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Earthquake Brings Djenane Saint Juste to Minnesota to Teach Haitian Dance

Earthquake Brings Djenane Saint Juste to Minnesota to Teach Haitian Dance
Djenane Saint Juste, founder of performing arts group Afoutayi, has worked to bring Haitian dance to the Twin Cities. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Djenane Saint Juste knows the rhythms of her homeland run deep. The Haitian-born artist moved to the United States in 2009 with a mission to bring authentic Haitian cultural education to the country. She founded Afoutayi, a nonprofit organization that uses Haitian and Afro-Caribbean music and dance to educate people about her native culture.

“There were many other groups who were doing Haitian celebrations, but most of those people were not Haitian,” Saint Juste said. “It was beautiful what they were doing, but some information was missing, because none of them had been born or lived in Haiti.”

In Haiti, Saint Juste trained in ballet, hip hop, jazz, and ballroom at her mother Florencia Pierre’s dance company, JAKA. She further honed her skills under the teaching of Pierre Dulaine at Dancing Classrooms in New York.

Saint Juste moved to California with her son due to targeted robberies in Haiti after winning her first car from a beauty pageant contest.

“There’s a lot of poverty, so when they see young people working as an artist, they assume immediately that you’re rich,” she said. “I came to the U.S. thinking after a few years, everything will be back to normal and people will forget about me because I wasn’t that famous, you know? But a few months later, the earthquake happened.”

Haiti’s 2010 earthquake altered her plans of eventually returning home, and in California, she encountered significant challenges adapting to a new language, culture, and the high cost of living.

“We had to start from rock bottom when we moved to the U.S., working all kinds of jobs and being treated differently,” she said. “The arts scene for an immigrant is not a good way to go, but I didn’t want to do anything else other than art.”

“We had to start from rock bottom when we moved to the U.S., working all kinds of jobs and being treated differently. The arts scene for an immigrant is not a good way to go, but I didn’t want to do anything else other than art.”

Djenane Saint Juste

That opportunity presented itself when a former student of her mother’s relocated to Minnesota and expressed the need for Haitian cultural education in the state. The need arose after an increasing number of Haitian children were adopted by white Minnesotan families following the earthquake.

“The problem was most of the parents didn’t speak Creole or French, and didn’t know anything about Haitian culture,” Saint Juste said. “These kids, whether it was the language, food, or environment, felt appreciative, but disconnected.”

Saint Juste’s move to Minnesota marked the beginning of collaborations with several local arts organizations, including COMPAS (Community Programs in the Arts), a nonprofit arts education organization, where she serves as a teaching artist.

Saint-Juste officially joined the COMPAS roster in 2016, said Julie Strand-Blomgren, the group’s arts program director, who connects Afoutayi with educational institutions.

Through COMPAS, Saint Juste integrates Haitian and Afro-Caribbean konpa and kizomba dance styles, Creole language, and folklore into educational programs across schools, libraries, and recreational centers in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota.

“Students ask her questions and she’s just an open book,” Strand-Blomgren said. “I always think somebody’s easier to connect with when you can see pieces of yourself in them. Maybe kids don’t always see themselves as a dancer, but they can maybe relate to her through something else because she brings so much of herself to every room.”

Saint Juste’s work addresses the cultural challenges faced by Haitian students in American classrooms. In Haiti, children learn through “song, drumming and movement,” Saint Juste said. “But in American classrooms, you have to sit down, be quiet and listen. That is a big cultural shock for them.”

This disconnect became even more apparent when Saint Juste noticed her then 4-year-old son struggling in the structured classroom. His natural energy was viewed as disruptive by teachers.

“For him, everything in school was dancing and drumming,” she said. “Here, there’s not that much space to move around, and teachers at school would tell me he had an issue. I’m like ‘No, he doesn’t have any issue, it’s just that he is used to running and learning with song.’”

Saint Juste knew her son wasn’t alone. Many Haitian children were facing similar struggles. Determined to bridge this gap, she visited her son’s school and performed Haitian dances. She explained the cultural context of movement and rhythm in Haitian education and how teachers incorporated this approach into the curriculum. Not only did Saint Juste’s son begin to thrive, but other students benefited from the more engaging learning environment.

“The kids who identify as troublemakers or have fallen behind a grade level suddenly shine because they have a space to show their energy,” she said.

In 2020, she published “The Mermaid and the Whale,” a children’s book that celebrates Haitian folklore and the resourcefulness of the Haitian spirit. The book is available in English, Haitian-Creole, French, and Spanish, highlighting the historical significance of Creole as a language of Haitian resistance and identity.

“For many years, Creole was prohibited in schools,” Saint Juste said. “Children were required to learn French, even though they thought, felt, and communicated in Creole at home. This created a gap between those who attended school and those who didn’t.”

The book also challenges prevalent stereotypes about Haiti, creating a more nuanced portrayal that goes beyond economic struggles and natural disasters.

“A lot of Haitian kids, when they come [to the United States], feel frustrated,” Saint Juste said. “They feel like they are the bad guys because the news only spreads the economy of Haiti, or violence. We need to value and keep alive the positive aspects of our history so that our children feel proud to be Haitian.”

The annual Haitian Flag Day festival co-founded by Saint Juste and her mother, in 2017, serves as a platform for this celebration of Haitian heritage every May 18. The festival draws attendees from across the Upper Midwest and even international visitors seeking a place to reconnect with their heritage.

“We celebrate with everybody,” Saint Juste said. “Our suffering is the suffering of all Black Caribbean cultures. We hope people attending the festival see the struggles we face in Haiti and look at us with hope.” This year’s festival pulsated with the rhythms of Kompa dance performances blending African rhythms with jazz and salsa influences, Liberian drumming, and African and reggae music.

This summer, Saint Juste will lead daily sessions in Haitian and Afro-Caribbean dance from June 17 to August 23, at the Center for Performing Arts’ summer camp in Minneapolis.

“I have the best job ever,” Saint Juste said, recounting a video she received from a parent of three children dancing at home after attending her class. “I feel so proud, because we’re creating a group of ambassadors who are going to advocate not only for Haiti but for all Afro-Caribbean culture.”

Source: Sahan Journal