December 12 2023
Aya Shabu is one of Durham’s leading dancers, paving the way for a new generation.
Her career in Haitian dance has developed throughout her lifetime as she has found success as a storyteller. Shabu wants to tell a new story by reminding Durham about the beauty and power that lies within the arts.
“I’m a spirit dancer,” said Shabu.
Her spirit for the art form stems from her upbringing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was exposed to the culturally diverse Central Square area. In her household, her grandfather worked at a mixing machine for Domino Sugar. Oftentimes, Shabu spent her days with her grandparents listening to calypso music.
“We grew up listening to his music and him teaching us some of the dances that he grew up, with like the camel walk,” said Shabu.
“We also listened to traditional music from Barbados like calypso music.”
When she wasn’t listening to calypso music, you could find young Shabu listening to stories about Barbados. She began seeing storytelling first hand.
“In the States, my grandmother had a lot of visitors in the house, she was a very social and wise person,” said Shabu”
“I would get the chance to listen to them talk and tell stories, or have conversations.”
While Shabu was brought up in Massachusetts, her earliest interactions with calypso music and storytelling have served as culturally significant throughout her career. In Barbados, calypso music has historical ties to slavery, which Shabu makes note of early on about Hayti.
“When I moved to North Carolina, I was in the Baba Chuck Davis, African American Dance Ensemble. We often had community classes at the Hayti Heritage Center, a historically African-American center named after the island nation of Haiti,” said Shabu.
In Durham, Shabu has become the founder of Whistle Stop Tours. An engaging experience for the community, participants learn more about African history and tradition through dance. The origins of Whistle Stop Tours begin with Haiti.
“I was fascinated by the name and history. When I grew up in Massachusetts, we had a lot of immigrants from Haiti who had escaped their regime. I became very aware of Haiti as a place. I thought it was strange that there was a connection, but no one was talking about it. I started to learn more about Durham’s history and I wanted others to learn too,” said Shabu.
Shabu’s experience at the Hayti Heritage Center cultivated her learning experience as an experimental dancer. She has grown in the African dance space through experimentation with movement on stage. In her approach to dance, Shabu doesn’t shy away from talking about important issues facing Haiti’s community.
“I started telling those stories about Haiti through performance. A lot of Haiti’s history can be discussed through the lens of displacement, urban renewal, and gentrification,” said Shabu.
From a historical standpoint, much of the Hayti landscape has been displaced over time. Shabu explores what it means to experience a feeling of estrangement on this scale in Durham.
“A lot of the buildings at historic sites didn’t exist. I started using my body as a landscape to tell those stories,” said Shabu.
As I asked Shabu where the name Whistle Stop Tours came from, she discussed the surprising connection it has to Durham’s long-standing history in tobacco.
“The name whistle stop is a nod to the history. Durham was founded on the tobacco industry. Both those mechanisms have whistles, the train, and the tobacco factory,” said Shabu.
“A whistle-stop is a political tour, the candidate rides on the caboose blowing through these small towns as part of their political campaign. At that time Durham felt like it also seemed like an important place politically for activism. I could feel that even though it hadn’t happened yet.”
Shabu’s work has impacted dancers alike with her incorporation of larger issues such as politics, activism, and culture.
Her technique in the art form is mainly physical, with an emphasis on trusting in your body. Before becoming a professional dancer, Shabu was an athlete who played basketball, soccer, tennis, and football. Repetition and physical movement have made Shabu advance in dance with her athletic background.
“For me to relay technique and movement, sports is an easy proxy but also, I think about things in our everyday life that do move,” said Shabu.
“That’s how I would explain any part of my technique. I think I choreograph from the poetic image.”
Off stage, she dances to the upbeat sounds of calypso and lives in the present moment. The relationship Shabu has with her craft has become all-encompassing.
“I trust my body’s intelligence a lot,” said Shabu.
At the heart of dance, it’s a fundamental skill to engage your core. Shabu shows how the physicality of dance has instilled a deeper relationship to music for her.
“Particularly at home, when I’m in my kitchen by myself, feeling good, not thinking about the dance but there’s music on. There’s a conversation between what my ears hear and what my body can interpret,” said Shabu.
“It is very liberating.”
Anyone can dance, but it takes dedication and support to make a dancer truly great. For Shabu, her dance mentors have served as a source of inspiration throughout her career. Notable figures such as Baba Richard Gonzalez, Ava LaVonne Vinsett, and Baba Chuck Davis have been her mentors helping her on this incredible journey. Shabu looks at other dance styles outside of African dance to learn from as well. In the contemporary space, Shabu pays tribute to Michelle Gibson.
“A contemporary who blows my mind is Michelle Gibson. She is an incredible mover, dancer, choreographer, and dance minister. I feel so inspired by her,” said Shabu.
From her mentors, Shabu has taken what she’s learned and applied it to her own life. Shabu looks back on some of her biggest moments as a dancer. After the wrap-up of her show LandED in March 2023 in affiliation with UNC-Chapel Hill. Shabu hopes to explore other projects and bring them to life for audiences across Durham. LandED was created by Shabu and taken under the direction of Joseph Megel. It tells Shabu’s life story, particularly looking at the challenges of black femininity.
“My newest mantra is no shame, more stories,” said Shabu.
Edited by Hannah Adams