Cabarete Profiles: Nina and the Alma Libre Dance School

A conversation with the founder of the Alma Libre Dance School Cabarete
By Moraima Capellán Pichardo

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I closed my eyes and briefly rested my head on the table. A few seconds passed by when Nina noticed and offered me her bed, to take a nap. I was in her spacious home, buzzing with excitement as her circle of women prepared for the 2019 Cabarete Carnaval.

As I laid down for a few minutes, it dawned on me that the first few weeks after moving to Cabarete, I was struggling to sleep. I was restless and haunted by frequent nightmares so I decided to search for some sage to burn. I couldn’t find a botánica—is there one in Cabarete or Sosua? Please let me know—so a colleague recommended that I speak with Nina.

Nina is a powerhouse. Nina Suzanne Ndjemba Elemva. She’s proud of her name and proud of her heritage. Born in Cameroon, raised in France, to a Cameroonian father and Russian mother, Nina speaks French, English, Spanish, some Russian (her words) and can understand Portuguese. She’s the founder of the Alma Libre Dance School Cabarete and the Yemaya Tribe, two local organizations focused on the art of dance and women empowerment.

But even all that is not impressive when compared to her ability to connect with all those around her. Nina’s superpower is her ability to exude the right balance of stability and passion. Being around Nina is comforting, refreshing and stimulating. Being around Nina is uplifting.

Alma Libre Dance School - Nina - Dance Cabarete - The Yoga Loft

What proceeds is a conversation with Nina a few days before the Cabarete Carnaval. We chat about her story as a dancer, how her African roots connect her love of Dominican culture, the importance of sisterhood and of course, her passion projects: the Alma Libre Dance School and all-girl troupe named after a Yoruba goddess, Yemayá Tribe. 

Moraima: How did you arrive to Cabarete? What brought you here?

Nina: DR first, my cousin used to live in Santo Domingo and I came to visit her and I loved it. She talked to me about Cabarete, said I would love it…So we had the same dream, we loved to dance and we had this dream to open a dance school one day. And she was like it’s so much easier in DR and in Cabarete we can start to give classes together…What happened is that the moment I was supposed to come, my dad died. So I couldn’t come, I stayed a little bit longer in Europe… And a year after when I was supposed to come to Cabarete again, my mom died. Yes, life is like that, I don’t know, I can’t explain it, that’s my story. My story had to be like that. But it didn’t stop me. I don’t know some people will say wow it’s a sign, don’t go there like every time you want to go there, there is something happening, but I think the opposite. I think it is challenging me—

M: —It’s just a delay—

N: Yes, a delay. So my cousins started to give the classes and when I arrived we started together for two years. After that, she left so I was all by myself here. No family, nothing. And this is when I started to really build more classes and put all my 100 percent energy to do the maximum things I can do here with dance; the salsa, the bachata, cause I love the Dominican bachata and the Dominican culture too. Soon, I am going to even start to learn the dance Palo—

M: —I love Palos—

N: I love it. When I came here, it reminded me of Cameroon, of Africa so that’s what touched my heart. So yes, I started the classes but also I had a dream to start a dance troupe, but not whatever dance troupe. I wanted a dance troupe of women, focused on hermandad, sisterhood. Something that we would help each other, whatever happened in our lives, we would always be there for each other. Focused on this and to teach to some Dominican girls who have never danced, never do shows or stuff like that, that they can do it. They can do anything they want…they are capable of anything. In a year or two of the dance troupe, we started to do fire shows, dance shows and now we perform in so many places.  Last year, we danced for the [Cabarete] carnaval and finally this year, they picked us as the first troupe to represent Cabarete for the carnaval. I talk a lot haha

M: That’s okay. So did you dance from a young age?

N: Yes, I always danced.  When I was young my mom put me in Cameroon in classic dance class

M: Like ballet?

N: yes, ballet but I wasn’t into ballet. My problem in my life is that I love so much dance that I want to dance everything. Every time I see a dance I want to learn it. It’s good, sometimes it’s bad because you don’t push things to be a perfect dancer but that’s not my point in dance. I don’t wanna be the best dancer, I just wanna be able to share all those cultures through dance…at school I studied contemporary and jazz.

M: Where does the name Alma Libre Dance School come from? What does it mean to you?

N: When we started to think about the name for the school, before my cousin started to teach, at this moment I did not really speak Spanish. So we shared names and she said Alma Libre and I said, that’s it. Because this is exactly who we are, we are really a free soul. At sixteen years old, I left my house and I started to travel a bit around France and continue studying. I always never stop myself to do anything so for me that is really the definition of a free soul—

M: —Fearless

N: —Yes, and I never had money or something like that. I always worked to make the money to travel to this country and learn this dance or do that and do that. So with no money you can do so many things, it’s just you push yourself. And in anything you do, you gonna work in a bar? Be the best.

M: So I am sure that there were sacrifices to do the things that you wanted to, anything that stands out?

N: Yes, I was working in France as a dental hygienist for many years and I just stopped everything because I was just like I love dancing. Every job I did in my life, I am passionate about everything I do, I was a bartender in London, mixologist, I was passionate about cocktails. I wanted to be, not the best, but I really wanted the people to come and when they had one of my cocktails to say oh my god, its amazing. As a dental hygienist too, I was passionate about it. Sometimes the dentist I was working with, send me to some congress and I was the only assistant. I don’t see myself different than you. So I was really passionate but I was like, no, dance is my thing. I can’t explain, the only thing I can tell you is just watch me dance. And like I said, it’s not about being the best, it’s just this moment is my moment, it’s when I leave this world to enter somewhere else. Dancing is the best part of me.

M: That’s awesome. Growing up with the two cultures, Cameroonian and Russian, how was that? Did you grow up religious in any way?

N: First, it’s not jut two cultures; it’s two super opposite cultures. I realized, African and Russian have something in common. The way they treat the people when they invite you in their home, my mom she was really someone. She was the only white woman in Cameroon who was going to the village of my dad, a really retired village by herself, driving there to bring medication, she was a doctor. She was, I had a super, the name badass woman, super mega badass mom. Scared of nothing, when I say nothing, nothing.  So yeah, I had a difficult childhood but I am not going to go more into that—

M: —That’s okay—

N: Yeah, I am not going to give details but really difficult childhood so it means that just to show to people that whatever happens, you don’t even imagine what my childhood was like, but whatever happens to you in life, I don’t want to say it’s nothing, of course it’s a part of you but oh my god, it’s easy to say I breathe, I am alive, I am healthy, I pass through that. Take that like a strength, take that as something to push you, stop complaining and living in the past and thinking oh I have that happen to me…you never know when you see me. You will never imagine what I went through but why? Not because I am hard but because that’s my story, don’t burn the only life you have at least on this earth because of what happened to you in the past. Just continue through. And everything is about your karma, everything you do if you do it right and you think in your heart that you trying to do it right and you give back to some people, help some people sometime, just one person maybe I can help you on this, little things like that . Every time it’s going to come back to you, every time. That’s the point on my childhood.  For the culture, my parents divorce when I was two years old, and my mom, like I said badass but at the same time, super strong character, she had six children and she didn’t want any money from my dad, nothing. She was working, traveling and everything. Good point to be a strong woman but at the same time, strong woman in the fact that she said no you’re not going to see the kids, so I couldn’t see my dad for many years. We saw each other secretly, like hiding when we were with friends. And the moment, we were going to go to holidays and stay with him, he had this house built, he was waiting for us, like he died. It’s difficult because culturally it was difficult. But my mom, she loved Africa. It wasn’t a problem for her the culture, it was more her, she sometimes was the problem. She was kind of—

M: —Strict?

N: Yes, super strict. Old school. It wasn’t that much about the culture. I think it’s beautiful but it’s challenging. Already, in the same culture, it’s challenging women and men to understand each other. So when you have different culture, it’s even more challenging but it’s possible.

Yemayá Tribe

M:  So when did Yemayá Tribe come into play?

N: Yemaya Tribe has been like maybe three years. I met this girl, I had this dream of having this dance troupe and…sometimes you don’t cross people for nothing, I met this girl, her name is Ruth. She is from Venezuela, she was a bodyboard champion, so she came here, she’s a designer for people who do sports and dance. We started to talk and get closer and she had the same dream. We created Yemaya Dance Tribe and we started to look for the girls, we were nearly ten but like everything , sometimes some girls left and now we are: Stephanie, who is Dominican, Orchid who is Dominican, Iskania, who is Dominican, another Stephanie who is Dominican, one girl from Switzerland but lives here, [named] Marie, Ruth and me. We are like eight. I am the choreographer. My friend Ruth, travels a lot, she has business in California and Venezuela, Puerto Rico. So she’s not here often so at the end of the day I am the one in charge of the group. Orchid taught us how to fire dance. Our choreography is a mix between African moves, Cuban Afro-Rumba moves and body expressions.

M: For someone who doesn’t know what Yemaya is, how would you describe it?

N: It’s a sisterhood dance tribe. Hermandad. We are focused on showing the love and sisterhood, and showing that you don’t have to be a professional to dance. One has four kids, she lives in Sabaneta, she is a massage therapist. Another one is a waitress, lives in La Cienaga, another one is a bartender. It’s like, wherever you come from, whatever you think may not be possible to dance, it’s possible. And how to respect each other as women, because if we don’t start to really realize how powerful women are together and don’t try to, okay we want to have the same rights as the men but we have to, for me, it’s sad when the woman want to be so much as the men…it’s not that men are weak but sometimes men have their own thing that they have to deal with. Why not take the best parts? If we don’t help each other, we don’t stop criticizing one another. This is what Yemaya is, the power of each woman has a goddess inside. But we have to respect each other and we have to regroup and help each other in the community. We cannot have women struggling with their kids, not finding anybody to help. We have to get together, that’s the only way we are going to make changes in this world. Now we are free, some countries, yes they [women] are still not free but a lot of countries we are free at the end of the day. And we have to elevate ourselves. We are so much more than we think.

M: And you are mostly doing African based dances? Or from the African diaspora?

N: Yes, African modern and Cuban Afro-Rumba style. I mix everything, Afro-Brazil , a little bit of hip-hop.

M:  Can other people join? Are there tryouts?

N: We didn’t really open it to other people because we wanted to make sure that the base is strong. It’s challenging. The tribe is not a dance group [that] you come you practice and leave. Any decisions we have to do, the tribe has to be involved.  When we ask questions and nobody answers, I talk to them like they are my sisters, they are my sisters. To build these things between women, it takes time. It takes moments of doubt, moment of fights, moments to build this strong base…Of course, it’s one of my dreams one day to have a special big event that I can have 100 women dancing Yemaya choreography.

M: What has been the reception in Cabarate? When you travel?

N: Muy bien. Everybody knows about Yemaya Tribe. We don’t do a lot of advertising; we are discreet. If we do shows, we post but not that much. We do that because we want people to say “oh my god, that’s the waitress, she can do that?” Cabarete is interesting too because people come from other cities. They don’t even imagine that women do that here. And we have all kinds of ages, it’s not just young women. One of the girls is a Jiu-Jitsu champion, Iskania. She is focused, she works a lot with the community, she goes to university, she’s like everywhere. She is such an example to show to young girls in DR.  She didn’t dance before and now she is teaching young kids. It has opened the eyes of the other women.

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M: What can we expect from the Cabarete Carnaval?

N: It’s going to be great! First because of Yemaya we are going to represent Cabarete and we are going to be on the front of the camino. We open the walk, starting at the caves, with a little surprise.  I am working on the costumes day and night. I designed the costume and we all worked together to sew and put it together. .. I am so proud, so proud to be the first comparsa, and only women.

M:  So it looks like most of your tribe are Dominican girls, how do you handle being culturally sensitive for those that are in the tribe that are not Dominican?  You told me there is someone who is from Switzerland?

N: Yes, she is from Switzerland, she is white but inside she is African. She embraced Dominican culture, she embraced black culture so she is really not the Switzerland girl that people think. No, she has a moto. She is so happy because she is the same, just a girl who travels, free spirit, traveling and learning. She is a massage therapist and she had this dream to dance and imagine she became a fire dancer in DR with a group of Dominican girls. She is exactly, even if she is from Switzerland, the same as the Dominicans, it’s like a dream come true and sometimes she’s like I can’t believe I can do that, I could do that. So we are just women, there’s no cultural fight, at all.

M: That’s good to hear.

N: She’s sometimes more campesina than some of the Dominican girls.

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African Roots

M: After Carnaval, what’s coming up for the future?

N: After Carnaval, we are meeting with Yemaya. We want to add maybe two, three more girls. Coming next, last year we did the first Sacred Women Festival. It’s going to be kind of challenging because she [Ruth] wants to organize it in a month. It’s Ruth, she comes and is a tormenta. She has so much energy, so hopefully we make it this year in Cabarete too. Only women… Some men do things but it has to be about for example respect for the women, teaching men or children how to respect women, how to help them, or things to bring awareness. Maybe make them connect with that.  So hopefully Sacred Women Festival 2019, fingers crossed.

M: It will happen

N: Yes. I am going to Cuba to practice my Afro-Rumba, Orishas intense workshop—

M: —So do you practice Yoruba religion?

N: No, just the dance. The thing is I have a really deep connection with my African ancestors, everything I do in my life I ask them to guide me. They are really close to me. It’s not like I see them in the street. I just feel the connection; I cannot explain it. One day, one of my friends, she said to me “Nina, when you arrive somewhere you never walk alone. Every time you arrive somewhere it’s like you are coming with people. You have this aura that we can feel. I never walk alone, never, they are always with me. And now my dad and my mom too. That’s my religion, my ancestors, my African connection.

M: What brought you to the Orisha dances?

N: Because the connection to the elements, natural elements, the connection with Africa and these connections with ancestors, with these gods is exactly what I am looking for. When I danced Oshun in Brazil, they told me oh be careful cause you are going to connect with her and some people don’t dance that because they feel like the goddess enter and it’s kind of weird for them. But I connect with her, trust me, I just didn’t remember exactly, when I was onstage…When you work on your soul to be strong enough, nothing can come inside of you and take you. I wasn’t raining at all, I started to dance, and Oshun is the goddess of the river, she has a water connection. In Brazil, I danced Oshun, just after I danced it started to rain. After I performed fire dance, when I started to perform, boom water, I stopped my performance and the water stopped.  I can’t explain the moves, I just did them. That’s why I love the Orishas; they give you so much. And that’s why I want to teach the women. To say, the day you feel weak, you go to your house, you put canto de yemaya, who is the goddess of all Orishas. You feeling ugly, oh I am fat, put Canto de Oshun, Oshun she is beautiful, she look at herself in the mirror, she feels so strong. You put Oshun and you do the Oshun step. Just this is going to give you the strength that you can’t even imagine. That’s why I want the women who is not even a dancer, I want the women to know Yemaya, Oshun dance because when you dance it, it gives you so much strength.

M: When it comes to Yemaya, Yoruba, the goddesses, have you had any challenges with, as you know this country is very Christian, and Catholic, they tend to view those things as evil, demons—

N: Even in Brazil, when I was in Brazil, yes—

M: —Yes, have you had any problems with that?

N: Here no, because I think they don’t really know what it is. Maybe that’s why we haven’t had any problem with that. It’s like in life, you cannot do everything at the same time, I didn’t come deep into only Orishas with Yemaya, we mixed the dances and little by little we introduce Yemaya dance moves. But I am going slowly, introducing. At the end, you really want the answer? I don’t give a shit about if people say it’s religious or whatever. In life, whatever makes you strong, follow it. I believe in god, but I talk to god, I don’t go to church. Sometimes I travel somewhere I want to go to church but for me I have a direct relationship with god. I don’t really worry. If tomorrow one of the girls tells me it’s not for me, I would say okay, I respect your choice. That’s it.

M: I have to say, it’s awesome to hear that from you, because I think Dominicans, you know we have strong African roots but I think a lot of us are disconnected to it and seeing this, and having the Dominican girls is wonderful.

N: It’s amazing. The great things I see, not just with Yemaya, something is happening in this world, there is something happening with the Afro culture—

M: — like an awakening—

N: —an awakening! My cousin has a real Afro in her hair, when she was here, when she was younger, people were looking at her in Santo Domingo—

M: —yes, comb your hair o greña

N: Horrible. I go to Santo Domingo now and I see girls with Afro and everything. I was going to New York ten years ago, I go to New York now, I go to Brooklyn, it’s like I am in Africa and I have ten different tribes. They do tribe haircuts! African tribe haircuts that I know from my youth. The other day, just an example, I did Bantu Knots, so when I do that I connect, it’s not just a hairstyle. You think many years ago I would do that and people would laugh, what is that?…I arrived at Millennium, one Dominican girl who works at the restaurant, she was like oh my god I want to do the same! And I said yeah but you have to assume it, and she said 100%, I don’t care, it’s so amazing. And this type of reaction from a Dominican girl, I would never have. Something is happening. The people have started to move and connect with the Afro side in all over the world. And it’s not to say we are better than white people, I am half white, but we have to wake up. We’ve suffered too much. We have to wake up and this wake up is on the way. Everywhere to say, I am not fucking less than you because you are white. Never. And I am not less than you because I grew up in a poor barrio in Santo Domingo, Cabarete or whatever. We [are] exactly the same. People have started to wake up and don’t stop. Girls, continue putting your Afro out, your head wrap, if you want to put it. But put it, not for the styling, not because it’s fashion to be in the Afro style, put it to connect with who you are and it is going to make you so much stronger. Africa is so strong mami and when you understand that, you are capable of anything in your life.

Nina’s Alma Libre Dance School leads weekly group and private classes. She is available for private workshops, events and local tours.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.