Visionary Awards Honoree Carmen Dence Performs Like Every Day Is Carnaval
Framed certificates line the walls of Carmen Dence’s home office—fittingly, for a scientist who retired after 37 years of research, mainly in the field of positron emission tomography radiochemistry at the Washington University School of Medicine’s department of radiology.
These two dual identities were both fueled by love: of chemistry on the one hand, of tradition and folk arts on the other. “I absorbed the traditional arts first, before I had any idea about science or technology,” says Dence, who grew up in Barranquilla, Colombia, as the oldest of six siblings. “My training in Colombia was on the streets and in the family.”
While St. Louis celebrates Mardi Gras in these final few days before Lent, Barranquilla is in the midst of its Carnaval, the world’s second largest after Rio de Janiero’s. For the young Dence, the parades and parties were a time to become immersed in a riot of music, movement and costumes. She traveled to other cities along the Caribbean Coast, too, like Cartagena and her father’s hometown of Santa Marta, absorbing the influences of indigenous and African cultures.
Eventually, Dence moved to Florida to earn a master’s degree in organic chemistry, then to Indiana for post-graduate work in pharmacology, and then to Ohio for a corporate job. She married Joseph Dence, also an organic chemist, and explored the world a little more with a stint in Iran before arriving in St. Louis, where her husband had worked at Washington University. It seemed as good a place as any to settle down—and it had baseball, a sport Dence had learned to love in her hometown from her father. “The Cardinals were a big reason to stay here,” she laughs. “That was a big draw for me.”
She suggested they both apply for jobs at Wash U, and both were hired. “I found a home, my colleagues and a calling,” Dence says, smiling at the memories.
Even though her days were all about science, the rest of her time was all about dance. With her very first stipend in Tallahassee, she had bought a sewing machine, so she could make costumes for demonstrations of traditional Colombian dancing. The passion for folk arts continued to blossom in St. Louis, and in 1995, she pulled together a group of people from Colombia and Venezuela to start Grupo Atlántico.
Even thought it was a dance group, the thing that made it work was Dence’s ability to sew the costumes—which meant she didn’t have to burden the performers financially with buying their own. Her innate understanding of musicality and movement, along with sharp observation skills and a never-ending supply of curiosity, ensured that new choreography and combinations of movement were always emerging.
Now approaching its 30th anniversary, the intergenerational group continues to perform at events throughout the St. Louis metro area and to the four corners of the state of Missouri. Of the 20-plus choreographies in its repertoire, most are traditional, but some explore Dence’s own way of looking at the world, “its challenges and interactions illustrated by patterns from folk dances.”
When she dances, Dence says, “It doesn’t matter how many times I have done it, it comes alive as if I’m doing it for the first time. You always have a different audience, different space, different drummers. There is only one word that describes how I feel, and this is just joy. If I have any aches or pain, I don’t feel it. Just the process of thinking about the music, the position of my hand, the expression on the face, the movement of the hips … it comes as a big vessel of joy.”
In particular, she loves very traditional cumbia music, a specialty of the northern coastal region of Colombia. “I feel it so deep inside me, it just bursts out of me. It doesn’t make any difference how big the crowd, it’s my dance. It makes me happy.”
One of the biggest supporters of Grupo Atlántico and Dence’s work has been the Missouri Folk Arts Program. She has often received funding to work with apprentices—including two 14-year-old dancers currently—as well as a sense of belonging in a community of others who understand the connections between genres of folk art. For example, Dence loves to present her collection of carnival masks from indigenous cultures, because they’ve had strong influences on the dances.
The same goes for the costumes. At last count, Dence owned more than 300, most of them sewn in her bright, spacious workroom and stored meticulously in closets throughout her suburban home. Her thirst for knowledge prompted her to earn a degree in fashion design from University College at Wash U, and another in somatic studies (the integration of mind and body) from the same school.
The centerpieces of her wardrobe are the skirts and blouses for cumbia (she’s pictured in one below). The very full skirts—typically 12 to 15 yards of red-and-white checkered gingham fabric, plus an equal length of lace and ribbon—bear a strong Spanish influence. “In cumbia, the movement of the hips is critical,” Dence says, explaining that the full skirts emphasize this. But they also weigh a ton, and female dancers need a great deal of arm strength to hold them up for the length of a full song yet still move gracefully.
Every Colombian folk dance has a history, and “I always try to explain the meaning of the dance,” Dence says. Some are sexy and romantic; some are “colorful, beautiful vengeance dances.” One protest dance, for example, has males dress up as females to lure the conquistadors, then slay them as punishment for raping their women. Each dance has its own costume too, from ruffles to velvets to African kaftans, some elaborate, some simple.
Dence’s comprehensive view of the arts parallels her approach to science. “You start to see the links between a painting and a movement and musical notes and poetry,” Dence explains. “A creative mind absorbs like a sponge.”
Since retiring from Wash U in 2016, Dence has turned her creative mind to the arts full time, focusing on the immigrant community in general and the Hispanic community in particular. She emphasizes, however, that one need not be Latino to join Grupo Atlántico—she’s had dancers from India, Japan, China, the United States and other countries. Age is likewise not a barrier. Six years ago, Dence started the Dancing Damsels, a subgroup within Grupo Atlántico, for women between the ages of 60 and 85.
“My special philosophy is that you should never be defined by what you already know, or by age, or by country, or anything,” Dence says. “You as an individual are so unique that any new influence is just a joyful way to grow.
This is the second of a six-part series featuring the 2019 Visionary Awards for Women in the Arts honorees. The awards ceremony is April 22 at 6 p.m. in Grand Center’s Sun Theater. Tickets cost $50 and can be purchased online here.
Featured image courtesy of Diane Anderson.