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SPIRITS OF DANCE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The spirits first came to him 15 years ago, says Christopher Obas, creeping into his dreams and whispering to him as he lay in bed at night.

As the 10-year-old Obas slept one night, the Haitian Vodou peasant god Cuzin appeared before him in his trademark blue jeans and straw hat, gently but firmly instructing him to dance. The god told the boy to start a troupe to perform dances based on Vodou rituals to teach people outside of Haiti about the storied religion.

And so Obas began dancing the next day in the basement of his aunt's home in Queens, New York. It is a calling that Obas, a Haitian-American who now lives in Woodlawn, has taken seriously ever since.

Today, Obas heads a five-member dance troupe, Anba's Lakay. In Creole, it means "underneath the house," a nod to his beginnings as a dancer in that basement

The soft-spoken, delicate-looking 25-year-old wants his group to showcase Haitian folklore through dance, but also feels the spirits have given him and his dancers a higher mission - to spread the true word about Haitian Vodou culture in the United States, where many associate the religion with evil and spells. Vodou, in fact, is one of several religions combining West African deity worship and elements of Roman Catholicism practiced in the Caribbean and Brazil today.

"This is something that the spirits want me to be a part of," says Obas, who has a day job cutting hair and doing hair weaves at Total Image Hair Salon in Woodlawn. "It's a beautiful religion, but for those that don't know about it, they let Hollywood take over and tell them that it's devil worship, it's satanic. It's very hard for us."

To begin with, Americans have spelled the religion as "voodoo" for decades - a spelling Haiti scholars and immigrants now associate with the negative stereotypes of the religion and are hoping to change to "Vodou" in the vernacular. And movies and shows featuring "voodoo" dolls, zombies, spells and possessions have tainted the religion with associations with sorcery, Obas said.

"The voodoo dolls are just not true," Obas says, wringing his hands in exasperation. "And not all people who do Vodou are bad. We use it for good."

Dancing from dreams

Obas tries to get this message across through his dances, which he choreographs from memories of watching Vodou ceremonies in Haiti and from dreams of performances that he says the spirits show him in his sleep.

Performed to rhythmic drumbeats, his dances are sensual movements complete with hip and shoulder thrusts and lyrical chanting in Creole. A trademark dance is the Yanvalou, a performance to start a celebration for the serpent god where the dancers gather in a circle to chant and salute the four corners of the stage, blessing the area before the festivities begin.

Another, which he performed during last month's Juneteenth Festival in Baltimore, featured him and three female dancers welcoming the goddess Erzulie into the home.

With white satin scarves tied around their heads and large, frilly, pink- and purple-striped skirts flying about them, the female dancers surrounded Obas, grinding their hips to the drumbeat and pacing the stage. The group chanted in Creole: "Good morning to my son. Good morning to my mother. Good morning to the God who represents my house."

Vodou originated in Haiti in the mid-1700s, when colonists brought West African slaves to the French-occupied island and forbade them to practice their ancestral religions. When slave owners forced their Catholic beliefs and saints on them, slaves continued their worship in secret, linking each saint to an African deity and praying to them.

"The slave owners wanted to suppress the religion because they were afraid of the supernatural," said Carrol F. Coates, a professor of French and comparative literature at the State University of New York in Binghamton who translates Haitian books into English. "They feared to some extent that the spirits could actually have an impact in their world."

Coates said during Haiti's colonial times, weekend slave parties that lasted all night often were Vodou ceremonies in disguise. In 1791, Haitian slaves staged a revolt against their masters, and some versions of the uprising attribute its success to a ceremony by a Vodou priest who called on the oppressed to band together and rebel. Though Vodou has been the dominant religion in Haiti for centuries, it wasn't until 1987 that officials lifted the country's ban on the practice.

Heineken for the gods

The Vodou religion focuses on honoring the "lwa," the hundreds of thousands of gods and spirits who watch over worshipers. These deities are categorized in three groups - the Rada, who are cool spirits; the Petwo, or fiery spirits; and the Bizango, the spirits of death and procreation. Many are African deities in the form of Catholic saints. Erzulie, for example, is a black Virgin Mary adapted as the goddess of strength, luck and fire, while Lazarus is Legba, the gatekeeper in the Vodou religion.

Vodou worshipers construct elaborate altars for the gods, complete with offerings of perfumes, rum or cake, depending on the likes of the deity.

Obas has several altars set up in his home. Erzulie, for instance, stands on a throne of rich blue satin - her favorite color - and his offerings to her include a small caldron of lard and perfume, red wine and a bottle of scented water. Obas has laid out bottles of Heineken beer for Cuzin, the peasant god, cigarettes and vodka with green peppers for Gede, the god who lives in cemeteries, and white wine, pink soap and facial powder and a mirror for Erzulie Freda, the vain goddess of love.

Before he leaves his apartment each day, Obas stands in his front doorway, lights a stick of incense and pours out three drops of rum or water, asking for protection in the world outside.

Vodou surrounded Obas from the time he entered the world as the grandson of a Vodou priestess. Helen Obas, who left Haiti for New York City with her husband and children in 1965, drafted him from birth to help her perform religious rituals. Watching her children assimilate in America and shed their traditional Haitian religion had so distressed her, her grandson says, that she asked her daughter-in-law if little Christopher could live with her.

In Christopher, Helen Obas saw her link to future generations, a way for her religion to survive in the United States. So she whisked him away to Haiti for eight years, where she resumed her duties as the priestess of the small town of Legooan.

'They're family'

Christopher Obas remembers sitting in his grandmother's temple as a child, helping her prepare for Vodou ceremonies that lasted for days. He milked cows, helped set out the elaborate offerings of cornmeal, rum and candles, and watched in awe as his grandmother led worshipers around the temple, performing dances to start the festivities, welcome deities and bless the house.

The religion intrigued Christopher Obas in Haiti, and when the spirits began speaking to him at night, his grandmother was elated.

"I was very young and I remember going to my grandmother and saying, 'I'm seeing these people that I've never seen before in my sleep,' " Obas says. "She just said, 'Don't worry about it. They're family. They're family.' "

So, when the "family" told him to start dancing, Obas listened. He began by basing his dances on the rituals he saw his grandmother perform in her temple in Haiti. Then gradually, he said, he began hearing from the spirits in his sleep, showing him various dances and telling him what colors the dancers should wear. In 1996, he formed Anba's Lakay.

Roseann Obas, Christopher's mother, said even before Anba's Lakay, her son often recruited neighborhood children to perform Haitian Vodou dances with him at birthday parties.

"It was very different, and everywhere he danced people would just be amazed and they would ask, 'Where did you learn that?' " said Roseann Obas, 40, a nursing assistant who lives in Fullerton, Calif. "I always say he was dancing from the time that he was born. When he was in my belly, he used to go crazy. He wouldn't stay still."

After he formed Anba's Lakay, Obas regularly performed at weddings, parties, festivals and Vodou ceremonies in New York City, where there is a large Haitian-American population in Queens. In Baltimore, Obas says, gigs have been harder to come by because he hasn't met many Haitian-Americans. He said the few he has met not only do not practice Vodou, they've also tried to convert him to Christianity.

But Obas said he moved to Baltimore in search of quieter surroundings than his native New York and he plans to stay here. He works 11-hour days, five days a week at the salon to pay the rent and practices for hours with his Baltimore-recruited dancers every Tuesday night. But he said he doesn't mind the sacrifice for his religion.

Staying with religion

About three years ago, he says, he tried to leave Vodouism. Tired of hearing the spirits coming to him in his sleep demanding different offerings and weary of the numerous daily rituals he must perform, he boxed up all his figurines one day and threw them out.

"I kept thinking, 'Why can't they leave me alone?' " Obas says. "I just wanted to be like everyone else."

But the spirits wouldn't leave him alone, he says. They still came to him as he slept, he says, made him irritable and angry all the time, and broke up a love relationship that had lasted two years. After two months, he crept up to his family attic and brought down his grandmother's figurines to rebuild his altars.

Today, he says, he's determined to stick with his religion and teach those in the Baltimore area about Haitian Vodou culture. So far, the group has drawn large crowds when it's performed in Baltimore. Last month, when Anba's Lakay performed at the Juneteenth Festival at St. Mary's Park, dozens of people stood before the stage, mesmerized by the troupe's sensual movements and melodic chants. After the performance, many approached Obas with questions about Haitian culture, which he was more than willing to answer.

"I want people to realize that this is not a satanic thing," Obas says. "I want people to know the truth."

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