On Saturday mornings, walking up the steps of Balmir Latin Dance Studio, it’s hard not to be pulled by sounds signature to the Caribbean coast of Central America. Standing at the front of the studio is Bronx-born dancer Arnol Guity Martinez. With his contagious energy and effortless movements – a given considering his more than 10-year dance career – he guides students in the small room through dance moves that merge his Garifuna culture and aerobics. GarifunaRobics might seem like an unlikely pairing, but the new exercise technique is just one example of how millennial Garinagu are safeguarding their rich culture.
Survival and resilience are ingrained in Garifuna culture.
Despite attempts to enslave, imprison, exile and displace them, Garifuna communities remain across Central America and in specific cities in the United States today. Having preserved the culture for centuries, the Garinagu have ensured their language, cuisine, spiritual practices, dance and music are undeniably present amidst generations of families and communities near and far from their pre-exiled lands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Much of the credit for passing down ancestral knowledge and traditions goes to family and community elders, but there’s a younger collective of Garifuna descendants answering the call to sustain and educate the next (and current) generation of Garinagu in new, unique ways.
Guity Martinez is just one of them. A light-bulb moment led to the founding of GarifunaRobics.
After people constantly asked him when he’d offer his own Garifuna dance classes, he began thinking about a way to do so that would also benefit the community. He thought about some of the health concerns, like obesity, impacting the Afro-Indigenous group and created GarifunaRobics as a fun, culturally enriching solution.
“I took some elements from the Garifuna culture – from the different genres of music and also the different dances – and incorporated it into a workout,” the 25-year-old dancer tells me. “A lot of people say punta is a workout, but it had never been to a point where someone has actually made a full workout routine, or a whole [workout] class, dedicated to the Garifuna culture.”
GarifunaRobics launched in NYC in April 2018, offering an aerobics-style workout infused with various Garifuna musical genres and dance techniques, including punta, punta rock, gunchey, wanaragua (also known as mascaro or Yan Canu/John Canoe/Jonkonnu), hungu hungu, and parranda. A majority of the class – 65% to be exact – is punta, says Guity Martinez, followed by the cardio-centered wanaragua and gunchey, a more relaxed dance form that he incorporates during the cool down. Punta and wanaragua are two of his favorites.
“Wanagua consists of a lot of stamina and a lot of footwork. I love it! It’s a dance of strength,” he shares. “It shows the strength in the Garifuna community. It’s a very powerful dance, so when I dance wanagua a lot of times, I’m in a spiritual trance.”
Though the conversation flows with ease, it’s clear Guity Martinez’s spiritual connection to wanagua and, particularly the drums, is hard to describe. “I don’t even know how to explain it, but it’s something that nourishes me,” he says. “You know when you have something that naturally fuels you, and that’s all you pretty much need for you to be all right? Those drums, and the singing, and the harmony, and the connection between the singing, the drumming and dance – that is my fuel. That is what keeps me whole. That is what keeps me sane.”
Dance has been a constant in the young creative’s life. As a child, when his mother – who hails from Triunfo de La Cruz, Honduras – first brought him and his siblings to a Garifuna gathering, or fedu, Guity Martinez didn’t connect with what was going on. But that changed as he grew older. At 12, he told his mother he wanted to join a dance group and shortly afterward became a dancer with Hamalali Wayunagu Folkloric & Modern Dance Company, which is now Wabafu Garifuna Dance Theater. Then, at 16, he joined Chief Joseph Chatoyer Dance Company where he’s been for the last nine years. Through his dance career, Guity Martinez, a recipient of the Garifuna Youth Leadership Award, has been able to deepen his understanding of his roots.
It’s his hope that GarifunaRobics will do the same for his community. Although the workout isn’t exclusive to Garinagu – in fact, he encourages people from all backgrounds to sign up and learn about the culture that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” – he knows it’ll inspire the younger generations.
“I want people who were ashamed to say, ‘I am Garifuna’ proudly to say ‘I am Garifuna and this is what we have to offer,’” Guity Martinez says.
With the one-year anniversary of GarifunaRobics approaching, his main priority is to expand the brand, provide access to classes in more cities and continue offering a fun, healthy way to explore Garifuna culture.
“Who would’ve known that dancing punta or just dancing to drums is a stress reliever? I want to showcase that,” Guity Martinez says. “I want to shed a positive light onto the Garifuna culture and I’m doing that through GarifunaRobics.”