A group of women mid-dance during a Garifuna Dance Workshop at the Casita Maria Center Photo: Ali McPherson.

Bronxites move to the beat of the bongos for Garifuna culture

Garifuna are the descendants of Afro-indigenous people from the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent, and mainly reside in Honduras, and Belize in Central America. There are currently nearly 200,000 Garifuna living in New York City, with the largest concentration in the South Bronx.

A group of women mid-dance during a Garifuna Dance Workshop at Casita Maria. Photo: Ali McPherson.

As the beat of bongos filled the room, nine Bronxites pushed their bodies to new lengths at the Garifuna Dance Workshop, during the CelebrARTE! Garifuna Intangible Heritage Season at Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education on a Wednesday evening in December.

Many were of Garifuna heritage and already knew the dances: “Punta,” a festive dance in which dancer move their hips quickly from side to side, and “Chumba,” a solo dance whose movement is mostly in the hips and the arms.

One student, Dee Savory, who is not of Garifuna heritage, said she joined the workshop to learn more about the culture through dance.

“I find it great just to partake in parts of the culture and to have this free series where you can come and explore and find out more,” said Savory, 59.

Garifuna are the descendants of Afro-indigenous people from the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent, and mainly reside in Honduras, and Belize in Central America. There are currently nearly 200,000 Garifuna living in New York City, with the largest concentration in the South Bronx.

The instructor, Luz F. Soliz, who is of Garifuna heritage, teaches students the historical context behind each dance, as well as the dances themselves. 

Soliz is the founder of the Garifuna Heritage Center for the Arts and Culture and the affiliated Wabafu Garifuna Dance Theatre. The dance theatre is dedicated to preserving the richness of Garifuna culture by teaching it to young people and sharing it with the world.

Soliz started the class with a warmup, then followed that up with a lesson on “Punta.” Two men played bongos and sang, while a woman in a long white skirt played the maracas.

Some of the women taking the class were shy at first.

“The most important thing for your first day is to get rid of fear. Please don’t be afraid, ok?” Soliz implored them.

Soliz taught her students the words to a few songs in the Garinagu language, and the group sang in a circle.

After class, students formed a bigger circle and danced, “Chumba,” which is typically a solo dance performed by a woman. Each of the students went into the middle of the circle, raised their arms and moved their hips from side to side, letting the beat of the bongos guide their movements.

Violeta Castillo, 13 attended the class with her grandmother Lillian Konate and her sister Joselyn Wolfe, 11. Castillo has been dancing for as long as she can remember. She worries that Garifuna culture receives little attention in the city, despite the large community, so she was excited to see the music and dance being celebrated.

Her sister agreed.

“I’m here to represent my culture because not a lot of kids my age or in general represent their culture,” said Wolfe.

Workshops will take place Wednesday evenings through Feb. 28 at Casita Maria. 

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