Jean Josue Appolon grew up in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, where he began to dance at the age of 13. He began his training under the instruction of the iconic choreographer Viviane Gauthier. He performed with her dance company and the Folkloric Ballet of Haiti. At first he would lie to his family about where he was going because dance was generally frowned upon.
“I used to say I was going to play volleyball,” said Appolon. “They even had my uncle follow me one time, to dance class. My family was against dance for many reasons, but mostly because they didn’t think you could make a real living. It’s not a real profession.”
Appolon continued to dance, in spite of his family’s disapproval. In 1991 Appolon received a scholarship to study with Lynn Williams Rousier Dance School. This was the same year his father, who had been an undercover narcotics investigator, was killed.
“My father was burned to pieces. They brought his legs to the house. My mother was already in Boston with my three siblings. I was terrified. Dance was a way for me to heal. That’s where I really found peace. It’s what’s kept me centered throughout those rough times.”
Appolon moved to the US, where he trained in ballet and traditional Haitian Folkloric dance techniques. He trained at several prestigious dance institutions including the Harvard and Radcliffe Dance Program in Miami and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. He graduated from the Joffrey American Ballet School in 2003. Appolon went on to perfom with Rainbow Tribe Company, Elma Lewis Productions (Black Nativity), Marlene Silva, North Star Ballet Company, Black Door Dance Company, and the Atlantic City Ballet Company. During this time Appolon also joined famed dancer and choreographer Wilmayer Marcelin’s Haitian folklore dance class.
“Wilmayer was the first to start a formal dance class in Boston and I used to teach with him,” said Appolon. “It’s where I really began to teach. There is a technique, there is a style, there is structure in traditional Haitian dance. I love to teach foreigners... sometimes they think of the Haitian culture as primitive. When they come to class they see it’s a form of dance like any other.”
Appolon left to start instructing his own class at the Dance Complex in Cambridge. He said that Wilmayer’s style was a bit too rigid. He wanted to teach in an inclusive way that fostered an open atmosphere. His Saturday afternoon class from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. has grown to become a community of dancers. On any given Saturday, Studio number 3 could have about 80-100 students.
“I always feel better after class,” said Sarah Candio, an American who practices Vodou and is married to a Haitian man. “Dancing is all encompassing. I’ve studied Haitian culture and been immersed in it for a long time. This dance class is a part of that.”
Class usually starts with Yanvalou says Appolon.
“It allows the body to warm up in progression. The long, slow move- ments of Yanvalou are a way to open up the spirit for the dance experience. It stretches the back and legs.”
From the warm up Appolon, instructs the musicians – who provide live drumming for the class – to speed up the rhythm to a Mayi or maybe a Rara. By this time, the dance floor is filled with students – many are adorned in traditional wraps, colorful skirts and leotards. Some students are trained dancers, others are first-timers. There are pregnant women, children, teenagers and seniors from several different cultural backgrounds.
With each new rhythm, Appolon demonstrates numerous dance moves that the progression of students standing in line perform, once their turn comes. Move after move, each recurring group of students join in the center of the dance floor.
“Let’s do the Kongo now people!” shouts Appolon. “Do it as flirtatious as you can.”
“Roule Kongo a wi!” responds a student excitedly. The class erupts in applause and laughter in anticipation of this next rhythm.
The musicians pick up the pace as Appolon lunges into the next series of instructive techniques, with brisk sways of the hips, extended arms and wide twirls. He engages each new group of dancers who make it to the middle of the floor.
“The Kongo is a quick-paced rhythm that can be a sort of climax for the class,” said Appolon. The music patterns informs the choreography and we are all in it unit.”
When class ends, several students embrace and thank Appolon.
“I’m so grateful for class,” said Kenia Selamy, a CPA of Haitian descent who lives in Dorchester. “It’s like church. It’s a community. It’s where I come to decompress from corporate America.”
Appolon says he hopes to bring his danced visions to the stage to reach a larger audience. He has started his own dance company called the Jean Appolon Expression. It now has seven female dancers.
“It’s provided me an opportunity to expose Haitian dance... to teach what Haitian culture is about, to share the potential of the culture’s reach.”