'If you’re going to do your dance, be the best'

June 6, 2014

(Photo courtesy of StoryCorps)
Friends Vickie Casanova Willis and Fred Baker at the Chicago StoryCorps Booth.

Fred Baker was, at one time, the “World’s Limbo King,” says his friend and colleague Vickie Casanova Willis.

That might seem like a dubious claim but an article from the August 11, 1971 Miami News describes a nightclub act in Montego Bay, Jamaica: “The topper on the show is King Alfred Baker. If he isn’t the world’s champ of limbo, I’d like to see the act that can beat him.

His assistants do the easy passes under the bar, but when it gets tough, King Alfred takes over. The clincher comes when he places the bar on top of two beer bottles. He not only wiggles under, he does it with a glass of water in each hand and a third balanced on his forehead.”

Baker, 64, went to the StoryCorps booth at the Chicago Cultural Center earlier this year with his friend, Willis, 53. They discussed his life as a dancer.

StoryCorps’ mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to share, record and preserve their stories. This excerpt was edited by WBEZ.

When Fred Baker was born in Montego Bay, the city was the tourism capital of Jamaica. He followed his older brother to the markets to dance alongside the vendors.

Once his brother moved on, Baker stepped in, and began to get noticed. By the age of nine, he was travelling to perform outside of the country. He trained professionally and soon was performing in places like Paris and London.

Making a living in the arts hasn’t always been easy for him. He remembers auditioning for the play “House of Flowers” in New York - with lyrics by Truman Capote and featuring the hit song, “Two Ladies in the Shade of De Banana Tree.” There were so many dancers at the audition that he almost went home. Instead, he got the part.

Eventually he went back to Montego Bay to start a dance school. It began with five kids but quickly grew to more than a hundred. A few years later, he moved to Chicago and brought his dance school with him.

He still runs the West Indian Folk Dance Company in Chicago, which has been his home for the past 35 years.

He’s a living legend in the Caribbean–American community in Chicago, an instructor with Columbia College Chicago’s Community Arts Partnership (CCAP).

When he was young, Baker’s parents wanted him to be a lawyer or a doctor. He resisted. When they realized that their son was not going to relent, his dad gave him a piece of advice that has stuck with him all his life:

“If you’re going to do your dance, be the best.”