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Sylvia Fisher

Oral history interview conducted by Morton Marks

August 20, 1988

Call number: 1989.004.12

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FISHER: My involvement with square dancing began when I was in high school or junior high school, I would say, and was just a part of the curriculum, you know.

MARKS: This was in Panama?

FISHER: In Panama.

MARKS: In the Republic of Panama.

FISHER: In Colón. Well, no, I went to school the Canal Zone, to Rainbow City Occupational High School.

MARKS: Okay.

FISHER: And we had a teacher, Mr. Parrish, who was involved with square dancing and he thought it was a good thing to bring it to the kids in school at the time, which he did, and we started dancing. At that time, square--most of the young people liked square dancing a lot. It was something new to us. So, we were all interested in it and we all wanted to learn it and was anxious to dance. Anyway--


MARKS: Can I ask you something? Was your family--were your parents from Jamaica or from one of the islands in--?

FISHER: My grandparents, my paternal grandparents, are from Jamaica. My maternal [grandparents] are from Martinique.

MARKS: Did you get any of this when you were grow up at home? I mean, were they--

FISHER: No, they were not square dancers.

MARKS: Okay.

FISHER: No, my parents were not square dancers. However, we did a lot of square dancing in school; so, I was interested in it because it was different. In Panama, after we were grown up, it was danced very often by most of the older people; but there were always young people who were participating also with them. We had dances, the anniversary dances, where the ladies would be all dressed up in their long dresses, the men in their suits or tuxedos, whatever 2:00the wear might be at the designated time, and it was strictly square dancing. If you were not a square dancer, you would not attend because you would be out of place. You came dancing and nobody would be dancing with you. So, this went for a while and then I came to New York in 1962, January of '62.

MARKS: Would you have live bands at the square dances?

FISHER: Yes, we did have live bands and it was basically a "black stick." Well, we call it "black stick." I think you call it a clarinet. A clarinet, a drum, and a guitar, that was the basic music for square--band for a square dance. And after I came to New York, well, I didn't do much square dancing then. We have forgotten about it, I would say.


MARKS: In the Canal Zone, I mean, this was like, I guess, in the old days, this would be danced at every--at the major social events, where people would get together and have these square dance events?

FISHER: I would not say it was danced major social events, but there were different groups who formed clubs. We had different clubs. Maybe there would be about eight or nine clubs and they would get together. They would have a dance all the clubs would get together then and they would do their performance then and that was their type of fun. But it wasn't really a thing that if any other organization was having something, they would go there and dance for them. But, here in New York, in 1976, when Mr. King came to New York, he was one of the former square dancers and, not having anything to do and trying to look for some 4:00kind of activity, he decided to get a group together we would start dancing, square dancing again, which he did. And we really started dancing, square dancing here since 1976. Originally, we were a large group, but because it's a basic dance and it's nothing new to be added to it, really--

MARKS: How many dances? I mean, when I saw you that night, you were doing several different things.


MARKS: So there are several forms of that?

FISHER: There are several forms, yes. The basic steps are the quadrille, but, in all the other dances, they're really comprised of some steps from the quadrille.

MARKS: I see.

FISHER: We have been trying to encourage young people, which--they're not too into it.

MARKS: Yes, young Panamanians?

FISHER: Yes, young whatever. Whether be Panamanians, West Indians, or Americans, if like it we would try to get them involved. But they would start then after 5:00kind of disgusted or their friends probably would kid them and they don't want to get involved, you know. So, right now we're at a standstill. It's two clubs. We do have two square dance clubs that I know of. I have heard that there is another West Indian club, but I don't know where, and I've never seen them. But we do have two square dance clubs here where we meet together regularly.

MARKS: What is the other one?

FISHER: The other one is Friendship, Friendship Square Social. Yes.

MARKS: Yours is called--

FISHER: Ours is Cornelia. Ours originally started as Cornelia. Friendship was originally Metropolitan then changed their name to Friendship, and they meet at 1320 Sterling Place on Friday nights. Maybe one of these Friday nights I could invite you down there.

MARKS: Sure.


MARKS: How often does yours meet?

FISHER: On Sundays, every Sunday.

MARKS: Every Sunday, yes.

FISHER: Yes, every Sunday


MARKS: Are most people in the group-- I mean, most of the people, do you think they came up like in Panama, I mean, dancing this the same way you did, or did they get into it here?

FISHER: No. Right now, most of the people in our group got into square dancing here. There are some who was dancing from Panama, like Lurline. Do you remember the lady that was directing that night, Lurline Fisher.


FISHER: She has been dancing square dance for--before me. Then there's another one, Sylvia Brown. She has been dancing since Panama also. The president, Mr. Warren, he has been dancing since Panama; Mr. Wade also. And I don't think there are many other--Mrs. Sergeant. These people were there that night and they have been dancing since Panama. But the others, they became involved in the dancing here.

MARKS: I see.



MARKS: What kind--When, besides meeting as a group, also it's almost like a social club, too, in a way, right? I mean, what you have, so the dancing is really part of your social activity?

FISHER: Yes, right.

MARKS: Where do you perform? Do you perform at other kinds of events and--?

FISHER: Yes, whenever there's any function that anybody invites us to, we will go there to perform. Last May, there was a Mother's Day Soiree and we were asked to perform at this--I think it's this--What's the name of the club, that's a lodge?

MARKS: It's here in Brooklyn?

FISHER: Yes. It's the lodge-- It's not the Mechanics. You have so many different lodges. Huh, I'll remember that and get back to you; the name of that lodge. Well, we did that. Last week we had a picnic and we performed at the picnic, because wherever we go we bring the dance forward to people.


MARKS: Who sponsored the picnic?

FISHER: We did.

MARKS: I see.

FISHER: Yes, we did. In October we're going to have a dance, which is a yearly dance we always have. That's the Anniversary, which is a very dressed dance, and we are going to perform the square dancing also. Maybe two, two of the dances of it because, as I said before, it's not--We don't have too many people here who're dancing, so when we have dances, we cannot designate it as square dance only. It has to be a dance where the other people who attend can dance also.

MARKS: What are the other dances that you would include?

FISHER: It might be calypso. It might be the Spanish music, or, you know, American music.

MARKS: You do include Panamanian, like Spanish-- like that?

FISHER: Yes, yes, yes. We do all that, too.

MARKS: Do yourselves dance? Do you dance that? Are you interested in Spanish Panamanian music?

FISHER: Oh, very much so. Yes, I am.


MARKS: You know, I'm really finding people, you know, Panamanians, West Indians, they really are--they seem to have a foot in both cultures.


MARKS: I mean, one foot in West Indian and one foot in Hispanic-Panamanian.


MARKS: Did you ever spend time in the Republic of Panama when you were growing up? Or did you come directly from the Zone?

FISHER: Yes. I have been to--Yes, I have.

MARKS: What is happening, let's say, with the West Indian community, I mean, people of West Indian descent in the Republic of Panama? Are they preserving what you do here, do you think?

FISHER: Yes, in Panama there's still a few square dance clubs going; but I don't know--I don't know-- I don't think it's as active as it was in the years gone by, but they're still doing the dance there, because I was there about six years ago and I know that I attended one of the dances. My mother-in-law, Rosalyn Fisher, she goes to Panama every year and she always goes to the square dances when she's there.

MARKS: Is this really what, would you say--I mean, if you had to pick a single expression of West Indian culture, do you think this is a very important 10:00expression of the kind dances that you do?

FISHER: Yes, I would say it is, because originally, it's the West Indians who brought the square dancing into Panama during the time of the Panama Canal--as far as the square dance history I know. And it really began--They will say square dancing began in the--during the English time. It's a Scottish dance. And when these, you know, they had the servants, and when the English people--they had their big to-dos--

MARKS: Like in the--

FISHER: --they would dance, and the maids, they would be downstairs dancing on the grounds copying what they did. So, because of the way they copied it, they brought it over with them during the time of the-- when they started to build the Canal, and that was their form of entertainment. So that, this way, 11:00everybody else picked it up. And that's why we don't have any more dances, so that's what I was saying.

MARKS: These are complicated dances, so they really-- I mean, you don't-- People, I think in the old days people actually had dance manuals, but I guess Panama, I guess it was just taught by, you know, people who knew one another.

FISHER: Yes, that's what it was, yes.

MARKS: You don't use manuals or anything like that.

FISHER: No, we don't.

MARKS: Or you don't use callers. Sometimes I've seen t.

FISHER: We don't use callers. That's the difference with it and the American dance also. In the American dance, you call it. We don't call. We dance to the music.

MARKS: What about--You don't have--Have you ever had live bands here in Brooklyn that you performed with?

FISHER: Yes, we have had-- a couple of times we have had a-- You might know this calypso band, Master Syd Joe?


FISHER: You don't? Now, that would be somebody that might be interesting for you to get, because he is West Indian and he was one of the top bands-- top West Indian bands here in New York.

MARKS: Where is he from?


FISHER: He is from--Is he from--? I think he's from Trinidad.

MARKS: Like a calypso or a--

FISHER: Yes, he's a calypso music-- yes, musician; and he's one of the big bands here and everybody knows him. I'm surprised nobody mentioned him to you, but I'll give you his name and number if you want to get in touch with him and talk to him and whatnot.

MARKS: But he would do both-- he would do, let's say, do quadrille--

FISHER: Well, he had to--What he did, we had to do-- he didn't know the square dance music, so we had to give him the tapes.

MARKS: I see.

FISHER: And he listened to the tapes and then he wrote music, that he could play it for us; he didn't know it off-hand himself. There's another person here who just came to New York who knows the quadrille music, but-- he can play it, but he needs to get other people, some other people interested and that's is very difficult. They really don't want to get into square dance music. Now, I don't 13:00know why.

MARKS: These are young people who are losing interest?


MARKS: What direction are they going into? Are they becoming more, you know, moving more to American stuff or more into Latin?

FISHER: I think they're more into the American music and the reggae music. The reggae music, a lot of them are into it. I don't like it.

MARKS: Do you have any other connections with other Caribbean groups that do quadrille here? Have you ever seen other--?

FISHER: No, I've never seen any. I went to a picnic about a month ago and I saw where they were doing square dancing, somewhere out in Nassau, and I was informing my group because I figured we might take a ride out there--it's on Wednesdays--and we'd see if we could combine ours and theirs together, because I'm sure it's American, you know. So, that's what we're thinking of doing, too.

MARKS: When you see these other groups, how close is what they do to what you do? Let's say, American square. Do you recognize, you know, quadrille steps in other-- places?

FISHER: Yes, yes. I have seen it. I have never seen the people dance it live. 14:00But I've seen it on TV and, yes, there it's very, very close to us. I think we could follow them.

MARKS: Can you describe, let' s say, some differences? I think the night I saw you perform Lancers, perform Caledonia. Could you describe, you know, some of the basic elements or how-- Are these variations of quadrilles, everything that I saw you do that night?

FISHER: Most of it, yes. The basic steps of all the dances derives from quadrille. Once you know quadrille, you are able to go through the other steps. It's only that might, there may a few different turns and wheels, but you have to teach the people and then they would understand. But it's basically quadrille, really.

MARKS: Is quadrille danced in figures? Do you call them figures and are they four figures?


MARKS: I know that in the Caribbean sometimes they had a fifth figure, which is sometimes a local dance, like a--

FISHER: Yes, right.

MARKS: You that also, do you?

FISHER: It's a round dance, yes.

MARKS: You do the round--


FISHER: Yes, it may a-- It could be a waltz, whatever. It's usual a waltz or sometimes it's one of the Russian waltzes. We do that, too. [laughter]

MARKS: That's not the mazurka, is it?

FISHER: Yes, we do.

MARKS: You do the mazurka, yes? What about lancers? Is lancers a variation of quadrille?

FISHER: Yes, yes it is.

MARKS: And how is lancers--how is it different--

FISHER: It's different in that--Okay, let me say this. The difference between the quadrille itself and all the other dances, quadrille you could dance it with four people only. The other dances, you must have eight persons. If you don't have eight persons, you can't do it, because it means everybody's dancing at the same time. Quadrille, everybody does not dance at the same time, but the others you do.

MARKS: I see. Quadrille is generally danced with four couples? It's like a--

FISHER: Four couples, yes.


MARKS: What about the Caledonia? Is that a separate dance? Is that a--

FISHER: Yes, it's a part of it, too, yes.

MARKS: The Caledonia is a variation of quadrille?

FISHER: Yes, yes.

MARKS: When I think I asked you about this program we're talking about. Do you sometimes make new-- do you put new programs together from different steps? Do you sometimes make them up?

FISHER: Yes, yes. We make a medley. Yes, we can do that. We usually do that.

MARKS: So, you can recombine. I guess some of these steps are re-combinable.


MARKS: And do figures normally go from simpler to more complicated or do they--

FISHER: Yes, because lancers is a little complicated. Lancers is complicated; and there's a figure that we have the name of, that dance is "The Prince Imperial." That's a little complicated also--but it's very nice--but it's complicated.

MARKS: When I hear these names, it sounds like they all come out of the nineteenth century or late eighteenth century.

FISHER: They did.

MARKS: You know, they just have that ring of the sort of empire dancing that they did.

FISHER: Yes, yes, they did.

MARKS: Do you ever perform for groups like the Dedicators for, you know, when 17:00they have their cotillions, or do you ever--?

FISHER: We have never performed for the Dedicators. We have performed for a lot of these retired--retired, uh, oh. See, my mind--I'm getting--Now, you know, I'm not accustomed to this. Senior citizen homes. We have done a lot of senior citizen dances and--

MARKS: Where are they from? Are they--?

FISHER: They're mostly in Brooklyn.

MARKS: These are like senior people from over here from, like, say, from Panama? From--

FISHER: Oh, not necessarily from Panama, any senior group that's a senior citizen group that's asked us, we would do performance for them. Sometimes the retirees that we may have in the organization who're--are free and they want to 18:00go and dedicate the time entertaining these people, they would do that, and they were free to do that so.

MARKS: I see. But groups like-- For example, Carlos Russell mentioned that he sometimes-- that he makes a point of inviting a quadrille group. Would these be Concerned Panamanians, or do you ever go--?

FISHER: Yes, we performed for Concerned Panamanians. We have performed for Carlos Russell. There was an affair--The thing is, I don't remember the dates and the names of these. There's so many different Panamanian organizations here that I don't real remember their names; but I do know we did perform. They had something--oh, what was it? It wasn't-- the performance was in Canal Street in Chinatown. They had a dinner--luncheon, and we had to perform there for them. But in the past we did a lot of this. Again, I don't have all paperwork here to give you like the different names and whatnot. I didn't I needed that or else I 19:00could have gotten it from the secretary, but we did do that.

MARKS: And I notice that there is a Panamanian-West Indian Heritage Association. Have you done things for them? Do they have--Do they sponsor events or is that mostly--?

FISHER: Panamanian--

MARKS: --West Indian Heritage Association.

FISHER: which one is that?

MARKS: I notice that Carlos is a member of that--is active--and Anesta Samuel. I'm not sure if they have-- you know, if they sponsor thing or if that's--

FISHER: I would say not because I don't really remember anything like that.

MARKS: What can you say about Panamanian-Wes t Indian-- about the community here in Brooklyn? What direction do you think they're going? Do you think there is a strong attempt to hang onto the culture?

FISHER: Yes, I think in the past few years they have been trying very much to hold onto the heritage. They have been trying also to help Panama itself. With 20:00all the problems that we're having now in Panama, they have been trying--they have made donations. They have collected--They have had affairs where they could make the donation to the needy or to help whatever-- in whatever ways they could, the people in Panama, of itself. I don't know so much for New York. I know they are trying to build--I believe this is the Concerned Panamanians, I'm not sure--they have a building there on Bedford where they're trying to have senior citizens for the Panamanians, I guess, or--

MARKS: Sort a home, like a--

FISHER: Right, and there is an office where, if there is any help and you need to call, you have the number, you can call them there. That I know because we 21:00just have made a donation to them for that purpose.

MARKS: Do you belong to any Panamanian-West Indian associations besides the Cornelia? Are you active in any--

FISHER: No, I'm not active in any of them. I'm active in my block association. I'm active in my church. But I'm not too active in most of the organizations like that.

MARKS: Is this block--are there other Panamanians living here, or is this a--How would you describe this?

FISHER: This is a mixed block. There is one--this new house there, the people there--they're Panamanians; and, I don't think there's any other Panamanian on the block.

MARKS: So. Panamanians in Brooklyn essentially live in many kinds of neighborhoods. I mean, all over place.


MARKS: Sometimes it's not necessarily an either West Indian or in-- You know, I think some Panamanian Spanish speakers are in Sunset Park now, from what I can see.


MARKS: But, I mean, but that seems to be, you know, it's just that you have a lot of choices because they just live all over--

FISHER: Yes, I would say so.

MARKS: Do you feel any, you know, special connection to other West Indians in 22:00Brooklyn, to West Indian culture? And how do you feel? Does that-- I've been told, for example, Anesta Samuel, when she was growing up, her family wanted nothing to do with either the Americans on the Canal Zone or there was that expression about "dirty Spaniard-eating iguana," things like that. I mean, do you hear these kinds of things?

FISHER: [laughter] She really went back, oh my God! Yes.

MARKS: You do remember any of this kind of--

FISHER: I remember hearing it, but I would say this, it did not affect me because in my father's time-- Now, okay, Panama is a Spanish-speaking country, but the West Indians really-- they thought they were-- kids were better than the Spanish and they tried to keep them apart, and they looked down at the Spanish people. But it did not affect me because I grew up there. I was Panamanian and I 23:00guess-- I think you know about the ex-President who died a couple of days ago, Arias?

MARKS: His attempt to --

FISHER: And I think that I liked his viewpoint because he said, "If you are Panamanian, you speak Spanish." And this is what the West Indians didn't like. So, he tried to make sure that you had to send your children to the Spanish schools and they tried to keep them-- I was brought up on the Canal Zone. I went to the American school.

MARKS: You never--You were brought up solely in the Canal Zone?

FISHER: I was brought up on Canal Zone, that's true.

MARKS: Among all the--

FISHER: All the West Indians and the Americans. So, I know the American culture very well.

MARKS: And you were exposed to that all coming through the Zone and through--

FISHER: Yes, I know--

MARKS: Were there Americans in your school, or was it mostly West Indians?

FISHER: It was mostly West Indians at that time; but in later years, then, they 24:00started mixing them, you know. But, originally it was really just West Indians.

MARKS: But even that, when you were growing up, West Indians were also sending their children then to Spanish schools, in the public, or in--

FISHER: Very few of them, very few. That's why you find the older kids do not speak the Spanish language as well as the younger ones today. See, like, I've got two sisters and three brothers--three sisters and two brothers. Now, to hear them and to hear me, it's two different languages because they were exposed to the Spanish schools. I was not.

MARKS: So they're like--

FISHER: They are more like Spanish than they're--They're bilingual. They speak both languages very well; but, even so, there you can tell the accent. It's very hard for you to tell the accent from me that I have any kind of Spanish in me, right?

MARKS: Yes, yes. But do you know Spanish?


FISHER: Yes, I do. I'm not as fluent as I should be, but I do.

MARKS: What--Let's say, do you feel any--You know, when I first started thinking about this, and, you know, of course, I found out about how large the Panamanian community is in Brooklyn, this is really an exhibit about Hispanic communities in Brooklyn; I felt--I wondered how Panamanian-West Indians felt. Do you feel any paradox or any strangeness about being included in an Hispanic exhibit?

FISHER: No, I think it's good. I think it's a very good thing to try bring the two things together. This way, we know that we are not better than the West Indians, and the West Indians are not better than us; and, deep down, we are from West Indian. Even though we were born in Panama, we are original from the West Indian parents.

MARKS: Is there anything about Hispanic culture that interests you, musical or in other ways? Do you feel like you have a foot in each camp or, you know--how do you feel, let's say, here in Brooklyn. I mean, there's so much--there's so 26:00much Caribbean culture, there's so much Hispanic culture.

FISHER: I mix with the both of them, I really do. There was a time that I think I was more American-inclined; but, as I got older and I tend to understand things differently, I really-- I mingle with the both. I like to know about West Indian culture and I try as much as I can to get involved with it, if there's anything that's going on; and I do try to get involved with the Spanish culture, also. My children were born in Panama but they all grew up here and went to school here, and I tried my best to let them know as much about Panama and know about the culture of Panama as much as I can.

MARKS: Do they, they don't speak Spanish, do they?

FISHER: One and a half--one. I say one and a half. My son-- the youngest son, he speaks it because, well, he was in the service. He was a Marine and was involved 27:00with a lot of Spanish-speaking people, so that's where he learned the Spanish--not in Panama. He went to school here. My daughter speaks a little of it and that's because she took Spanish here and she somehow or other got it together. Now, my big son, he doesn't speak Spanish at all.

MARKS: Or identify in any way with that side?

FISHER: Not all. He really doesn't.

MARKS: So, his friends here could either be American--

FISHER: No, he has mixed friends. He has American and he has West Indian; and, if we do know any Spanish-speaking people, it's either from the people that I know, their kids, or maybe from my youngest son's friends. But his friends are basically Americans. He's more on the American side than he is on, you know.

MARKS: Where are your Spanish-speaking friends from? Are they Caribbeans, are they--?

FISHER: My Spanish-speaking friends? They're mostly from Panama.

MARKS: Oh, they are?


MARKS: I see.

FISHER: They're mostly from Panama.

MARKS: I was curious about, you know, relations in Brooklyn between, let's say, Spanish-speaking Panamanians and West Indians. I mean, I don't know if I can make that distinction. I mean, is there a distinction anymore or has that 28:00distinction kind of died out?

FISHER: I think it's kind of died out, yes. Originally it was, but I don't think so anymore.

MARKS: Right. Because in talking to the older people. I mean, you know, even I think Carlos was--only a space of thirty years--when he goes back to Panama, he now sees West Indians integrating into the society.

FISHER: Right.

MARKS: But people still might be bilingual.


MARKS: He was--he saw one girl that he was sure was Costeña speaking Spanish, but then she got on the phone and she was speaking perfect Caribbean English. So, she went right back and forth between them.

FISHER: Yes, well, she is one in a million, you know, because I'm telling you, originally, to me, there were more bilingual than there are now. Because I know when-- the last time I was back Panama, most of the West Indian--children of West Indian parents, they were speaking Spanish. I mean, all Spanish. Don't speak to them in English because they did not understand what you were saying to them.


MARKS: I've heard of kids coming up-- I think Anesta had told me they're teaching English children of West Indian parents.

FISHER: Yes, yes.

MARKS: And English is not their first language.

FISHER: Right.

MARKS: Spanish is, and they're learning English coming, to--

FISHER: Well, I have it with my niece and nephew because they came here about ten years ago. Well, my nephew has adopted-- Now he speaks more English than Spanish. My niece is still Spanish-speaking. She speaks English but not, you would not think she's from an English-speaking family. She speaks Spanish.

MARKS: I interviewed this young guy named Pablo Sanchez, but Sanchez is his mother's name. His father has an English, West Indian name. They took his mother's name and I've heard other stories of children sort of moving more into the Hispanic side of their identity. And if you know of anybody-- or even people, let's say, changing English names into Spanish names. I saw one man named Applewhite who has called himself, maybe as a joke, but Manzanablanca.


FISHER: [laughter] That must be a joke!

MARKS: But it seems like almost a pun, but he's been joking with-- you know, like translating it into--

FISHER: Yes. Well, I know what they did my time. Let's say, like if your name--my name is Fisher. Other than saying Fisher, they may say Fishér--put it with a Spanish accent way; but it would still be Fisher however they look at it, you know. I don' t know. I don't know about the name changes.

MARKS: But, let's say, in your dance group, if you were to--when you add other dances, you add essentially--Let's say calypso is really dances from the English Caribbean, would you ever think of adding a Spanish-- like a Panamanian-Hispanic dance to your--what you do?

FISHER: Yes, we do dance. We do dance, yes.

MARKS: You do? What are dances, like the Panamanian?

FISHER: Well, we don't--there are some us who can do some of the typical music, which would be--that's one of the groups that's going to dance with you. They do the--

MARKS: Like tamborito and all?


FISHER: Yes. But basically it would be just the regular-- maybe the guaracha or the merengue, you know, whatever.

MARKS: The popular dances.

FISHER: Yes, the popular Spanish dances.

MARKS: Have you ever been in a program with, let's say, Gino Canales or another, you know, a Panamanian group that's more on the Hispanic side? Have you ever done this kind of thing in Brooklyn?

FISHER: Well, we have danced several times with the "tamborito" group.

MARKS: Oh, yes?

FISHER: Yes, after that last affair we had there Mother's Day, they danced on the same program with us.

MARKS: I see.

FISHER: Oh, yes, we've danced several times them.

MARKS: So, now Panamanian associations are really bringing--They will have one from each side. Like, they have both at the, that's what Carlos told me.


MARKS: So-- I see. It would be like quadrille side-by-side with tamborito and atravesado or--


MARKS: This is what I think we would do at the Museum of Natural History. But I guess somebody had told me this would be the first time that the two groups would be on the same program.

FISHER: No, no. That's not--

MARKS: That's not true. I see.

FISHER: That's not true.


MARKS: So, now, it's common to have the two groups side-by-side?

FISHER: Yes, yes. That's not true.

MARKS: So where do you see--Do you think that the Panamanian community in Brooklyn is going to maintain this sort of duality or, you know, do you think that it will all merge into one thing eventually?

FISHER: The quadrille and the--I don't think so. I don't think so because, as I said before, we cannot get young people to become interested square dance. And, if they do not become interested in the square dance, it's going to fade as you can see, most of the people in our group, they're kind of--they're becoming senior citizens, like myself. [laughter]

MARKS: I wouldn't say that.

FISHER: However--and if we are not there to dance, there will be nobody to carry it on, and that's the only sad thought about it because this is what we wanted. 33:00We wanted to have them interested to carry it on. I don't know.

MARKS: Are there any young people at all who are interested that you are working with?

FISHER: No. As a matter of fact, about two years ago, the president, Mr. Warren, he trained a group of young people to do the dances--quadrille. They were going to perform it at some affair they were having, and they did it. And they did it pretty well because I attended. But we have been trying to get them to just come and even practice with us, and we can't get them. I don't know, but it just--I know my kids were never interested in it. They don't like it at all.

MARKS: Do they see--Do you think they see it something as from the past, you know, something that's from the past?

FISHER: I think so, yes. That's what--yes.

MARKS: --like from their grandparents or parents?

FISHER: Right, that's the way they see it. And it's a beautiful dance.


MARKS: Among the people that you work with, that you dance with, what do you think someone there--You know, do they have similar motivations about preserving, you know, this?

FISHER: We have always had that, yes. We have--Yes, that's one of our main desires, to have it preserved and continued. Mr. Wade, he tried very, very hard; and, every so often, he would get a few young people himself and teach them, but they would go a couple of times and then they get disinterested. And some of them that he has taught, they are pretty good dancers. They dance it very well, but they just don't want to become--You would find if maybe the girl is interested, the boy doesn't want to be. The boys--usually the boys are the ones who think that it's an old thing. That's the problem. If we get the boys, the girls are no problem. Then, you say, you get the girls and they'll bring the 35:00boys, but it doesn't happen that way. The boys tell them, "Okay, I'll come pick you up after you finish practicing."

MARKS: Can you go back and talk a little bit more about back in Panama, about the way this was taught in the schools, and the motivation do you think that they had for starting this going at the time? Do you think, was this being lost in other parts of the community that made this man want to start doing it in the schools?

FISHER: No, at that time, it wasn't lost. At that time, it was very interesting, and it was the older folks who were dancing it; and the younger ones, we used to go watch it. We liked it.

MARKS: They would do it at their clubs and their--

FISHER: Yes, they did it at their clubs. They practiced sometimes at the schools and there were certain halls in Panama--in Colón, in Panama itself, that they had rehearsals. So, we had a chance of going to see how it was done. And, of 36:00course, older people at that time, they were more interesting and fun to watch, and I guess their anxiety made us more interested. So, we really wanted learn it. And, when he brought it into the schools, everybody wanted to do square dancing. As a matter of fact, here there are quite a few people who learned it there--young people--but we cannot get them here to dance. Some of them felt that they have forgotten it. They have, but they don't want to start practicing, anyway, over again. [Interview interrupted.]

MARKS: Of the people in your group, none of them have children who are interested in this, do you think?

FISHER: No. Right now, no, we don't have any kids who are really interested in doing the dance.

MARKS: Have you made any attempt to, you know, write it down in any way or to 37:00film it or to preserve it in some way? To document it, what you do?

FISHER: Well, we have the dances, we have it written down.

MARKS: You do?

FISHER: That we do, yes.

MARKS: How do you-- you write them down step-by-step and move-by-move?

FISHER: Yes, we do.

MARKS: Is it your own system of--you list the different--

FISHER: Well, that was Mr. King's idea. See, Mr. King originally was the director. Perhaps you could interview him, too. You could get a little bit more from him because he goes all the way back with it.

MARKS: Into--goes into--?

FISHER: The square dance, yes. And he had this idea of writing it down. This way, you could-- Oh, he could not let them understand it when he explained it or when he tried to teach it. Perhaps if they could read it and follow what they read, they might be able to grasp it. So, we have the dances all written down 38:00for anybody who wants to learn it or who think they might be able to carry it on. We do have that.

MARKS: In the dances, the main segments are called sets, right?


MARKS: Aren't there smaller segments within each set? Do you have names for those?

FISHER: No, you have the quadrille and that's comprised of four dances; and it's always a waltz, like you said--the fifth one--that takes you off the floor. You have the quadrille, you have the Caledonian, we have the lancers, the basket cotillion.

MARKS: Is that also a form--that's another variation of--

FISHER: Yes, we danced the basket cotillion for you that night, too. It's the one that you go around in a circle. We have the Prince Imperial; we have the Sir Rogers. You have never seen that. Oh, what did I not pull out?


MARKS: What was the Sir Rogers like? That's a--

FISHER: The Sir Rogers, that's nice. That's a little different. Instead of forming a circle, you stand in two lines-the men opposite the women--and then you dance across each other, down and come up. That's a nice dance, too. That can be danced with a Christmas carol. We usually do that dance, that with a Christmas carol during Christmas time, and that's nice.

MARKS: Actually, I meant to ask you that. Are there special times of the year when you do these more than other times? Is Christmas time a special time when this--

FISHER: No, not--We do our dancing, well--Actually, when we started the club, it was just for fun, you know. And then it got so big, so we had special activities, and our activities for the year consisted of--we would always go to church as a body. Then we had a spring dance and we had a picnic, a family 40:00picnic, and we had our anniversary dance. In December, we always had a Christmas-closing out the year party, and that's basically what it was.

MARKS: In Panama, do you think in the old days there were clubs organized around dancing, I mean, like this, or do you think that the dance?

FISHER: Yes, yes.

MARKS: They were basically dance clubs.

FISHER: Yes, they were basically dance clubs.

MARKS: They were organized really to dance, essentially?

FISHER: Yes, right.

MARKS: And there were other activities that kind of went along with the dancing?

FISHER: Yes, yes. That's basically what it is.

MARKS: I notice that it seems like West Indians have a lot of organizations, many, many organizations. I heard Wilford--I think there are some that are being continued here that were going on in the old days. I think Wilford Wason has something.

FISHER: Yes, there's a lot of clubs.

MARKS: It sort of seems like a real West Indian thing to--

FISHER: Well, you know what happened? I would say in Panama probably, at that 41:00time, we didn't have enough activities and, even if we had the activities, maybe some of us didn't have the money to facilitate the activities that were there. So, we had to make our own fun, and this was the reason why a lot of the clubs were formed.

MARKS: What kind of relations were there between Panamanian-West Indians. I mean, West Indians living in the Zone and Americans? Were there social relations or was it totally--I've heard of the silver and gold. Every single person has mentioned gold and silver to me and what that was all about.

FISHER: [laughter] Yes. Okay, again I'm going to say the gold and silver, it was a little before my time. Not so much before my time, but then I was a little girl, and when you're little, you don't tend to notice certain things. But there was, yes. There was the gold and silver and it just meant that the gold was for the White people and the silver was the Black. That's it. You--They did not--the 42:00Black people were not allowed to shop where the White people were in the Canal Zone and, you know. The White people could shop where the Black people did.

MARKS: But not the other way around.

FISHER: Right.

MARKS: It was like the American South, like that kind of segregation?

FISHER: Right, that's what it basically was, because that's what the Canal Zone is all about, the southern American government rulings.

MARKS: I heard it was administered from Louisiana, for some reason, like it was a piece of the American South, that the system was there.

FISHER: Yes. So, that was the reason I would say for most of the clubs, but even though with the gold and silver, you weren't--The people didn't go out of their way to go into the White people area, you know, because they know that they were that, this different station there. So, they didn't. But in the years to come, like everything like now when everybody's fighting for everything that's 43:00started, you know, and there was no more gold and silver after, a few years back. By the time I started going to school, or while I was in school, I know there was no more gold and silver because I could go wherever. It's just that you'd be careful because sometimes you would find, if you travel into the White side, something may happen and it may not be you, but, like everything else, they may hold you and say you're the one who did it. But now I am sure there is no more--none of that anymore going on.

MARKS: Are there still towns, like, you know, I heard of these names like Red Tank and La Boca? Are those towns disappearing in the Zone that were mostly West Indian?

FISHER: You know, you just asked me a good question because it's something I really never really got into; but I would say yes, because I know somebody who 44:00lives in Gamboa and that person still lives there. So, yes, the names are still there. Rainbow City is still there and I grew up in Rainbow City and that's still there.

MARKS: These were towns that were built, let's say, for people who worked in the Zone.

FISHER: Right.

MARKS: These are like company towns.

FISHER: Right, that's what it was, yes. See, and as much as they had the gold and silver, they tried, they made you a little comfortable in your own area, too. What can I tell you?

MARKS: I heard of these schools that were run under the buildings, like in the old days? West Indians would sometimes set up schools for kids on their own, but this was before your--This was--You were really from the next generation.


MARKS: I mean, that's going way back. This is like the first arrivals, I think.

FISHER: Well, when I started going to school, I went to one of them little schools, too, because at that time they still had them. But I just went there, maybe, when you're four or five years, you go to them little schools then, but 45:00after--by the time I became school age, I was going to school.

MARKS: I think Anesa said that most people would sort of, when she was growing up, it would sort of end at the eighth grade. Some people maybe went on. I mean, do you think that was true? By the time--

FISHER: Yes, that's true. That was true at that time.

MARKS: You could basically just be assured of an eighth grade education?


MARKS: And then a lot of the people who came here were really looking for educational opportunities because there was nothing, especially, I think, if you were a woman that was it.


MARKS: Like, you'd go to the eighth grade and then--

FISHER: Yes, yes. That again was at her time because when I went to school, then you went to twelfth grade. And then there was junior college, so now--

MARKS: This was all of you?

FISHER: That's for the Canal Zone. But in Panama City itself, now, they had the colleges for the Spanish-speaking children who went to school in Panama.

MARKS: In Panama City there are still West Indian communities. I've heard of Parque Febre, I think, is one name.



MARKS: There are still, people still live in communities, even if they're in the Republic of Panama, there are still--

FISHER: Yes, but I wouldn't say it's basically a West Indian area then.

MARKS: I see.

FISHER: Because you have the Spanish people living there and you have the West Indian people, too.

MARKS: Anesta told me, I think, many people resented their parents for never teaching them Spanish, that she bought a business, I think, in Panama City, she said she had to learn enough Spanish even to buy bread. She couldn't even buy bread.


MARKS: Do you think this was true, you know, in that generation?

FISHER: Yes, that was true. That was true because I know like my uncle and aunts and whatnot, they didn't know to speak Spanish. They didn't know anything at all in Spanish, so, that was true. And I think that it's something I would resent myself because it's tough if you are--this is your language. I mean, whether we speak English or not, we speak English because it was handed down to us through our parents; but the language of Panama is Spanish, not English. And they should 47:00really let the children be able to learn something in Spanish and I think I would resent that, too, because the Panama and the Canal Zone and the Spanish--I do not resent my going to the Canal Zone schools. I'll be very frank with that because it has helped me a lot here. I learned. I got a very good education back there which was good enough for me here, you know, at the time.

MARKS: What kind of work do you do now?

FISHER: I do accounting work, and I did not go to college. I do and I did not go to college. I resent it now. I should have done that when I got here, but I didn't.

MARKS: When you came, what did you do? [inaudible]

FISHER: When I came here, I first started working in a factory.

MARKS: In Brooklyn? You came directly to Brooklyn?


MARKS: Did you have family here?


FISHER: A friend, I had a friend there, and I came to my girlfriend.

MARKS: She had come a little bit earlier?


MARKS: I think many people came in the fifties, from what I can gather. There was a lot of that.

FISHER: Yes, yes. I got here in the sixties and I got involved--Well [Interview interrupted.]

FISHER: Yes, she was a little timid and she really didn't know herself how to take me around. But then I knew that this was not my kind of work and this was not what I wanted to do.

MARKS: Was it hard? Was it a--What kind of factory was it? Was it--

FISHER: The first--You know, in my first year I think I worked about five factories and it's-- I think at that time factory work was hard work. It was. Or maybe I was unaccustomed to working, and I don't know which of the two it was, but to me it was hard work and I knew I didn't want to do this and I knew I could do better than that. So, I did that and then I got laid off and I realized 49:00I'm not going to do this no more. So, I started going around looking for jobs and I got a job as a cashier in a supermarket.

MARKS: Where were you living then? In Brooklyn? You were living in Brooklyn?

FISHER: Yes, yes. I was living on Dean Street. Dean, Dean and Herkimer.

MARKS: I've heard Dean Street has come up. I think, yes, that's--yes.

FISHER: Yes. That's over on the other side of Eastern Parkway, Parkway, yes. And then I didn't think I wanted to do that either. And other than going to school again, I didn't even think about that at the time. You know, I guess that you're young and you're not thinking these things, how much it's going to hurt you after. But, eventually, I started looking again and then I got involved. I went 50:00to the banks and they told me, "Oh, no, they're not going to hire you because you're Black and they don't take Black people." And truly, when I started, I started working at Chemical Bank and it was about six Black people who worked there. And I worked there until my family came to New York.

MARKS: Were you a teller? What were you doing there?

FISHER: No, I was a proof operator, and I was working evenings, two to ten. But when my family came then, my husband was working nights also, therefore, I had to go to days.

MARKS: You got married in Brooklyn or was it Panama?

FISHER: No, I got married in Panama. Yes, when I came here, I was already married. I had children, everything.

MARKS: I see.

FISHER: Yes, but I came before them. I came to explore.

MARKS: And they stayed with your family, with your husband?

FISHER: Yes, my mother, yes. And they would not transfer me to days at that time 51:00because they didn't believe in transferring from evenings to days. You could go from evenings to nights, but I didn't want to work nights, so I resigned. And I started looking for another job and then I got a job as--working in a--it was a sort of factory. I worked in the office but it was, you know I did invoicing, billing, and that was okay, but I knew it still wasn't what I wanted. So, I started looking again and then I applied for a job at the Dime Savings Bank and I got a job there. And I was--I started working in the mortgaging department. Because of the tests I took, I, you know, I was able to get into that department.

MARKS: And they were also training you. I mean, you were being trained?


FISHER: Yes, but they trained--The training was just like, you go and I sit with you and you show me what I have to do. That's about it. If you didn't really know what you were doing, then you're in trouble. So, then I worked there for a number of years and then they transferred the main office into midtown Manhattan and the accounting department into Valley Stream. And I started getting bored now because I was driving to work every day. I saw nobody and the more, at that time, it was not as nicely situated as it is now. And I said, "Now I'm getting bored. I really was getting bored. So, I started looking for a job again and I got this job. I work in the garment area now. I quit the bank and I went to the garment area again and I'm doing accounting again, so--and that's where I am 53:00right now.

MARKS: Can you talk a little bit more about just around the time you organized the dance group, like how that came about and what your motivation was. I mean--

FISHER: Well, I did not organize it. Mr. King was the one who did that.

MARKS: This was in '76?

FISHER: Yes. He organized it in '76.

MARKS: But he had been active way back in--I mean, before he had--

FISHER: In Panama?


FISHER: Yes, he was active in the dance clubs from in Panama.

MARKS: How did you know him? How did you meet?

FISHER: I met him, I met him here before he started the dance club. My girlfriend and her husband were--is--went to church with him, so I met him through the church. And then after he organized the dance group, a few months after I started going visiting them, and they were very sneaky with it. They let you dance for a while and then if you liked the dance, now they say well, you 54:00can't dance anymore free. You've got to join the club.

MARKS: Like a free sample.

FISHER: Yes. So, I did like the dance. Of course, I always did. And I became a member of the club then.

MARKS: And in the early days, were you dancing mostly for yourselves? Was it mostly as a social thing?


MARKS: And then when did you start dancing around, you know, for other organizations?

FISHER: Well, in the early days, we did do some dancing organizations, too, but I don't remember that far back what the organizations were. I think we did more dances then for organizations. I know we danced in Bay Ridge area and quite a few times. I didn't always dance because then it was a bigger group and they rotated the dancers. But I believe we did more dancing for other groups then.

MARKS: How did you get invited to the Smithsonian in 1980? How did that come about?


FISHER: Well, Mr. King knew somebody over there, and they knowing that he was involved with the square dance club, they contacted him. And when they contacted him, he brought it to the membership and he asked if we think we would want to do this. So, yes, we did want to go. And the persons who could get the time off, were good dancers to represent them, they were the ones that were chosen. Fortunately, I was one who was chosen, and it was very good.

MARKS: What kind of response do you get? Are people surprised to see--I mean, do they know anything about your culture? Do you know what I mean?

FISHER: No, they did not know anything about our culture either. They were very--I think what was very amazing to them is that they have seen square dance but they have not seen it with music. This was the thing.

MARKS: They saw it with callers.


FISHER: Callers, yes that was the highlight of it then.

MARKS: When you dance, I mean, I notice that quadrilles can be made up of many different melodies. You're following. The melodies are really, in a way, doing the following.


MARKS: You follow the changes in melody are reflected in the dance steps, is that how it works?


MARKS: Every time the melody changes, there's a--

FISHER: Yes, yes.

MARKS: I remember listening that night, some of the melodies seemed like old English and old Scottish--

FISHER: [laughter] Yes.

MARKS: You know, I was amazed. It seemed like a little bit I mean, it was really like Scotland and England that I was hearing that night.


MARKS: Was that tape made live? Was that made in Panama?

FISHER: No, the tape wasn't made in Panama, but--Well, I shouldn't say that. Okay, the music was made in Panama because then, as I told you, we had the live music. So, they made it--the record, an album--

MARKS: It was a record?

FISHER: And from the album, you had it taped.

MARKS: So, actually, they have records of this they could buy. Like, there--


FISHER: Yes. As a matter of fact, I have one here right now.

MARKS: You do?

FISHER: Yes. Yes. And the man who made this one, that's the musician I told you that's here, who was trying to get a group together to do the dance.

MARKS: Is this available here in a record store or is only through--It's not?

FISHER: No, it's not available here. It's probably in Panama, but not here.

MARKS: What is on the record? It's mostly quadrille?

FISHER: On this record I have, it's mostly quadrille. Yes.

MARKS: So the basic form really is quadrille. Everything else is kind of like, you know, that's the central theme.

FISHER: Yes, yes. [Interview interrupted.]

MARKS: Were there, when you first got here, was the community well-organized?

FISHER: When I first got to New York?

MARKS: Yes. Was it--?

FISHER: No, I would say not, because, to me, when I first got here, there were a few Panamanians here, but I didn't see too many Panamanians here then. And, really, for us to meet, I remember in my time, it would be like at homes. Maybe 58:00I would invite you to my home and if you know somebody else that's there, you would invite that person and that's how we would meet each other. But, other than that, I never met too many Panamanians when I came here.

MARKS: So, it really--it took you awhile when you were here to really organized, involved with a--

FISHER: Involved, yes, with Panamanians, yes.

MARKS: I see.

FISHER: It really did. The people I knew mostly here then was Americans.

MARKS: Is your circle now mostly Panamanian? Would you say, your circle of friends?

FISHER: Yes, I would say that. Panamanians and I've got quite a few Jamaicans that I've become friendly with here.

MARKS: Do they know about what you do, the Jamaicans? I mean--

FISHER: Yes, I invite them sometimes.

MARKS: Do they see echoes, because this was in Jamaica, too, the quadrille and--

FISHER: Well, you know, some of them don't really know anything about it. That's what surprised me. There are some Jamaicans who don't know it. But, yet, still there are others who knows it from Jamaica, but the dance is a little different; 59:00because right now there is one man in the club who is from Jamaica.

MARKS: Is that right?


MARKS: Who was that?

FISHER: His name is--I'm not sure if he was there that night you were there. Sidney, Sidney Green. And he said that it's a little different.

MARKS: But it's close enough for him to--

FISHER: Yes, right, and he's a very graceful dancer, too.

MARKS: Do you think, did the quadrille come into Panama, do you think, from Jamaica? Was it brought in, or was it from several places?

FISHER: I would say it came in from Jamaica because, as I said, it was during the building of the canal and most of the--Well, I shouldn't say that because, at that time, the only West Indian people that I think I really knew when I was growing were either Barbadians or Jamaicans. But, after they had a--There was a 60:00documentary on the Panama Canal. I don't know if you saw that, right?

MARKS: The diggers?

FISHER: Yes. And then is when I found out that there were Haitians there at that time and all these other nationalities. I didn't know it then.

MARKS: Well, part of your family's from Martinique, right?


MARKS: I think everybody was called Jamaican then.

FISHER: Right, everybody was--you just had them as Jamaicans.

MARKS: Or Barbadians.

FISHER: That's true.

MARKS: But it's interesting because the quadrille is really danced all over the Caribbean, so maybe it's--it may have come from several--

FISHER: Yes, maybe.

MARKS: I think there's a different version on almost every island.

FISHER: Probably, yes. I would really like to see it from another island point of view, though. Did you ever get involved with anybody from any other island with the quadrille?

MARKS: Well, that's what the program is going to be. It's going to be Haiti, Cuba; and, what's interesting is that in Haiti it's the contredans. But it's a form that preceded the quadrille.

FISHER: Contredans?

MARKS: Yes, do you know about that?

FISHER: Now, we do dance the contredans. That's one of the forms of the one of the dances of the quadrille, the contredans.


MARKS: But what's interesting is that, to me, it looks like in Haiti there was more influence from African music. When I saw what you did, it seems like it had very little, you know, Afro-Caribbean--It's seems like maybe a little bit, but when I hear it, I mean, it seems musically, it sounds like it's been influenced somewhat by Afro-Caribbean, but I mean it still, to me, it has a very European look. When you see the Haitians do it, it's obviously a mixture of Afro--you know, it's partly an African element and partly a Haitian element. The formal part, I mean, it keeps the form of the contredans.


MARKS: But some of the movements, to me, don't look European. They look more like African dances.

FISHER: I see.

MARKS: But when I see what you do, it seems more like a European form. So that it is in other places but it's gone in different directions.

FISHER: Yes. Well, I'm sure that's going to be a very interesting program.

MARKS: And in Cuba, the--from when the French left Haiti after the revolution, they brought the contredans, then it evolved into the danzón and, believe it or not, the mambo and the cha-cha. Ultimately, if you follow the history through, 62:00you can trace, if you take it back, you'll end up in the contredans.

FISHER: Oh, yes?

MARKS: Because it's really so--You know, the whole idea is to put these things side by side and to show the different ways they've evolved. But, in a way, what you do is one of the--it's in a way, almost like the most purely--from the origins. You know, it seems like the purest form in terms of, you know, the whole Scottish-English there. That's what I felt that night, that I was seeing this bit of history. When I thought about the way this was transmitted and seeing it here, you know, it seemed like a bit of history.


MARKS: And then I was told by Bryce LaPorte that there's actually a Spanish version of quadrille called "Los Veteranos" or something like that?

FISHER: I don't know that one.

MARKS: Which I don't--neither do I. I've never seen it.

FISHER: I don't know it either.

MARKS: But there's a Spanish quadrilla which I've never seen. So, it's almost like seeing, when you put all these things side by side, it's seeing all the different directions.


MARKS: And then in this country, you know, cotillions, I mean these are all 63:00influences that led up to ragtime and then into jazz and Jellyroll Morton in New Orleans was exposed to mazurkas. When I heard the music that was being played, I thought of early jazz. It sounds a little bit like early jazz to me, although I don't think there's any, there's no direct connection.

FISHER: Oh, yes?

MARKS: But if you hear New Orleans music from that time, it sounds very similar. So, you know, it's gone into so many different directions that historically I think that's a real important--

FISHER: I knew I was think we were the only one who were doing this thing.

MARKS: Well, that's the thing. Everybody, you know, is putting things together. I'm wondering what your reaction will be when you see the other companies do the--

FISHER: Yes, it's going to be interesting to know. It's going to be good because maybe we might then be able to get together and get something going with them. Probably that might be the beginning of being able to get the young people involved, too.

MARKS: Yes, that's-- this is through the education department at the museum and 64:00it's during Caribbean month and maybe--

FISHER: Where are you going to have this?

MARKS: This will be in the Kaufman Theater at the Museum of Natural History and I'm working with Ismael Calderón in the education department. Do you ever call what you do "sets"? Do you use the word "set" at all--?

FISHER: Yes, yes.

MARKS: Does that refer to--?

FISHER: Each, each dance is a set, yes.

MARKS: I see, like the four the full--?

FISHER: Yes. The four or the five steps that we have. The quadrille is one set and then the Caledonian, you know, they're all one--

MARKS: At an event, how many sets would you normally do? Like, would it be, you would at least do a full set of quadrille, right?

FISHER: You mean, at your affair or normally?

MARKS: I would say normally at an affair.

FISHER: Oh, at an affair, when we're going to dance with someone, we might just do one set because it's a little long and some people tend to look at it as boring after a while, so we just do one set. And then there are other people on the program, so we can't really take up too much time either to do more than one 65:00set. But if it's something that we are sponsoring now, then we can do more than one set.

MARKS: So, actually, a quadrille could be a whole evening, if you really got into it?

FISHER: No, it wouldn't be the whole evening. A quadrille would be just that one set.

MARKS: I see.

FISHER: In other words, when you have your affair, you are not planning for us to dance all evening. Is it that we would dance and somebody else will dance?



MARKS: But, if you were to do it, I mean, you could put together an evening of this.

FISHER: Oh, yes, we could. Yes, we could. We could put together an evening and give you all the dances that you wanted to see in square dancing.

MARKS: About how long--A quadrille is pretty long, isn't it? About how long does it take to go through a whole, like a--

FISHER: It's really about fifteen minutes, but they limit it as longer. Now, when you're sitting watching something, it looks longer, but it's really about fifteen minutes.

MARKS: I think we had talked about starting with sort of a simple beginning and 66:00then moving into a more complicated--How would you start and then, if you wanted to move into something more complicated, what would be the figures you would do?

FISHER: Well, I couldn't tell you that because when we're going to have--when we're practicing for anything like that, the director is the person who has to designate the dance that he's going to do.

MARKS: I see.

FISHER: So, I couldn't tell you exactly what he's going to do at that time.

MARKS: The director is--right now, who is the director?

FISHER: The director is Mr. Wade, the little small man there.

MARKS: Of course, of course. So, it's the director who really arranges, who sets the program?

FISHER: Yes, yes. He does.

MARKS: Is he elected or does--do you elect officers--?

FISHER: We do elect officers, yes.

MARKS: And how long has he been director?

FISHER: Just two years now. This year was his last year.

MARKS: Does it rotate? Anybody can be director if they're--

FISHER: Anybody who is knowledgeable about the dance, because if you don't know the dance you can't direct it.

MARKS: Is everybody the--So not everybody has the same level of knowledge.


FISHER: No, no.

MARKS: Who are the people who know the most about it?

FISHER: Well, I'll tell you one of the persons who knows it very, very well is Lurline, because she has been with it for the longest time.

MARKS: She is your mother-in-law, too?

FISHER: Yes. And Mr. King is the maestro.

MARKS: I think I spoke to Mr. King. Is he still involved in the--

FISHER: He's not really involved but I spoke to him yesterday, so I said to him, "Well, you know, we are supposed to do a demonstration and we might just get you to dance with us." He says, "Well, that will be nice, you know. So, whether you get me to dance with you or not, when you're going to have it, let me know. I'll be very glad to attend.

MARKS: Actually, we haven't started talking about organizing, but how long I mean, you rehearse over time.


MARKS: So it wouldn't take you very long to--


MARKS: It's really a question of selecting what you would do.

FISHER: Selecting, yes.

MARKS: And running through it.

FISHER: Right.

MARKS: Do you wear special clothing when you perform?


FISHER: Sometimes, yes. Most of the times, the men would wear the panacilla, you know, how the--I don't know how--what do they call it? I know it's panacilla. It's the shirt, which is--it's really a typical shirt of Panama.

MARKS: Like a guayabera?

FISHER: Right. Okay, you've got the right name. I say panacilla. You've got it, okay--

MARKS: With the pleats and--

FISHER: Right. The men would wear that and women, it's always--square dance is better, looks better with a flared skirt. So, that we would do, really. See, like in this picture, we all had on flared skirts here.

MARKS: Do you ever move the skirt when you dance? You know, you never move it in any way at any time?

FISHER: It all depends. Yes, if you're trained right, you should because like you courtesy, you should courtesy with your skirt.

MARKS: Do a lot of--A lot of the dances have the courtesies, right?

FISHER: Yes. Yes.

MARKS: I noticed that, like the couples kind of--and sometimes there are line dances where you face each other, too, right?


FISHER: Yes, that's like the Sir Rogers. That's one, yes.

MARKS: When some of them are dancing, sometimes they round dance and sometimes they are facing each other and sometimes they are couple dances, right?

FISHER: Right, yes. No. they're not couple dances. It's always either the circle, but they're always--you're always a couple, yes.

MARKS: Right, but not in the sense--always a figure--

FISHER: Yes, unless you're dancing a waltz, then you're a couple.

MARKS: How is the mazurka danced? Is that--?

FISHER: Well that, a lot of the new people don't know it. You like that? You think maybe we should try to them to do it?

MARKS: Oh, yes.

FISHER: Okay, I'll talk to --

MARKS: I like the mazurka. By the way, that's another dance that is all over. I mean, it's all over the Caribbean and there--

FISHER: Yes, oh, yes.

MARKS: I could actually put together a tape for you and some other, from some places. Like, there's something beautiful from Guadaloupe, like a contredans, where they have French names like pantalón.

FISHER: Oh, yes?


MARKS: Or beautiful music where they have a commandeur, the man who does the calls, and he uses an accordion and--

FISHER: You could get a tape like that?

MARKS: Yes, I could make it for you.

FISHER: Yes, you can? Would you? It might be interesting. Maybe we could see if we could follow it.

MARKS: Absolutely. He does all the calls. He's the commandeur and beautiful melodies.

FISHER: Oh, yes?

MARKS: I've even heard things from Suriname where I recognize old English and old American melodies. I suspect you might start recognizing these melodies. I think some of the same melodies, these old nineteenth century tunes, are turning up in different parts of the Caribbean.


MARKS: I have a mazurka also from St. Lucia. I'll put together a tape and--

FISHER: Okay, that would be nice. Maybe if we listen to it, we could associate with the--

MARKS: I also have Jamaican quadrille.

FISHER: -- music somehow or other there. You do?

MARKS: Yes, I'll give you that, too.

FISHER: Wow! How come you got so many? [laughter]

MARKS: Well, I do Caribbean music. That's really my area. I have a friend who spent a lot of time in Jamaica. In fact, he just gave me a tape, which I can copy for you, of quadrilles and contredans from all over, and I can copy that. 71:00It's from Guadaloupe, from Jamaica, and, in fact, you know, mento music from Jamaica, which is an ingredient in reggae, that used to be the fifth dance in the quadrille. That would be the fifth figure. They would dance the mento and the mento is one of the ingredients. In fact, there's a singer named "The Yellow Man," who has a song called "Wheel and Turn," it's called the skank quadrille.


MARKS: But he's doing, I guess, a reggae version of quadrille. So, even in modern Caribbean music or even in the French, like in Guadaloupe, you can hear all these old--Like they say, "Cavalier ou 'dames," you know, like the call to the people to get up and start dancing. I'll put together a tape where you'll hear all the-- So, it's really a force and--

[Interview interrupted.]

FISHER: Now, do they have any young people who are doing the dance now?

MARKS: That I'm not sure. I think in Jamaica it might be dying out, because I think, in Jamaica it became sort of a country dance. In other words, country people.


FISHER: Oh, yes.

MARKS: But I don't know, you know. It is definitely sort of an old-fashioned thing. The most--the place where I know it's the most important is St. Lucia where they still have--they have quadrille evenings. They have quadrille balls and they organize these things and it's a whole evening. It's sort of a formal. The thing about the quadrille is that it's much more formal.


MARKS: It's not just like a dance you get up and do, like a social dance.

FISHER: Right, yes.

MARKS: That's why it needs a club, I guess, to organize it.

FISHER: Yes, It's a very formal dance.

MARKS: It's very formal and maybe that's what it is. And people--you really need to devote time to it and it's something to be studied. But this goes back, I mean, you know, this was really part of popular culture in the nineteenth century.

FISHER: Oh. Well, I can imagine.

MARKS: It took hold everywhere.

FISHER: Last April, we had a black and white dance at the, at the La Mer.


MARKS: That's here in Brooklyn?

FISHER: Yes. That's on Ocean Parkway.

MARKS: That's a formal dance?

FISHER: Formal, black and white. The owner, he said it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen because we did the square dancing then, and they were so enthused with it, you know. But, it's really dying out because I don't know. It's so sad.

MARKS: Yes, it's something like in New York, when I see presentations of, let's say, Caribbean culture or something like that, I see the same things presented over and over again. And people get sort of a one-sided idea of what Caribbean culture is like. And I never see this presented, so I think this definitely should be part of programs. I mean, it's a very important thread, you know, a very important element in--

FISHER: Yes, it is. Oh, well, we're going to be there for you. We'll do it for you.


MARKS: I think there will be interest. I hope there will be, especially--

FISHER: There might because usually when we do dance, the people are always happy to see it, you know. It's just that we can't get the people to dance it.

MARKS: I know Ismael was--you know, he said he was amazed. I mean, we both said, you know, we both had the same feeling of seeing a bit of history enacted and he was excited about putting this together.


MARKS: So, you know, hopefully something will--maybe also--I'm going to write some notes. Maybe I could show you, you know what I'm going to say about it and I'll also give you a copy of the article. So, is there anything else you wanted to add about any of this?

FISHER: I can't think of anything to add on square dancing. More then, as I said, if only we could have these young people become interested. What would be nice, and I don't really know how to go about it, I was wondering the other day if we could introduce it into the schools?


MARKS: Yes. Actually, yes, I was thinking about that myself. That would be excellent.

FISHER: Yes, you know, maybe that's one way to get young people interested, because I know that's how I became interested when it came into my school.

MARKS: Are there any, you know, there must be some groups, like, Brooklyn has Baca which is some kind of, they do like, you know, folk arts or something like that. And I don't know if they do programs in the schools.

FISHER: I don't know.

MARKS: But, you know--

FISHER: You know what happened with me and the schools, since my kids are not in school, I really don't know too much about the activities that's going on in the schools anymore. But it's something that I've been thinking about and, I don't know, maybe I'll just--when school begins, I'll probably try getting in there one of these nights when they're having their parent-teachers meeting and see if I can talk to somebody there about it. Because well, we have an elementary school here and then we have the high school and the junior high school across 76:00the street. But I really like it and I'd like to see it go on. I'm going to see. Plus, I know somebody in the Board of Education, too. I might just talk to him about it and see if he can suggest something down there, too.

MARKS: I remember even Pat Ettrick said she remembers it from her childhood as she grew up, so I guess it was part of the school program.

FISHER: Yes, yes. Yes, when I was in school it was a part of our program.

MARKS: It seems great for kids somehow because it's a very, sort of organized and it's social and it's, you know--

FISHER: And it's a good form of aerobics, too. That's how I see it.

MARKS: A good workout.

FISHER: Yes, it is. It really is. It really is.

MARKS: I just have another question. That night that I saw you, it was sort of in a small--when you dance, you spread out more than when I saw you.

FISHER: Yes, yes.

MARKS: So, you would dance across the whole stage, right?

FISHER: Yes, yes.

MARKS: --to perform on. You would need the full--the room to do all the figures.

FISHER: Yes, yes, yes, we need space, right. We do need space. We had a hall of 77:00our own where we used to meet. But then, after the membership dwindled so much, it was hard to keep it up and we sold the building.

MARKS: How big was it then? How big was it originally?

FISHER: Oh, when we first started, wow! We had about--maybe seventy-five to a hundred persons when we first started, because everybody was interested then and I guess it was new. So, even them who couldn't dance, who didn't know anything, they were there just to learn to dance and whatnot. But it has really dwindled to nothing now.

MARKS: They kind of drifted away, those people?

FISHER: Yes, but whenever we have anything, they will come. They will attend, and who remembers will dance. But to get them really involved, to continue dancing, we can't do that.

MARKS: When this is performed at the museum, how do you think we should publicize this? Who should we go to, to make sure people in the community know about this?

FISHER: The square dancing?


MARKS: Yes. How can we--Do you have a mailing list or is there some way of telling people that this is happening, who might want to know about it?

FISHER: Yes, we do have a mailing list. We have a mailing list.

MARKS: I think we should make sure that his gets out, that people know about it.

FISHER: Okay. You want the mailing list or will you give it to me that I do that?

MARKS: I think you can give it to the museum. They can just send out, there'll be a flyer.

FISHER: Oh, okay.

MARKS: I'm going to talk, you know, this week with Ismael to make sure we get everything all set up, like the flyers and the little description, everything.


MARKS: And we'll set a date and--

FISHER: Okay. [Interview interrupted.]

MARKS: In thinking about the exhibit that's going to be the Brooklyn Historical Society, what do you think should go in to represent Panamanian-West Indians in Brooklyn? What do you think would be important items to represent the culture or the history of the community? Do you have any ideas about that? Like, if you had to choose certain kinds of things to go in--

FISHER: Turn off.


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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Silvia Fisher

Sylvia Fisher, in the United States as an adult since 1962, is originally from Panama. She is of West Indian descent. In 1988, she was a resident of the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn and was an active participant in two dance clubs; Cornelia and Friendship Square Social. She married in Panama and raised three children in Brooklyn. Fisher was employed with two banks and performed accounting duties for a garment district business in Manhattan at time of this 1988 interview.

In the interview, Sylvia Fisher elaborates on her experiences as a child in Panama. She mentions the Canal Zone and the schools that she attended there. Fisher discusses her early involvement with square dancing and its relationship with her Panamanian West Indian identity. She talks about the evolution of square dancing in Panama. She mentions some similarities as well as differences in the music and style of square dancing as it was known in Panama and the United States. She also cites examples of occasions where the square dancing club to which she belongs in Brooklyn, has performed. Fisher also references other Panamanian West Indian social clubs in Brooklyn that are trying to preserve this group's culture, particularly that of square dancing, and the difficulties these clubs are facing in their attempts to get young people interested in square dancing. Lastly, the narrator discusses her life in Brooklyn. Interview conducted by Morton Marks.

Brooklyn Historical Society initiated the Hispanic Communities Documentation Project in 1988. Over fifty interviews were conducted to document the experiences of Brooklyn residents who arrived from Puerto Rico, Panama, Ecuador, and several other Central and South American nations in the latter half of the twentieth century. This collection includes recordings and transcripts of interviews conducted between 1988 and 1989. The oral histories often contain descriptions of immigration, living arrangements, neighborhood demographics, discrimination, employment, community development, and political leadership. Also included are photographs and printed ephemera.


Fisher, Sylvia, Oral history interview conducted by Morton Marks, August 20, 1988, Hispanic Communities Documentation Project records and oral histories, 1989.004.12; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Fisher, Sylvia
  • Russell, Carlos


  • Caribbean Americans
  • Clubs
  • Dancers
  • Emigration and immigration
  • English as a second language| Immigrants
  • Music
  • Panamanian Americans
  • Race discrimination
  • Societies
  • Square dancing
  • West Indian Americans


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Panama


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Hispanic Communities Documentation Project records and oral histories