‘Dance Construction: School of Dance and the Related Arts.’
Picture: Emelda at the Opening Ceremony of Carifesta VI
END of PART ONE of TWO
Kamille-Ann Lynch-Griffith is a Film Industry Professional who participated in the Writing for Culture cohort of our FOR COMMON GOOD Arima x Louisville Exchange which was facilitated by Louisville Story Program which has become our 'Stories of Us' project.