Beryl Eugenia McBurnie OBE
Dr Beryl ‘La Belle Rossette’ McBurnie was born 2 November 1915, Rio Claro, Trinidad.
Renowned as Trinidad’s legendary dancer, she began to dance as a child performing regularly in dances and plays at Tranquillity Girls' School, Port-of-Spain. In her youth she performed Scottish reels, jigs, and other British folk dances.
In 1938, Beryl went to Columbia University, USA to further her education and pursue her dream career in folk-dance. It was not long before she made the transition from student to lecturer, teaching Caribbean dance. As a stage performer, she was best known as ‘La Belle Rossette’.
In 1945, Beryl returned to Trinidad to promote the islands culture and arts, and became the instructor for the Trinidad and Tobago government's Education Department.
In 1948 she established the first dance theatre in Trinidad called Little Carib Theatre. The theatre was located in the backyard of her parent’s home at Roberts Street, Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain. The first show to be held there was Carnival "Bele" (pronounced Bay-lay). The Invaders Steelband was showcased at the opening and in so Beryl became the first person in Trinidad to showcase a steelband on stage.
Her love for pan developed an association with the Invaders and they became one of the main steelbands to benefit from playing at her theatre shows.
In 1950 McBurnie was appointed the director of dance in the Education Department. That same year she did a tour of England and other parts of Europe, Canada and Caribbean at the request of the British Council.
Her contribution to the steelpan movement had not gone unrecognised. In 1951 she was invited to join the TASPO on their tour of France. However, she was able to accompany TASPO and stayed behind with Sonny Roach in Martinique.
In 1959 she was appointed OBE.
In 1965 the Little Carib Theatre had to be closed down because it was not safe to occupy.
In 1969 she was presented with the Hummingbird Gold Medal of Trinidad and Tobago.
In 1976 the University of the West Indies conferred on her the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.
In 1989, Beryl received the Trinity Cross, the highest national award in Trinidad and Tobago, for Promotion of the Arts.
On 30 March 2000, Beryl passed away in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Her legacy incorporates giving the steelpan instrument and its working-class panmen an opportunity to display their musical abilities to the upper classes (mainly British ex-patriots). Her choreographed ballet, Jour Ourvert, created a partnership between theatre and carnival and saw her dancers perform to music written by Elliot Mannette. She was also noted to be one of the ‘mothers’ of Parang music, bringing it back into the mainstream of Trinidad culture in the 1940's after it had almost come to an end by the late 1920s. Many melodies and folk dances that would have been lost to Trinidad and Tobago were rescued by Beryl McBurnie and promoted in her dancing.
Today, there are many more women in pan, whose achievements have been recorded along side their male counterparts.
Hazel Henley, Daisy James-McLean, Marjorie Wooding and Ursula Tudor were some of the early female pioneers who had an intergral part in pan's emegence. Fast-forward several decades we have Patricia Bishop, Geraldine Connor and Natasha Joseph.
Like many others, their efforts link directly to the many leading steel orchestras in Trinidad and throughout the world.