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Jamaica Farewell: Tamara Thomas Bids Goodbye with Stolen From Africa

Tamara Thomas (photos by Sabriya Simon)

Tamara Thomas has had a circuitous route to a life of dance, but now, she sees it as her purpose. While loving dance since childhood, it was only much later in life, after attending Cornell University, that she began to seriously consider dance as her calling. Before then it was a hobby, something to do on the side. 

“I’d intended to go to law school and study family law,” Thomas explains. With that road not taken, Thomas is getting ready to stage her second independent dance show Stolen from Africa: Narratives of the Contemporary Enslaved. The show will take place  July 4 - 5 at the Edna Manley College, where Thomas currently lectures.

Raised in New York to a Jamaican mother and a Guyanese father, her pursuit of dance brought her to her mother’s homeland, five years ago. She had intended to say for only two years.

Thomas explains that although making a living as a professional dancer is harder in Jamaica than the United States, the choice was a necessary one. 

“I wasn’t raised in Jamaica and although I had a Caribbean presence in my life, I felt I wanted the roots.” She explained that although her mother could tell her about the folk forms, it wasn’t the same as experiencing them. “It was clear a piece of the puzzle was missing. I had to understand dance that extended beyond my experience in Brooklyn.”

So despite a significant drop in income, she made the trod to Jamaica.

“It wasn’t about the money, it was about feeding the soul.” Thomas argues, that despite the rigours of life, it’s critical to make time for those things that nourish the soul. “I had to steal time. I had to make time,” she says.

Yet even so, she has finally made the decision to return home, and it is in part fueled by economic realities. Thomas returns to the United States this summer and will take up a teaching position at the University of Georgia.

“The hand to mouth thing don’t win you no special awards,” she confesses with a smile. 

“It’s a very surreal bittersweet experience in my life,” she says. “Because Jamaica is home. I’ve cut particular teeth here that have changed me.” One of those new experiences is motherhood, the other is the birthing of Tamara Thomas Dance.

She credits her ability to start the dance company, to the creative fertility of the Jamaican landscape.

“You literally just have to dream it to do it. As hard as things can be, that’s how easy it is,” she says.

She explains that at this stage in the development of Tamara Thomas Dance she is still working to establish her choreographic voice, and work out the things she wants to say through dance.

“Last year was just a toe out the door. This is me pushing the door wider open.” Thomas says. She reveals that Stolen From Africa is a combination of what is happening in her own psyche as well as the wider world.

The show comprises five pieces and will feature Thomas and small contingent of four dancers. The dances include ‘Parcel’ which is based on installation Henry Box Brown’s experiment in shipping himself via the US postal service. ‘Parcel’ explores the need to steal away and struggle to break boundaries as well as learn where the boundaries exist. Stolen From Africa also includes  ‘Mentalities’, ‘Suffering and Smiling’, ‘Jungle’ and ‘PSTD’. 

Stolen From Africa is in part Thomas’ farewell to Jamaica, as she departs the island at the end of July. Thomas explains that her intention isn’t to break all ties with Jamaica.

“The intention is to build bridges not walk away,” Thomas says.