“What soothed my warrior spirit [in the military] was music and beauty.”
One might think of the strict temperament that’s commonly associated with a military background as being less than compatible with the fluidity and flexibility that’s typical of artists. Yet professional dancer and musician Joel Massicot melds these seemingly polar opposite pursuits in his own craft and with Masacote Entertainment, the Cambridge-based Latin dance company he owns.
While the arts have provided a space for self-expression, Massicot says the military mindset has allowed him to harness “left brain” functions like logic, order, and discipline in his practice. He’s built a channel to ground and connect with himself, and maintains that martial arts have also provided a safe and supportive container for all of these forces to evolve in unison.
Growing up on the island of St. Croix, USVI, Massicot says that his world revolved around music.
“I hated school,” he says. “I was always skipping class to go to the ‘music room.’ There were aspects of the system that I didn’t feel comfortable with, and a part of me was rebelling.”
Massicot first learned to play music alongside his family at a Pentecostal church at the age of eight. After that he moved on to the piano, then trumpet, then saxophone and other instruments. He describes St. Croix as a “multicultural melting pot” with integrated Latin and Caribbean cultures, the lot of which exposed him early on to salsa music, reggae, soca, bachata, and more.
“I kind of always dated or hung around the Latin population on the island, and I learned about Latin culture through the music,” Massicot says.
Eventually, some traits that held Massicot back as a traditional student helped him later in life as an artist. He tapped into this “rebel spirit” to guide him in taking risks, and in creating his own creative philosophy. Massicot went on to hone this expertise as a jazz studies major at Howard University, and also studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Sekou McMiller is a New York City-based professional “dance maker,” as he defines himself, and is a longtime friend of Massicot’s. They have worked together on various dance projects including I am Pulse: an Afro Latin Jazz and Soul Experience, a 2017 dance-theatre production in NY.
“I don’t see this ‘rage against the machine’ [mentality with Massicot],” McMiller says, but I do see this questioning of normality and what is normal [both within him and in his work]. He challenges norms, but always submits a new hypothesis [when doing so].”
McMiller highlights one performance at the Los Angeles Salsa Congress, where Massicot debuted a routine—“The Crow,” which incorporated salsa fusion into a rock song. This was at a time when event promoters and crowds were accustomed to solely seeing salsa and other Latin dances on stage during performances.
“The point was to make people question themselves,” McMiller says.
Massicot has been deeply involved in the military since his high school years through the JROTC, which paved the way for him to join the army and then the Marine Corps.
“The beauty of it [the military] was the discipline it provided,” he says. “It trained me to know in my mind where I could and needed to go whenever something [adverse] popped up.”
Massicot also participated in various arts practices in the service, from playing in both stage and marching bands, to working as a graphic designer and as a combat photographer for the Marines.
Between the military discipline and his artistic side, Massicot says he has “always kept those two seemingly opposite philosophies at the forefront” of his mind, and together they’ve served to ground him. He says that whenever he had time off from the military, he was “always looking for salsa clubs.”
“What soothed my warrior spirit [in the military] was music and beauty,” he says. “Music and dance allows me to be myself. I don’t have to speak with my mouth; I can speak with my hands or body. When you are on stage [performing dance], you aren’t trying to be like anything, you’re fully in yourself, fully in your natural self-expression. That’s what Masacote represents.”
Massicot swears by the meditative aspect of martial arts. He says it’s helped him remain centered and balanced on stage while performing as well as in the Marines.
“Martial arts is about vibration and energy,” he says. “Qigong and tai chi [the kind of martial art Massicot practices and teaches at Masacote] is a breathing practice that helps you cultivate what’s called ‘life force energy.’ The breathing practice calms down the nervous system, clears up blockages, helps release trauma, and helps people get back to a core state of stillness and peace internally. This philosophy allows me to teach arts from an intrinsic level where the breath is used to open up one’s spirit.”
He continues: “At Masacote, before any show, we practice this. The challenge for artists [on stage] is, how do you get out of your own head and let everything raw come out of your heart through dance, music, or other channels? That’s the depth of the philosophy of living through the arts. We want [our dancers] to shine in this way.”
Massicot maintains that his multifaceted strategy has not only fostered his growth as an artist, but supported him through struggle as well. From relationship breakups, to coping with the constraints of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, he says his practices have grounded him and restored his “core.” He recalls a particularly difficult time when he was questioning his own artistry as well as that of the Latin dance industry at large. In combination with his martial arts practice, Massicot says that a trip to Cuba with another local Latin dance company, Metamovements, helped him reconnect creatively.
“I went through this stage where I just wasn’t being sparked and there wasn’t a surge to create something new,” he says. “I was about to give up everything.
“My roots are 57% Nigerian, which is the majority makeup of Afro-Cuba. So I am Yoruba.” (The West African religion that is also at the root of Afro-Cuban spirituality as well as many traditional dances on the island.) “Traveling to Cuba was a turning point in that it allowed me to go ‘backwards into myself’ through connecting to Africa, which was a healing process. It allowed me to remember the ancestral make of my identity. It was like my spirit moved backwards in time with my ancestors.”
He continues: “Cuba opened up aspects of what happened to our people culturally. Cubans preserved a huge part of our folklore, our spiritual culture, and that woke up my spirit. … Cuba is like a second Africa, the minute you touch that island no one is coming back the same.”
It’s a lot to navigate, but as Massicot sees it, his many worlds, interests, and inspirations—Cuba, Africa, the US, music, martial, arts, dance, the military—together make for healing and artistic powers.
“I’m still living the vision [I had] when I took an oath in the military to serve people. Now I do this through my arts.”
Micaela is a Boston-based journalist and sociologist who covers dance, culture, and immigration for DigBoston, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and other outlets.