Three rows of seminar-goers in folding chairs—nearly forty Sunday afternoon attendees—are waiting for the man with the West Indian walk to speak. Instead, with a slow nod to his drummer, Euston James asks them to get up and limbo. A furious bongo beat rises. Some stay seated, still wondering why they’ve been called to dance at a Brooklyn Historical Society lecture and nervous, perhaps, of edging past the suspended limbo stick without knocking it down. Most form a confused line and, one by one, shimmy under the stand, their chins pointed in the air. In five minutes the dancing is done and even the onlookers are smiling. “Ladies and gentlemen,” James hoots. “You just took part in a funeral celebration.”
The occasion is a symposium on traditions of death and dying, part of the Brooklyn Art Council’s year-long “Days of the Dead” project. Through August, the BAC will host a series of events centered on bereavement rituals performed currently and historically by communities living in Brooklyn. And indeed, long before it became a bar-mitzvah staple, the limbo was practiced at Trinidadian funeral wakes. Euston James, a professional limbo dancer, came to Crown Heights from Diego Martin, Trinidad in 1972 and set out to entertain. He has boogied at beach weddings, wowed ’em at amusement parks, led the dance line on cruise ships. But James first learned to limbo at memorial services back home. In his younger days, he hovered just twelve inches off the ground.
“Growing up, I was fascinated with what people now call, ‘Arts and Entertainment,’” he says. “But for us, it was just a way of life.” Or a way of death. In rural Trinidad, the wake is an all-night jubilee, an opportunity for children’s games and merriment. “It’s not a sad time,” James explains. “It’s a great, noisy send-off.” Community members congregate at the house of the departed to play cards, tell stories, bang together bamboo slats, sing hymns and wash biscuits down with rum. The festivities culminate in a frenzied limbo—recreation for the virile—meant to symbolize the soul’s passage to the afterlife. American tourists brought the dance back with them from Caribbean vacations in the 1950s. And in 1962 the pop icon who popularized the Twist took to the pole: Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock” shot to number one on the charts that year. “How low can you go?” is still a weighty question for wedding enthusiasts in this country.
Though it has not carried over to Trinidadian funerals in America, for James, the limbo remains an essential part of the community’s identity. Passing on the tradition, even at parties, is a survival tactic. “We remember our culture by practicing it, by teaching it to other people, by letting people know it does exist,” he says. “It’s very much a part of our continuity.” Once a member of Alvin Forteau’s Caribbean dance troupe, he began his own company—Les Ballets Caribe—in the early 80s. Now, his group disbanded and his knees weak, James does what he can to contribute culturally. He instructs smaller entertainment ensembles, gives workshops to children and seniors, plays with the Harmony Music Makers steel band and performs as a fire-eater and mime. This past March 1st, in yellow and red sequins, he demonstrated at the 6th annual Folk Feet Showcase, a BAC program dedicated to sustaining traditional dance in Brooklyn. “Whenever someone calls me, I do a show or teach a few classes,” he says. “I’ll do it forever, until the day before I die. The Japanese people, they teach karate until they’re 95.”
Most of all, he loves the laughter. “Limbo blew up quickly here ‘cause it’s a funny dance,” he says. “Whether you make it under the pole or not, you will laugh. I like to see crow’s-feet around people’s eyes.” His own laugh is a loud, throaty warble that goes on for minutes and usually trails off into song. It’s the laugh of a man who sounds like a miniature percussion band when he claps his hands and can turn anything—a chair, a radiator pipe—into an instrument. It’s the laugh of a man who lives to celebrate. Whether it’s at an island funeral or a New York City shindig, James knows how to get down. “When I used to really party, we would bring three extra white t-shirts,” he grins. “The first one wet, take it off and put it in a plastic bag. The second one wet, take it off and put in a plastic bag. When the last one wet, time to go.”
Hillary Brenhouse is a freelance arts and culture writer.