Jean-Leon Destine; at 94, the father of Haitian dance

Mr. Destine founded a national dance company in Haiti.
Mr. Destine founded a national dance company in Haiti.

NEW YORK — Jean-Leon Destine, a Haitian dancer and choreographer who brought his country’s traditional music and dance to concert stages around the world, died Jan. 22 at his home in Manhattan. He was 94.

Considered the father of Haitian professional dance, Mr. Destine first came to international attention in the 1940s and remained prominent for decades afterward.

As a dancer, he performed well into old age. In 2003, reviewing a program at Symphony Space in New York in which he appeared, Anna Kisselgoff wrote in The New York Times that his number stopped the show. She added, “He looked agile and nuanced, mesmerizing in a bent-legged ­solo.”


As a choreographer, he directed his own ensemble, which came to be the Destine Afro-Haitian Dance Company.

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The company, which presented work from across the Caribbean, was devoted in particular to dances from Haiti. Accompanied by vibrant drumming — Mr. Destine collaborated for many years with the distinguished Haitian drummer Alphonse Cimber — these dances were often infused with elements of Voodoo tradition.

Mr. Destine and company could dance, to all appearances, as if possessed.

Much of his work also functioned as commentary on Haiti’s legacy of colonialism and slavery. In “Slave Dance,” a solo piece he choreographed and performed, the dancer begins in bondage, ­only to emerge, in astonished joy, a free man.

In “Bal Champetre” (“Country Ball”), among the most famous works choreographed by Mr. Destine, the foppish customs of Haiti’s French colonists are satirized through sly subversions of a Baroque ­minuet.


In the United States, Mr. Destine was seen on Broadway; at the New York City Opera, where in 1949 he was a featured dancer in the world premiere of William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island,” set in Haiti; and, as a performer and teacher, with the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass. He also taught at New York University and elsewhere.

Jean-Leon Destine was born in Saint-Marc, Haiti. His father was a government official; his mother, a seamstress. After his parents divorced when he was a boy, he moved with his mother to Port-au-Prince, where they lived in reduced circumstances.

From a very early age, Mr. Destine was captivated by Haitian music and drumming. As a youth, he learned traditional dance by attending the religious rituals and other celebrations of which it had long been an integral part. He also sang in the folkloric ensemble directed by Lina Mathon Blanchet, a prominent Haitian musician.

In the 1940s, Mr. Destine received a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to study printing and journalism. After taking classes at Howard University in Washington, he moved to New York and learned to operate and maintain linotype machines, then used to cast type for printing newspapers and other publications.

Mr. Destine, who eventually became a US citizen, also continued dancing. In the late 1940s he spent several years with the company of Katherine Dunham, considered the matriarch of black dance in the United States.