A Teacher, A Guardian, A Dancer

By ALESHA CADET In July 1973, when the Bahamas celebrated its first birthday as an independent nation, it was Shirley Hall-Bass who got the call to help choreograph the Clifford Park cultural extravaganza. Her name was world renowned, having performed for years with the female dance troupe the Dyrettes, under the direction of the legendary Sammy Dyer. The Chicago born dancer, fell in love with the Bahamas in the 1950s while visiting on a three week tour. She went on to pursue a 40 year love affair that impacted the lives of Bahamian dancers across many generations. Today, the memory of Shirley Hall-Bass is enshrined in Bahamian institutions and hearts. Her legacy continues through the Bahamas Dance Theater (BDT), an organisation she founded, and her many students and children still keeping the artistry of Bahamian dance alive. The National Dance Company currently has in its repertoire a tribute piece to Ms Bass, recognising her contribution to the dance community. The piece is choreographed by Robert Bain to the music of American Jazz legend, Dizzy Gillespie. It captures Ms Bass' "distinct style of Jazz", unique to Chicago of the 30's and 40's, according to the NDC. Last month, a panel of Dance teachers, also former students of Ms Bass, shared personal memories during the Jackson Burnside III Annual Conversations on Culture at Doongalik Studios. The discussion was the second in the "Spirit of Dance" series, held in conjunction with Carter Marketing and the Endowment for the Performing Arts of the Bahamas. Referring to Ms Bass as a perfectionist, BDT instructor Michelle Hudson said Ms Bass was persistent and particular about everyone being in place and everything looking a certain way. "We were learning this Michael Jackson move and I could not get that step for nothing. She just kept at it and kept at it and eventually we all got it, but it took a while. But Ms Bass would not move on to the next step until every last person got it," said Ms Hudson. Speaking on the family structure Ms Bass created at the BDT, Ms Hudson said all of the children were treated like one of Ms Bass' very own. "Her teachings extended not only in the schools, but all the way to the homes, so you knew if she said, 'you are not to take those children certain places', then you knew better. She knew what each child was into, so there were no surprises for her," said Ms Hudson. For about 11 years in her early Bahamian career, Ms Bass would choreograph for the Cat and Fiddle Night Club. These gigs were initiated by Freddy Munnings Senior, who Ms Bass met performing at the Zanzibar. In 1966, the Council of Women of the Bahamas invited Ms Bass to direct a dance workshop in their summer recreational programme. In 1968 she returned with 30 Dyer School dance students, beginning the Cultural Exchange Workshop. In 1987, the newly incorporated Bahamas Dance Theatre company was formed, teaching ballet, tap, acrobatics and jazz to Bahamians of all backgrounds. Sonjia Roberts, current BDT instructor and administrator, said Ms Bass was a "nurturer and teacher extraordinaire". "When I got on stage, I was no longer Sonjia the shy one, I was Sonjia the Tap dancer. She was able to transform, even me, into a performer," said Ms Roberts. "She called us her babies, I remember spending days at her house because she wanted company. She was always concerned about you, if you didn't show up to class, she would call and you would have to give her the run down. She had no children of her own, but she wanted each of us to have that connection with her," she said. Over the years, Ms Bass produced, directed and choreographed hundreds of dance shows and productions for the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Youth and Culture, The National Dance School, and the Bahamas Dance Theatre. Dr Keith Wisdom, moderator for the event, said it was Ms Bass who taught him the art of acting, propelling his career in theatre. Meeting her at age thirteen, Dr Wisdom said his relationship with Ms Bass lasted up until her passing. "Shirley decided to teach me about the art of acting as well as the art of creating the theatrical event. I was hooked for life," said Dr Wisdom, who went on to obtain a doctorate in Theater-Anthropology. "When I say (she loved this country), I am talking about those non-Bahamians, who every now and then you have to remind them and say 'Hey you wasn't born here you know.' But she loved this place and it became her home," said Dr Wisdom. Presently on display at Doongalik Studios is an exhibition celebrating the lives of internationally renowned dancers Shirley Hall-Bass, Paul Meeres and Hubert Farrington. The "Spirit of Dance" exhibition contains photographs and articles on each dancer.


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