Movement

Sky-High Vibes

The tradition of West African stilt dancing is alive and kicking.

FOR NAJJA CODRINGTON, West Africa looms large every time he steps out on his stilts. Codrington, 47, is the co-CEO of the Brooklyn Jumbies, a thriving troupe of dancing, skipping, and gravity-defying moko jumbies — more commonly known as stilt dancers — based in New York City. While moko jumbies can be found presiding over carnival celebrations across the Caribbean and North America, these 12-foot-tall stilt specialists hold a deeply spiritual, shamanic meaning throughout the African continent. “I grew up in the West African tradition of drum and dance as well. So I actually was initiated and first taught in West Africa. One of the major differences in West Africa is that mokos are like a secret society. They’re usually present at different ceremonies, weddings, baptisms, or rituals. If there are issues or problems in the community, the same way that you might go and call a priest, you’d call on a moko jumbie.”

The name moko derives from the Central African term for god or orisha, and jumbie from West Indian parlance for ghost or spirit. Moko jumbies are considered to be spirit healers. Their towering height, which represents proximity to the heavens, helps them to see danger or evil spirits from far off. “For example, at large gatherings, you would have a moko come and just make sure everything is good, both physically and metaphysically.”

Moko jumbies are one of the traditions, like polyrhythmic drumming and ancestral foodways, that made it through the Middle Passage of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. “We lost a lot through the Middle Passage, but we still retain some of it,” says Codrington. “It becomes a new tradition, but it's all the same. No matter where you are, whether you're in Barbados, whether you're in Trinidad, St. Vincent, Grenada — everybody sees moko jumbies.”

For many of the dancers in the Brooklyn Jumbies (initially founded by Ali Sylvester, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, who manages an offshoot troupe in Kissimmee, Florida), the lure of getting on stilts was undeniable, and for some, a sort of birthright. Jabari Rollocks, originally from Belmont, Trinidad, distinctly recalls the first time he was enthralled by the sight of a moko jumbie at the age of 5.

“I saw both my sisters walking on stilts, and I just couldn't stop looking up,” Rollocks recalls. “I was still living in Trinidad at that time. I told them I wanted to get into it. I started off really small and got into it really quickly because I was enjoying it. It was so different from the norm in my life, especially being that young. So when my sisters would go for practice after school, I’d be tagging along right beside them. I’ve been on stilts ever since.”

The Brooklyn Jumbies — including Khyle Lambert and Keil Alibocas, seen in the clip above — have brought their sky-high vibes to all sorts of events, such as parades, festivals, weddings, birthday parties, and bar mitzvahs. Regardless of the purpose, the feeling resonates the same every time they move through a space. “Getting on stilts puts you in a different stratosphere again, physically and metaphysically,” says Codrington. “Your awareness is different. When you’re walking through a crowd, you’re feeling all that energy around you. You'd be surprised, but even animals like dogs and horses react differently to us. Sometimes it’s scary, you know, and you have to be able to home in on all of that stuff — the excitement and the way that people respond.”

As much as being on 12-foot-tall stilts gives the jumbies a euphoric rush, which they describe as being “high on life,” once they’ve unstrapped their legs and are back on the ground, the vibes don’t stop. “When you get off, you feel like you’re literally almost about to float away,” says Rollocks. “You're like, I just gotta put my foot down.” Here, for Departures, the Brooklyn Jumbies show off their fantastical movements and daring dances.

More Moko Jumbies

Looking for more on moko jumbies? Here’s a shortlist of books, documentaries, and essays on these 12-foot-tall mystical revelers.

  • Peter Minshall's Costumes

    Peter Minshall is an award-winning carnival designer and Guggenheim Fellowship artist. Minshall’s ethereal costume designs have been lauded, from international carnivals to the Olympic opening ceremonies and soccer’s World Cup competitions. Stream Mas Man, the 2010 documentary from Dalton Narine that captures the majesty of Minshall’s designs, and the larger-than-life moko jumbies moving across the carnival stage.

  • Stefan Falke’s Photo Essay

    In 2004, German-born photographer Stefan Falke published “Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad,” his long-running reportage series. The book opens with a preface by legendary actor and dancer Geoffrey Holder and features interviews reported by Laura Anderson Barbata. Purchase a copy here.

  • The New York Times’ Dance in Trinidad: Moko Jumbie on 9-Foot Stilts

    Check out this short documentary on moko jumbies in Trinidad that was part of the New York Times’ 2017 series, Dance in the Real World.

  • Laura Anderson Barbata's Interventions

    Laura Anderson Barbata is a Mexico City–born Brooklyn-based contemporary artist who has collaborated with the Brooklyn Jumbies on “Intervention,” a performance art series that addresses social justice issues.

  • NorBlack NorWhite’s The Carnival Healer Spirits

    Fashion designer Mriga Kapadiya of the brand NorBlack NorWhite has a deep-seated love for moko jumbies and the traditional masquerade culture of Trinidad’s annual carnival. In this video and photo essay produced by Che Kothari, Kapadiya showcases the moves of Jab Jumbies and Moko Somokow troupes, all draped in custom NorBlack NorWhite looks.

  • Peter Minshall's Costumes

    Peter Minshall is an award-winning carnival designer and Guggenheim Fellowship artist. Minshall’s ethereal costume designs have been lauded, from international carnivals to the Olympic opening ceremonies and soccer’s World Cup competitions. Stream Mas Man, the 2010 documentary from Dalton Narine that captures the majesty of Minshall’s designs, and the larger-than-life moko jumbies moving across the carnival stage.

  • Laura Anderson Barbata's Interventions

    Laura Anderson Barbata is a Mexico City–born Brooklyn-based contemporary artist who has collaborated with the Brooklyn Jumbies on “Intervention,” a performance art series that addresses social justice issues.

  • Stefan Falke’s Photo Essay

    In 2004, German-born photographer Stefan Falke published “Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad,” his long-running reportage series. The book opens with a preface by legendary actor and dancer Geoffrey Holder and features interviews reported by Laura Anderson Barbata. Purchase a copy here.

  • NorBlack NorWhite’s The Carnival Healer Spirits

    Fashion designer Mriga Kapadiya of the brand NorBlack NorWhite has a deep-seated love for moko jumbies and the traditional masquerade culture of Trinidad’s annual carnival. In this video and photo essay produced by Che Kothari, Kapadiya showcases the moves of Jab Jumbies and Moko Somokow troupes, all draped in custom NorBlack NorWhite looks.

  • The New York Times’ Dance in Trinidad: Moko Jumbie on 9-Foot Stilts

    Check out this short documentary on moko jumbies in Trinidad that was part of the New York Times’ 2017 series, Dance in the Real World.

Our Contributors

Deidre Dyer Writer

Deidre Dyer is a writer, editorial director, and brand consultant. Her work sits at the intersection of creative expression and brand narrative, with an emphasis on culture, style, and identity. Her clients include brands such as Nike, Converse, Instagram, and The RealReal. Dyer’s writing has appeared in Vogue, GARAGE, SSENSE, and Riposte magazine.

Bunny Lake Films

Bunny Lake Films is an award-winning, female-founded creative production company with an equal focus on independent film and television and branded content.

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