Sexuality, Soca and Sisterhood: TT Dance Drama ‘She Paradise’

Julien Neaves, Caribbean Head Writer

Plot: A shy 17-year-old finds confidence and sisterhood when she joins a group of professional soca dancers.

Context: I have a long history with Trinidad and Tobago dance drama She Paradise, which is directed by Maya Cozier and co-written by her and Melina Brown. I was there in March 2019 when its original incarnation, a short film of the same name, premiered in Trinidad. It was a proof of concept for a feature film and I viewed a rough cut of said feature at the Caribbean Festival of Arts (CARIFESTA) in August that year. So as main character Sparkle comes of age in the story I feel like I have seen this film come of age with its official version. With that said, now on to my review.

Man it is hot as b—-s out here

Review: For those unfamiliar with soca dancing, it involves a lot of wining (rhythmic gyrating of the pelvic region). And She Paradise features its main characters dancing and wining in an assortment of skimpy and tight outfits. But the soca dancing is not about titillation but rather expression. Inspired by events during her own time as a dancer, Cozier’s love of the artform comes through easily. It is not about the men gawking or lingering shots on female anatomy but the confidence the women express in every move. What on the surface may appear as demeaning is presented as empowering (whether one agrees with that or not is up to the viewer). Like Marcia in 1997 Jamaican drama Dancehall Queen, empowerment is what the lead character finds through the medium of dancing, though in this film it is set to the pulse-pounding beat of popular TT soca music (circa 2019) rather than 90s-era dancehall.

Sparkle (Onessa Nestor) is an unemployed young woman who has to take up vegetables off the market ground to supplement her groceries. She lives with her grandfather Papa (veteran local actor Michael Cherrie), a goldsmith who is barely scraping by. When Sparkle meets a trio of soca dancers—blunt and wise leader Diamond (Kimberly Crichton), sweet and creative Mica (Chelsey Rampersad), and money-loving Shan (Denisia Lactchman)—she reawakens a childhood love for dancing, gets an opportunity to make money and finds a surrogate family. Unsurprisingly, Cherrie gives the strongest performance of the film and is quite believable as a caring and disapproving paternal figure. Actor Kern Mollineau also does good work as lascivious and silver-tongued music producer “Skinny”. In terms of the ladies, this was Nestor’s first time acting which has the benefit of an authenticity and innocence, though at a few key moments the lack of experience does show to the character’s detriment. Crichton, Rampersad and Lactchman all disappear into their roles and feel like tangible, lively, lived-in characters. They are so real that at times you may forget you are watching a narrative feature and not a documentary.

I whip my hair back and forth, I whip my hair back and forth…

Real and raw are two apt words to describe this film. The language is raw. In one scene Diamond asks Sparkle, “You does f—?” and no, she didn’t say “flip”. The cinematography is raw and at times lurid. And the film does not shy away from dealing with some very raw and real situations, including drug use and sex. As a viewer you may find yourself at one point smiling at the bond between these four women and another point shaking your head at some of their questionable behaviour. But under all the partying, drinking, weed smoking and gyrating there is a code and that is you stick with your sisters. Sparkle is alternately drawn to and repulsed by that sisterhood, and I’m not sure if I like what she eventually becomes. But hey, She Paradise never claimed to be an after school special so an ending that is not neat and feels almost unfinished may be par for the course for such a realistic portrayal of a Trinidad and Tobago subculture.

And whatever one may think of that subculture, Cozier deserves praise for telling a story that is so veritable, revelatory, resonant, and uniquely Trinidadian yet still universal. A visit to She Paradise will definitely be a memorable experience.

Editor Jules’s Score: 8 out of 10

If you’re in Trinidad you can check out She Paradise at MovieTowne Port of Spain and San Fernando from April 25th to May 5th. And you can check more great Caribbean content below:

‘ART OF WINING’ IS A SURPRISINGLY INSIGHTFUL DOCUMENTARY
REVISITING 1997 JAMAICAN DRAMA ‘DANCEHALL QUEEN’ IN 4 SLICES
SOCA ROMANCE ‘BAZODEE’ IN 3 SLICES
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Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.