Willard John and the Art of Stilt Dancing

Willard John is dedicated to preserving the art of moko jumbie on St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands.

Willard John moko jumbie
Originating in Africa, moko jumbie is the art of stilt dancing. David Berg

Willard John is a man of great stature on St. Croix—even when he is not wearing his 6½-foot-tall stilts.

John is the founder of Guardians of Culture Moko Jumbies, a group dedicated to preserving the art of stilt dancing in the US Virgin Islands. Since 1993, the group has trained young Crucians to carry on this centuries-old tradition, which started in Africa as a spiritual expression but evolved into a more colorful and festive form in the Virgin Islands.

“What’s important to me is that when visitors see these entities on stilts, dancing, they also understand its context and significance,” John says. A former high-school principal, he narrates the group’s Wednesday performances at the Palms at Pelican Cove in Christiansted to provide a primer on the art form’s history.

John was considered an “elder” in 1975 when he took up moko jumbie at age 24. He quickly made up for lost time, performing in the 1979 Super Bowl halftime show. Moko jumbie has since become a family affair. His wife, Curless, makes all Guardians of Culture costumes. And his son, Ayo, is among the next generation of dancers to strap on the stilts, made from Douglas fir purchased through Gold Coast Yachts.

“The current generation of dancers has taken the art form to a new level,” John says. “They’re a lot more fearless and creative in their moves, which allows the art form to expand.”

How tall is a moko jumbie? Usually 10 to 13 feet. It’s not about being as tall as you can, but getting to a height where you’re comfortable performing the acrobatics and choreography. 

What makes a good moko jumbie dancer? People who are very active and have a lot of energy that they need to channel. 

What is the most difficult aspect of moko jumbie to learn? When your desire to learn surpasses your fear of heights.

Willard John’s St. Croix hotspots

La Reine Chicken Shack: Rotisserie chicken is their forte; it has a unique taste. They also serve all kinds of local food from the Hispanic perspective.  

Savant: Their fish is excellent. The atmosphere is great. It’s right downtown, near Fort Christiansvaern.

Galangal: They serve good Asian fusion. It has West Indian ambience.  

Point Udall: It’s the easternmost point of the United States. There’s a big monument there where people go to watch the sunrise.

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