December Artist Spotlight: Haitian Hoofer, Djenane Saint Juste

Hi Djenane, thanks for taking time away from your holidays to do this interview! First off, can you tell us a little about your background? Do you remember when you first became interested in dance? How did it happen? Did you have any big influences?

I am a professional dancer, dance instructor, choreographer, storyteller and actress specializing in Haitian traditional dance and folklore.

For the past 15 years, I have dedicated myself to the research, development, and promotion of traditional Haitian dance and culture. My artistry is rooted in the concept of Haitian dance as a living cultural art form connected to the Lwa, deities of the Haitian Vodou religion. I consider it my duty as a keeper of the tradition to articulate the dances in a way which honors the history, legacy and healing power behind them.

I became a dancer by following in the footsteps of my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother, Elucia Ferdinand, was a Rara Queen in Lagonave, Haiti. Rara is a traditional music and dance festival. She gave birth to my mother in the street after one of her dancing performances during Rara! My mother, Florencia Pierre, in addition to being a self-taught dancer, storyteller, theater and movie actress, has spent her life advocating for the emancipation of traditional Haitian cultural heritage. The joy I'd see on my mother’s face when she was teaching or performing on stage in Haiti inspired me to become a dancer myself.

What is your favorite thing about dancing?

Dance is one of the most important parts of my life. From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed, my life is focused around dance. Sometimes it can be very annoying to other people, but dancing is my safe place and gives me hope for a better future.

My favorite thing about dancing is that it creates a space where I can be myself. I can be in harmony with nature and have my own voice. It is a space where I don’t need words to express the feelings I want to express. Starting at a young age I was very dedicated to the art form but also curious about other art forms. I became a storyteller and my performances are now influenced by theater, mix media arts and poetry in addition to dance choreography base in the Haitian traditional culture.

Can you tell us what it was like to grow up in Haiti? What do you miss about living there?

Growing up in Haiti as a dancer was very fun but also challenging. Haiti is this beautiful country where dance, music, and all kinds of art are part of everyday life. All Haitians are natural artists who have unique artistic expression and creativity. Wherever you go on the island you are inspired by other Haitian artists’ self-expression through dance, music, poetry, visual arts, and food. On the other hand, the lack of structure for artists makes it very difficult to survive through your art. There are not enough adequate dance studios, so many dancers, including myself, get hurt since we often have to dance on the cement. The thing I miss a lot about not living in Haiti is that aspect of community where my problem becomes other people’s problem and together we recreate life and the everyday reality through our artistic power.

Does living in Minnesota influence your work?

The severe winter weather of Minnesota has influenced my work in the sense that I value even more the Caribbean art form of Haitian dance. I am dedicated more than ever to share it as a way of healing to the community.

You are fairly new to the COMPAS roster, what is it like so far to be a COMPAS artist?

As a new artist in the COMPAS roster, I have the privilege to collaborate with different talented artists and also perform at different venues. COMPAS gives me the freedom to bring Haitian Cultural heritage to each residency and performance. I feel supported, respected and cared for.

Can you tell us how you approach teaching dance?

I have taught and choreographed in Minnesota, California, Haiti and Cuba. I use dance and music to empower people of all ages and connect them with crucial outlets for self-expression. I have always found a way to practice and share the songs and dances that run in my blood. Despite limited resources, I take time to build community wherever I go. The festivals, performances, and classes that I am able to offer as Artistic Director of Afoutayi Dance, Music, and Arts Company and through COMPAS are made possible through konbit - individuals coming together for the benefit of the entire community.

I am a deeply motivated and a curious person. I engage passionately with the learning process as both a teacher and a student.

Working with all age groups pushes me to broaden my teaching techniques because I want my students to find success and inspiration. Each group requires a different approach and a different way of relaying information. Growing up I learned to teach by observing my elders and other dancers during performances, ceremonies, and gatherings. I am currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Education at St. Thomas University.

I seek ways to develop and improve all that I do–whether performing onstage or mentoring my students and helping them grow. After each class I teach, I evaluate myself and request feedback from my students: what went well, what didn't, and how I can do it differently next time. I witness the transformation my students go through while learning. Understanding their struggles and successes helps me to better develop my technique and address their needs.

You perform solo and also as part of your group Afoutayi. How was the group started?

In 2009, I arrived in California from Haiti and I formed the Afoutayi Dance, Music, and Arts Company. Created out of San Francisco's serious lack of Haitian presence, the Company set out with a mission to promote Haitian heritage through cultural expressions, including music, art, dance, and shared history.

Afoutayi recently won the Knight Arts Challenge and received funding for your 8th annual Haitian Dance, Music and Arts Festival. What is the festival like? What will be new about it this coming year?

In 2010, Afoutayi held the First Annual Haitian Dance, Art and Music Festival in San Francisco. Hosted in November, the now-yearly festival is intentionally hosted on the anniversary of the Battle of Vertieres: a battle which defined the 1803 Haitian War of Liberation.

Having expanded to Minnesota, Afoutayi is now a family collaboration with my mother, Cultural Director Florencia Pierre, my son, Youth representative Hassen Ortega, and my brother, Music Director Jeff Pierre. Together we bring together dancers, musicians and visual artists from Haiti and the United States to participate in the annual celebration. It includes a plethora of classes, professional performances and community-based events.

Winning the Knight Arts Challenge was a huge accomplishment for us. The Knight Foundation has recognized and valued our art form and contribution to the community. This grant will give us the opportunity to continue our mission to educate the community about Haitian cultural heritage.

Have you been working on any other projects lately?

In addition to organizing the 8th annual Haitian Dance, Music and Arts Festival in October 2017, I am looking forward to offering an ongoing Traditional Haitian Dance class to the youth and adults community in the Twin Cities. Another upcoming project will be the Afoutayi Cultural Trip to Haiti.