American photographer Carl Van Vechten’s iconic photo of Beryl McBurnie. Photo courtesy of Carl Van Vechten Estate.

There are people in Caribbean history who transcend even the highest notion of heroes and come under the realm of what we call “characters”. Beryl McBurnie is a character. Its biographer, Judy Raymond, says the dancer, best known for imagining the Little Caribbean in Woodbrook, is also the person who single-handedly “saved and revived the West Indian folk dance from ignominy and oblivion” . Raymond describes McBurnie as “tenacious and charismatic”. . “Others saw her as stubborn and obsessed.

As it turns out, McBurnie’s life is about more than people thought they knew about her.

McBurnie’s mission to save folk dancing and give it an honorable home outside of the marginalized places of TT is a pipe-dream captured in Raymond’s 97-page biography, simply titled Beryl McBurnie. Raymond first interviewed McBurnie for a feature film in 1993 when she realized that there were only reports on the great lady of dance. In that interview, she found McBurnie “very engaging and very willful… She had one of those butterfly spirits. She was jumping from subject to subject. She had old-fashioned courtesy.

Raymond was struck by “McBurnie’s beliefs about the importance of culture that propelled her decade after decade with very little personal reward. She was a “visionary, charismatic, charming, knowledgeable, motivated, persistent and inspiring, but she did not achieve all that she had planned to do”.

Beryl McBurnie in a Caribbean Beat interview. Photo by Mark Lyndersay

McBurnie passed away in 2000, and even now people remember her passion making her stubborn, difficult, and fascinating. In Raymond’s interview, McBurnie confessed, “I always have to have my own way.

McBurnie claimed friendship with the late Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams and other key figures in politics and the arts. She fell out with painter and dancer Boscoe Holder, and they never settled their differences. Nobel laureate Derek Walcott moved to Trinidad because of her, but then fell out with him when she insisted Walcott couldn’t use the Little Caribbean as a base for his workshop. theatre.

“The theater workshop was turned off and they were a moving feast after that,” Raymond says.

The great conflict in McBurnie’s story is that of personal achievement versus national sacrifice. Readers will wonder if McBurnie could have been successful on his own terms as an artist in the United States.

“She always said she never intended to stay there permanently and I think it was true,” Raymond says. “Additionally, Albert Gomes said her dance is so ingrained in local material that it’s hard to see how she could have gotten new material without returning to Trinidad regularly.”

In the end, McBurnie’s life came down to dusty, crumbling correspondence boxes in the Heritage Library basement, fumigated and rescued from the Folk House, once McBurnie’s home before the new owners do not destroy it. With a mask and gloves provided by the library, Raymond sorted through personal books, letters to friends, and memorabilia.

“Books were eaten by moths and bookworms,” she says. “Thieves broke into the Folk House and stole the plumbing fittings, so some of the material got soaked, and then the pages dried together. “

Rhythm Babes dancers perform at the 2018 Tobago Heritage Festival Folk Fiesta at the Shaw Park Cultural Complex. Such dances are recognized today because of Beryl McBurnie’s desire to bring them out of the villages at the center of local culture, says biographer Judy Raymond. PHOTO FILE

It may seem like a sad end for such a lively woman who has passed through Trinidad like a whirlwind.

“Most of his dances were lost because they weren’t written down and there was no video like there is now,” Raymond says.

But great subjects of biographies, characters if you will, become known long after their departure if they are lucky enough to have a writer like Raymond to tell their stories.

“Most people would say that she founded Little Carib,” explains Raymond, “but what she has done to preserve local dance and get rid of the stigma of local dance is not entirely understood. “

Raymond does admirably well at showcasing all of the finely nuanced layers of McBurnie and his accomplishments.

“She was one of the first people to understand that pan was important and that panmen weren’t just hooligans fighting in the streets. Red Army and Invaders performed at Little Carib during breaks from their dance performances. She was on a committee to examine Pan’s potential, ”Raymond says.

Her admirers often think of McBurnie as a lone woman fighting for the dance and fighting to establish and then maintain Little Carib, but Raymond says she was part of a larger movement that included Williams and CLR James. McBurnie found herself in the cultural part of the independence movement.

“Independence was also about getting rid of a colonial culture and reclaiming a TT culture,” explains Raymond. “In some ways, Beryl has been so successful that we take for granted all that she has accomplished in a number of art forms and in creating a national identity and pride in that identity. “

Before McBurnie, the folk dances she saved were considered backward and inappropriate for real young women. Raymond says McBurnie changed that. “Middle-class girls went to ballet lessons and learned to play the piano. Beryl made it her business to go to villages and valleys, watch these dances, learn them and perform them.

Without McBurnie, Raymond says, there wouldn’t have been a better village.

“People who do dances now wouldn’t do them, because there wouldn’t have been any more. Decades before we even think of independence, when everyone was brought up in an English tradition, she was one of the people, as I say in the book, who gave Trinidad its identity back in by making it a place – and not just a part of The Empire.

“The more you think about it, the more amazing it is that a middle-class red girl from Woodbrook single-handedly preserved African dance in Trinidad.”

Beryl McBurnie’s story is amazing and inspiring. It reflects the cultural and political history of TT in an exciting, fresh and new light, breathtaking in its scope; notable for its ability to fit into 97 pages thanks to Raymond’s crisp journalistic style. For those who have never had the privilege of catching a glimpse of McBurnie sliding down the street in one of his dance costumes, as if the road were his stage, this is the opportunity to experience a vivid and beautifully written biography. that will convince you of the power of dreams.

The biography of Beryl McBurnie by Judy Raymond is available on Paper Based at the Normandie, St Ann’s, and online.