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On Island Profile: Carlos Woods

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Dec. 24, 2006 — Carlos Woods has danced the quadrille since he was about six years old, and today — nearly half a century later — he still dances, keeping the cultural tradition alive.
The dance is rich in V.I. history, hallowed by those who follow local culture. Legislation enacted in 2004 made it the official dance of the Virgin Islands.
As a youngster at Madison Elementary School (now Edith Williams School), Woods took to it right away, the way some youngsters flock to a basketball hoop. Woods learned well under the expert tutelage of Madison Principal Lucille Roberts.
"It was her love of the art form that got to me," Williams recalls. "I was a young boy at the time."
About a week before Christmas, Woods sits on a bench in Emancipation Garden as the Lockhart Elementary School Quadrille Dancers perform. He shares his knowledge of the dance and its importance to the territory's culture while watching the children with a practiced eye.
"Their leader, Sandra Reed, is a former Mungo Niles Dancer," he says. The youngsters delight both Woods and the folks wandering through the garden enjoying the daytime festivities and food, spices, arts and crafts.
The daytime activities precede Miracle on Main Street, which will wind up Friday evening with Woods leading both the the Mungo Niles Cultural Dancers and the St. Thomas Heritage Dancers.
Woods credits Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone with helping revive an interest in the cultural dance with his legislation in 2003 naming quelbe the official music of the Virgin Islands, followed by Sen. Luther Renee's bill — cosponsored by Malone — naming the quadrille the official V.I. dance.
"That legislation inspired another group of dancers," Woods says. "It helped revive an interest in the dance. It was really helpful for getting young people interested."
That renewed interest led Malone in 2005 to start his own group, the St. Thomas Heritage Dancers, many of whom had danced in the Niles group. Woods led the two groups this year at the Main Street celebration, clearing off an area of Main Street that quickly became surrounded by an audience clapping along with the dancers, backed by Milos' Kings.
The performers whirled around in madras and floral print shirts and skirts, as Woods flowed among them, calling the dances. "Our dances are called like calling a square dance," he explains between breaths, as he jumps back in to lead the stepping dancers.
Woods continued studying the quadrille in junior high school and at Charlotte Amalie High School, where he graduated in 1972. He formed a quadrille group in high school that continued after graduation and rehearsed at the Winston Raymo Center. There Woods first joined the Mungo Niles group.
After Mungo Niles died in the late 1980s, Woods carried on the quadrille tradition.
"Actually, the quadrille is not one dance," he says. "It takes several forms of dances indigenous to the islands, but also those adopted from other areas. It's basically a kind of square dance form with a caller."
In the 19th century, European society introduced dances such as the minuet, the Austrian waltz, the French and Danish Lancers and the Polish mazurka.
Plantation blacks would listen to the music and watch these dances from the sidelines. Having no instruments, they improvised. Using whatever they could find — a washtub with a string for a bass, a dried gourd, perhaps a banjo –they wound up with what today is called a "scratch band." The music became what is known as quelbe today, the territory's official music. For years Percy and the Boys, led by Percy Nurse, served as the Niles dancers' official band.
Bands that carry on the tradition today include Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights and Smalls and the Music Makers.
Niles was born on St. Thomas in 1916, and always had an ear for music. In 1947 he joined his brother, Mac Niles, who had a band in Hollywood, Calif.. It performed in several movies, including one in 1957 with the catchy title "Calypso Heat Wave."
Niles returned home to school local youngsters in the entertainment field, which he saw had been neglected. In the early '60s he took some young people with him on a mainland tour, after which he formed the Mungo Niles Cultural Dancers.
Woods lights up at the memory of the group's tours on the mainland in 1984 and in Europe in 1985. The interview gets interrupted by Carole Smith and Alicia Sadler, members of the group who stop to chat — and tease Woods about getting interviewed.
After high school, Woods went to Norfolk State University in Virginia and studied building construction. He has had a 33-year career with the V.I. Housing Authority, where he serves as maintenance manager.
Woods is a moderately tall, good-looking man with a wide mustache. He smiles easily. He exudes the pleasure of someone who thoroughly enjoys what he is doing. If there is a cultural community event going on, it's a safe bet he won't be far away. It's his passion.
As it turns out, Woods is modest about his accomplishments — or, at least, about being honored for them. But Malone is happy to sing Woods' praises.
"The Heritage Dancers honored him in 2005 at the cultural ball at the Sugar Bay resort for keeping the art and the dance alive in the St. Thomas-St. John district," Malone says. "He is responsible for continuing the legacy of Mungo Niles. He teaches young groups in school."
He adds, "These things are extremely important."
Not only does Woods lead the dance groups, he also serves as chief choreographer.
"Carlos has kept the old traditional dance alive, as well as creating modern variations," Malone says.
Woods has three daughters: Diana, 35, who is studying to be a minister; Carla, 22, a physical therapy student; and Cora, 20, who is studying accounting. Do they all dance?
"Cora and Carla grew up dancing," Woods says, "but, Diana not so much."
It's hard to pin Woods down during the holiday season. The dancers performed at the initial Christmas event, the lighting of the tree at Havensight Mall, then at Main Street and in the schools. Saturday morning he hit the airwaves on WSTA radio's Christmas party, where Brownie introduced him. "We were at the station trying to pass the message," he says, "and enhance the party."
He takes Christmas day off, but the day after, Boxing Day, Woods heads off to St. John. "We are going to perform for the Kwanzaa celebration there," he says.
The Mungo Niles dancers have offered free dance instruction at Emancipation Garden for decades. "Friday night is dedicated to that," Woods says. "It's for the public, for anybody, tourist or whoever wants to join in and learn some cultural things. It's been going on since 1952. We want everybody to come."
Age is no barrier, he says.
"We have dances from 18 to 60, and over," Woods says. "Our group is usually about 20 strong."
Hardly a moment goes by where Woods isn't singing the praises of being a part of the community in song and, of course, dance. In that context, his future plans sound ironic.
"In about three years or so, I'll retire, and then I'll give myself full time to the V.I. community," Woods says.
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