Abdul Sanz (wearing red shirt) leads class that explores Haiti's...

Abdul Sanz (wearing red shirt) leads class that explores Haiti's history through dance, at the Westbury Public Library earlier this month. Credit: Howard Simmons

As heavy drumming music punctuated the air of a Westbury library room, Abdul Sanz raised his arms high. Sanz swung them in front of the onlookers, then tucked and thrust his hips, almost like ocean waves.

The roughly dozen students repeated his motions and later performed lunges, sways, steps, and other movements that are part of Haitian folklore — a traditional art with some roots in Africa. Some of the movements replicate those of enslaved people working in sugar cane fields, said Sanz, the dance instructor.

“So, it's very important for us to do it [the dance] in our ancestors’ memory,” said Sanz, 21, who is studying dance and civil engineering at Hofstra University.

Last Friday's dance class is part of several events on Long Island in May to commemorate Haitian Heritage Month — an observance that has taken on special significance given the unrest in the Caribbean nation.

Haiti is in the clutches of gang violence, prompting thousands to flee Port-au-Prince, the capital, and leaving more than 2,500 dead and more than 360,000 people homeless. Nearly 2 million people are on the cusp of famine.

Still, some in the community on Long Island said it's more important than ever to accentuate the country's rich legacy — from its food and music to its status as the West’s earliest free Black republic — to instill cultural pride among Haitians and to deepen knowledge in the broader community.

“We would like people to know about us, to know about the culture, which is very rich and beautiful,” said Marie Sonia Saint Rose-Bienvil, co-founder of Solidarite Haitiano-Américaine de Long Island (SHALI). “And to show a different picture of Haiti.”

And so SHALI put on the dance class — and will help host several other events to commemorate Haitian heritage.

Long Island is home to nearly 33,000 people of Haitian descent, with most living in Nassau County, according to the American Community Survey. But celebrating Haitian heritage is open to all, said Saint Rose-Bienvil.

On Thursday, the organization hosted a Zoom class focusing on mental health within the Haitian community — an important topic as some in the community deal with loss or hear of ordeals in their country. 

On Haitian Flag Day, which is May 18, there will be a celebration at Cornelius Court Elementary School in Uniondale from 12 to 3 p.m. Food will be served. There will also be musical performances of Haitian songs and poems.

An art exhibit at the Westbury Memorial Public Library will be held on May 24 from 6 to 8 p.m., along with an event celebrating Haitian Mother’s Day on May 26. Tickets are on sale for the latter event.

SHALI also walks in a Memorial Day parade in Uniondale — a way to forge a bond between Haitian and American cultures, said Saint Rose-Bienvil. 

“It's an American holiday, but … we are part of the community and we want to participate in that special occasion,” she said.

At the library last Friday, Kathleen Gaskin, of Hempstead, participated in the dance class. She’s of Trinidadian descent but felt the urge to take part in the lesson to “try some new steps” and learn more about different cultures. 

“It's always exciting; it’s always a learning experience — and so is this dance,” she said.

As for Sanz, the dance instructor, he hoped the class and this Haitian Heritage Month left people of Haitian descent empowered, knowing that beautiful things come from their culture.

“And through dance, through culture and through us being proud of where we come from, this is how we’re going to build our country back,” he said.

With The Associated Press

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