Leah Gordon: The passing of a fierce soul

An obituary by Paula Lindo for Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday.

Tributes have flowed from the creative and activist communities after the death of dancer, women’s rights activist, researcher and choreographer Leah Gordon.

Gordon, who was 60, was found in her Curepe apartment on Sunday evening. Police said she was last seen alive approximately three weeks ago. Her family said the landlord reported seeing her on July 27.

She leaves behind her brother and sister Beulah and Kirt Gordon, two nieces and a nephew. She was also the great-aunt of seven.

Gordon’s niece Chelsea Gordon said the family is devastated by the loss.

She said her aunt had recently lost weight and hadn’t been communicating.

“When you were trying to call her phone, she was rejecting calls coming in on her phone, like she wanted her space. I wasn’t really hearing from her, my daughter used to call to find out how she was going and she used to make the story short, she used to say she OK, she’s doing all right, like she wouldn’t confide in anyone and tell them her personal business.”

She speculated that Gordon might have been feeling sick and not wanted to let the family know.

“Maybe that’s why she took early retirement from UWI. Maybe she was ailing and she only knew she had a certain time to live, I don’t know, unless she was hiding it because she didn’t want the family to be depressed over it.

“But right now we’re depressed over it, it’s real stressful. If you’re ailing, you’re supposed to tell somebody that you’re ailing so somebody could come and check on you, find out what is going on. She wasn’t doing that.”

Veteran actress and director Rhoma Spencer recalled Gordon’s early life in theatre and dance in the 1980s.

“She began her theatre career as a teen with the Trinidad Tent Theatre and danced with Astor Johnson’s Repertory Dance Theatre. An outstanding dancer, she was likened to Alvin Ailey’s lead dancer Judith Jamison by virtue of her height and power on the stage.

“Leah acted in the Odd Couple and a couple other Raymond Choo Kong productions and was directed by the late great Earl Warner in the play My Handsome Captain by Simone Schwartz-Bart opposite Rubadiri Victor.

“She was also in Rawle Gibbons’ premiere productions of Sing de Chorus, Ah Wanna Fall and Ten to One. She was a member of the famed Barataria Best Village group, danced with the Noble Douglas and Carol La Chapelle Dance companies and toured with Trinidad Theatre Workshop under the direction of Derek Walcott.”

Spencer said Gordon recently retired from UWI.

“In her early years she worked as a banker…She took the bold move to walk away from corporate banking to live off her art, but returned to the eight-four routine when the art was not sustaining her in her latter years.

“In the last few years, she became an activist for the human rights of women, and her scholarship on jamette consciousness saw her receiving a masters degree in women and gender studies from UWI, St Augustine.”

Choreographer and fellow dancer Sonja Dumas said on Facebook that Gordon was a powerful member of the Astor Johnson company, and all-around leading light of the stage.

“No one could capture the attention of an audience like you could. You will be sorely missed. Dance with the angels.”

The TT chapter of the Caribbean Institute of Women in Leadership (CIWiL) sent condolences to Gordon’s family, friends and community.

“Leah has played a vital role in advocating for the protection of the rights of women and girls. Today, our community celebrates her life. Thank you for your hard work, for your love, for your boldness. She once said, “I want to send a message. Women are not property. I want men to get the message that they do not own us, because when women try to leave a relationship, that is when her life is in the most danger.” May Leah’s passion and dedication in advocating for women’s rights serve as an inspiration for us all. Safe passage, rest in power, Leah!”

The Coalition Advocating for Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO) said its team was saddened to learn of Gordon’s passing.

“She was a fixture at protests and consciousness-raising actions. We extend our most heartfelt condolences to her friends and family. We only saw her regal glow, but you truly saw her shine. Leah, we know that the ancestors welcomed you with open arms. Walk strong and with your head high as always.”

The Silver Lining Foundation mourned Gordon as a fierce soul, emboldened with a spirit and a deep-rooted commitment to furthering the empowerment of women and the LGBTQI+ community.

“Leah was a dancer, a true artist and a powerful advocate, the epitome of the words ‘courageous,’ ’empowering” and ‘bold.’ No words or emotion fully conveys the sadness and grief we all share over the loss of a genuinely dynamic soul. We extend our deepest and most heartfelt condolences to her friends and family during this time. Rest in power and in peace, sister.”

Drama teacher Marvin George said on Facebook that finding out Gordon had died was hurtful.

“Knowing her, working with her, being fascinated by her research, and how she was manifesting so beautifully her #Jamette consciousness invoked another reminder of Tony Hall (the dramatist who died earlier this year). I want to offer a quote from Marcus Garvey for Leah and Tony. ‘God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be. Follow always that great law. Let the sky and God be our limit and eternity our measurement.’”

Filmmaker Nicola Cross said in a Facebook post that while she had only interacted with Gordon a few times, she grieved at her passing. She was transfixed and struck by Gordon’s power when she first saw her at Panorama on the tracks of the Savannah in 2018.

Gordon was known for her portrayal of a 21st-century jammette as an advocate for women’s rights.

“The next time I saw Leah was International Women’s Day on the Savannah. I asked her if she would allow me to do a shoot with her. She said yes. I filmed and she spoke as she transformed herself into the jammette that she was – no shame, in control and free from constraint. As she galleried in front of the camera, blood-stained sanitary napkins sewn into her white billowing skirt, in that moment I felt what a free woman looked like. How I could feel. Leah’s power, her determination, was inescapable. And so too was the vulnerability that accompanied it and made her human.

“Leah’s particular mix of boldness and softness affected me as I embarked on a journey towards supporting women to find their own strength and me, my own. I often contacted Leah for permission to use her image to buoy up other women and she was always encouraging, just as she was when we last communicated in May through messages on WhatsApp. Things were tough and I messaged a few more times but she never replied. I never expected we would not have another conversation and I did not expect to be so moved by her death.”

In a Facebook post, cultural activist Rubadiri Victor said Gordon embodied the spirit of TT dance from the late 80s and 90s. She was an activist for the proper treatment of dance by ministries and representative groups, as well as an “archaeologist” of its various forms in TT.

“She was an incredible dancer, with her tall aquiline lines, her limitless reach, and her explosive power…I remember one Carifesta Leah danced in a tonne of dances by choreographers from all over the Caribbean with all types of troupes and I made it my business to see every one of them! She was that compelling.”

He said Gordon felt the collapse of TT dance acutely after what he described as its golden age in the 1970s.

“I remember when Leah finally gave up on Trinidad dance, and it hit me like a body blow. It was the resignation of unrequited love.”

Victor also commented that more recently, “There was an elusive sadness to latter-day Leah, a place even the art couldn’t reach to heal. There were things she wanted out of life that this land refused to give.”

Chelsea Gordon will remember her aunt as “a real loving person, a caring person, she was really special, she always had a proud happy smile. Before she hung up the phone she used to tell you ‘Love you always.’ Before she even leave from the house she used to hug you up and kissing you up before she go. That’s how my aunt was. She didn’t have children: all of we, she used to say all of we children is she children.”

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