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Gombey dancers mark reunion

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LANTERN HILL, Conn. - New headgear probably never before seen at a pow wow towered over the Plains war bonnets and eastern woodlands turkey-feather caps at the recent Schemitzun grand entry.

The tall conical hats, topped and extended several feet by Peacock feathers, belonged to the Gombey Dancers of St. David's Island, Bermuda, but they signified more than the arrival of another dance style at the annual pow wow extravaganza of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

The dancers were part of a delegation of Bermudans who have recently renewed a long-severed connection with their cousins among southeastern New England tribes. According to an increasingly well-documented record, many of the families of St. David's Island are descendants of prisoners from the New England Indian wars of the mid-17th century.

Pequots who survived the massacres of 1637 and Wampanoags and Narragansetts who fought King Phillip's War of 1676-77 were sold into slavery in Bermuda and survived with some historical memory intact on the relative isolation of St. David's, an outlying island of the British colony. One family even claims descent from King Phillip himself, also known as Metacomet, the Wampanoag chief who led the fierce resistance to English encroachment.

The reconnection began two years ago, when the veteran New England Indian activist Tall Oak Weeden, who has both Mashantucket Pequot and Wampanoag ancestry, led a delegation to Bermuda. After the emotional reunions, the Bermudans received an invitation to Schemitzun and prepared for nearly a year for the visit. More than 90 islanders made the trip in late August.

While reconnection committee members led by Jean Foggo Simon and St. Clair "Brinky" Tucker delved into genealogies at the Pequot Museum, the Gombey dancers dazzled the audience under the huge white tent at Schemitzun.

The troupe, composed both of six-foot-plus adults and pre-teen boys, dressed head to toe under the hats in brightly colored pants and pullovers, fringed with strings in orange and yellow. Cloth masks with painted animal heads or cartoon smiles covered their faces as they danced, giving them the look of animated ceremonial dolls. The masks, explained troupe leader Irwin Trott, originated to disguise the dancers from slave-owners, who had forbidden the ceremony.

Trott, a Pequot descendant through two family lines, founded the dancers seven years ago to preserve this aspect of island culture that, he said, derived from African, West Indian and, now it is apparent, American Indian roots. Scholars say the word "goombay" as it is spelled in Jamaica and the Bahamas, derives from the Bantu for rhythm.

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As Schemitzun warmed up for the evening grand entry and a deafening rap singer entertained a group of children, Trott stepped behind the tent to discourse with enthusiasm on the Gombey styles.

"There are basically three main dance steps," he said. "The first is the Fast Dance, or Freedom Dance." The steps, he said, were "very close to the fast steps of the Native American Fancy Dance. It has very fast footwork."

The name he said, derived from the excited reaction of slaves to the news they were being set free. "You can imagine their emotions," he said. "They danced and spun and leaped."

The second dance, he said, was the Junkanoo, "a calmer dance." Possibly deriving from West Indian festivals, it was danced to match drum rhythms. The third was the Masquerade, meaning masked dancers. "Basically this form is the slowest of the three," he said.

Somewhere along the way, he added, slaves in Bermuda converted to Christianity, and some of the Gombey dances told Biblical stories. "One is David and Goliath, where a young boy, David, slays the giant Goliath. The dancers try to drag down the giant, bringing him down and holding the giant down and dancing on his body in victory."

In another, "Daniel in the Lion's Den," a ring of dancers closes in on the prophet Daniel. As it opens up again, he has disappeared, showing that he was rescued and taken out of the den.

After performing and carefully storing their hats in long cylinders, the dancers became something of a celebrity as they walked around in partial costume. The reconnection, previously celebrated in Bermuda, was now taking place in the Pequot homeland.

"We've been lost for a long time," said Trott, "and now we're found."