“When I turned eighteen, my vocal teacher was going to New York and I went to her with a list of schools, and I said “here’s a couple of schools I would love for you to check out for me when you’re in New York,” and she said, “well, what time is it?” I think it was around four. She said, “You know I missed my plane, so call your mother you’re going to New York tomorrow.” She said, “your mother have any money?” I said, “I don’t know, I have to call her and ask her.” I called my mom and I said, “Ma, you have any money?” She said, “why?” I said “cause my teacher’s going to New York tomorrow and she says I need to just go with her.” And really it was, my mom came home from work, we went to the bank, bought a couple of stuff. Pretty much the next day, I was in the middle of New York City. [My vocal teacher] had a nephew that was a dance student at Alvin Ailey, and for the next three weeks he took me all over the city, showing me all the different studios, and then I got into Alvin Ailey.”
The moment that propels you forward usually means there is no turning back, and this was the moment for Clara Reyes. She is whom you would describe as a curator of all things colorful and cultural. More than just a choreographer – she is a vocalist, photographer, performing artist, lover of people and cultures and the hidden histories behind them. Before her stands the wide expanse of the world, ready to be uncovered.
Clara has long since called Saint Martin home having been molded there since her birth in Curaçao. Firmly rooted in her desire to illustrate the life-supportive and life-transformative power of the arts, she founded the Imbali Center for Dance and Creative Movement in 1994, upon her return from studying dance in Jamaica. In 2012, she partnered with Motions Dance Schools Foundation – another dance school in Saint Martin – to form the National Institute of Arts, what she describes as an, “interdisciplinary arts education center. We offer a variety of creative expressive disciplines – anything from photography to sound engineering, vocals, dance, clown, gymnastics – and we do research.”
Her life experiences have been infused with other cultures, having lived in and traveled to Jamaica, South Africa, Cuba, Curacao, and Taiwan. However, her focus has been on the history of Saint Martin. Much of her research is focused on Saint Martin – for her Master’s thesis she focused on the Ponum dance, a traditional dance that narrates the story of the people of the island, and emphasizes the relevance of arts in the community. “There is no history-text on Saint Martin, when you go to school there is no book that talks about Saint Martin stories, Saint Martin history, none of that. So here I have this dance, which is eyewitness testimony. The song tells you how the slaves felt – how they felt being enslaved and how they felt being liberated. So it’s a very important component because it embodies the lived experience, and in the case of Saint Martin, it is a living testimony of a very pivotal moment in our history. This dance is a direct link, since we don’t have a book. So for me, it’s very necessary, very relevant. I have seen children be transformed by the movement experience – kids who are shy, or kids who have very limited muscle development, and then they take a dance class and you see them come out of their shell.”
We have this amazing story that has yet to be told.
In collaboration with her love of the arts, her secondary passion is to archive the history of her island. It is important to her to document the cultural path of Saint Martin for herself and to share with the larger community around her. But it is not without it’s challenges, “The explorative component of really exploring your art, really finding your personal voice, making a statement trying to use art in a way that is significant on a global level, as opposed to just entertaining people, that’s always a challenge. Finding like-minded people to have discourses, and make stories, and have discussions. That tends to be my challenge sometimes.”
We are powerful in more ways than we know – as humans who possess magic and the ability to use that to make an impact on the world around us. We forget sometimes our importance to the worlds and cultures around us. We often speak of culture as though it is some reticent family heirloom, never realizing its depth and magnitude. Clara hopes to harness her island’s beauty through its scattered history and profound culture. She declares, “We have this amazing story that has yet to be told.”
Like the National Institute of Arts for more information.
Photos Courtesy of Clara Reyes