Dressing with Style: Carnival Traditions

ACTA - Posted on 31 August 2011

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By Russell C. Rodriguez, Ph.D.

Gloria Toolsie, Jasmine McClain, DressThe tradition of carnival, though within the United States is not celebrated much, is a fascinating web of practice, performance, and meaning. The popular imaginary known in the United States is much more informed by the carnival performativity from Brazil and Mardi Gras in New Orleans—all night parties, hyper sexuality, chaotic order, and music, music, music. What is even less understood is the work that goes into producing lines of dancers that parade with beautifully decorated floats, and tight batteries of drummers and musicians. Fortunately, ACTA is blessed with the knowledgeable, spiritual kin, Gloria Toolsie, who has been a foundation to the carnival celebrations in San Francisco since its inception in the late 1970s.

Today master artist Toolsie is mentoring apprentice Jasmine McClain to solidify traditional practices of carnival regalia. McClain is a dance instructor/director of the dance ensemble Loco Bloco, an organization that utilizes expressive culture as a tool for the empowerment of youth of color to overcome injustice. Toolsie has seen the enthusiasm and efforts of McClain to overcome the simplicity of dressing her dancers in bikinis and G-strings, and to create regalia that positions her ensemble within lineage and history that defines carnival. McClain states that it is frustrating though necessary to put much thought into a costume design, to do research, to spend hours upon hours working on dresses that exhibit a more traditional form of carnival regalia and then to have the judges at the carnival choose ensembles that wore G-strings as costumes as carnival prize winners.

In addition to sewing skills Toolsie offers McClain a world of experience as a dancer, instructor, historian, and as a healer. Of Trinidadian background via New York, Toolsie grew up participating in carnival with her parents, first in Trinidad then in New York. Her family was central to the development of carnival in New York and when she moved to the Bay Area Toolsie became one of the lead advocates and producers of the popular carnival in San Francisco.

Toolsie is also a professional dancer/performing artist, who has worked and performed throughout the nation and internationally. She is also baptized and a practitioner of Afro-Cuban Santeria that extends her knowledge of Caribbean traditions. Well rounded in theatrical performance and community base practices, Toolsie provides a worldview that integrates a fine aesthetic with a consciousness of why expressive culture is extremely important in communities of color. 

Please join Gloria Toolsie and Jasmine McClain when they present their work for “A Presentation of Trinidadian Carnival Costumes” on September 24 from 7:30 to 10:00pm at La Raza Galería Posada located at 1022-1024 22nd Street, Sacramento 95816 (916) 446-5133. See their website http://www.larazagaleriaposada.org/ for more information. 

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Dressing with Style: Carnival Traditions

1 Toolsie: Traditional Dress

Tradional dresses made by Toolsie for her daughter 20 years prior. Photo: Russell C. Rodriguez

2 Toolsie: Details of Carnival Regalia

Details of traditional carnival regalia. Photo: Russell C. Rodriguez

3 Toolsie: Backside of carnival regalia

Backside of traditional carnival regalia design. Photo: Russell C. Rodriguez

4 Toolsie: Red Satin Dress

Innovative red satin dress designed by G. Toolsie. Photo: Russell C. Rodriguez

5 Toolsie: Doll Dress

Doll made with extra materials. Photo: Russell C. Rodriguez

6 Toolsie: Elegant Doll Dress

Doll with elegant carnival regalia. Photo: Russell C. Rodriguez

7 Toolsie: Granddaughter and McClain

Granddaughter and McClain. Photo: Russell C. Rodriguez