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HomeNewsLocal newsIsland Profile: Willard John Keeps Culture Alive

Island Profile: Willard John Keeps Culture Alive

Willard John in a 2010 photo for Department of Tourism. (Photo provided by Willard John)Willard John is used to a bird’s eye view of life – he has been stilt dancing for more than 40 years, and as the territory’s preeminent mocko jumbie, he also has taught dozens of young people his art.

John, originally from St. Thomas, learned stilt dancing from a cousin and performed in his first parade in 1975. One of the highlights of his career, he said, was performing solo at the 1978 Super Bowl.

“It (the first parade) was such an exciting moment for me inside – 42 years later, I still feel it – a spiritual feeling from the art form,” John said.

After graduating from Sts. Peter and Paul High School, John earned a degree at Lincoln University, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He returned to St. Thomas for a time to work for the V.I. government and then moved to St. Croix in 1979.

Since then, his life has revolved around educating youth and preserving the Virgin Islands culture. John’s group of stilt dancers, the Guardians of Culture Moko Jumbies, participate in public events and perform regularly at St. Croix hotels.

John has been involved in the formal education of the children of St. Croix until he retired in 2015. He was the principal at Elena Christian Junior High, and also served as the principal of the St. Croix Educational Complex. His accomplishments included earning an award for the high school from the International Center for Leadership in Education in 2009. He also introduced an aviation program at CTEC and helped technical students build an electric car.

To John, education includes promoting and teaching about the V.I. culture and traditions, beginning with the costumes worn by the Guardians of Culture. The Guardians get new color-coordinated costumes every year, made by John’s wife, Curliss.

Keeping with tradition, John’s mocko jumbies always wear masks and cover as much of their body as possible. They were spiritual entities, but since they were not gods, they were covered from head to foot. Jumbie legend tells their original purpose was to protect African villages from evil, using mirrors, whistles and whips. John incorporates these aspects into his dances and their costumes.

“My group is different. It is important to maintain certain aspects of tradition. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the Caribbean,” he said.

John’s knowledge of mocko jumbie tradition is extensive. "Mokolution," his DVD produced by WTJX Channel 12, is a beautiful documentary about the history of African stilt dancers. John recreates a shorter version when the group performs at the Divi Carina Bay Resort on Thursdays and at Renaissance St. Croix Carambola Beach Resort on Friday nights. Two or three Guardians, including John’s son, also perform at buffet nights at the Palms at Pelican Cove, the Buccaneer Hotel and Hotel on the Cay.

In addition to working with a group of professional dancers, John teaches a younger group on Saturdays at Ricardo Richards Elementary School.

“When you master it, its really an accomplishment – and doesn’t hurt the ego, either,” he said.

Not all mocko jumbies are male, John said. Recently, he saw one of his female students, who is attending college stateside. When the school’s marching band director saw her carrying her stilts he asked her to perform at a game, and since then she has been awarded a scholarship every year to perform with the band.

Although he officially is retired from the V.I. Education Department, John produces events and is a film location manager with his company Jumbie Productions. He is also a certified mediator.

In his free time, John plans to write an expensive practical handbook for those who want to carry on the mocko jumbie tradition. He will have everything from patterns for costumes and stilts to how to teach the moves and select music.

“When I leave this planet, I’ll know I’ve left everything behind. I’m not taking anything with me,” he said. 

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