How Carnival Nationz is making space for masqueraders of all shapes and shades at Caribana

Nikole Stephens and and Keyauna King's costumes lift up body positivity while also bringing awareness to suicide prevention and mental health.

Nikole Stephens and and Keyauna King lift up body positivity while also bringing awareness to mental health

Materials for Caribana costumes. (Sharine Taylor)

There is an abundant array of feathers and jewels in what was once an empty warehouse in Scarborough. Toronto band Carnival Nationz are preparing for their 17th run in Caribana. Nikole Stephens and and Keyauna King, the leaders of the Danza section, are among the band's newest additions — and they have a unique take on the art of costume making. Their designs and colours are intentional, built on inclusivity for various body sizes, while they also use their skills to bring awareness to suicide prevention and breaking the stigma around mental health in Caribbean communities.

King, whose background is Jamaican and Guyanese, grew up in mas working with a family friend who owned the now-retired legacy band, Arnold Hughes and Associates. "I basically grew up in a mas camp in the core of producing costumes, making costumes — both sections and big mas prepping for King and Queen shows," she says. It was an all-family affair for King who, with her father and sister, played and won individual. Stephens, who is Jamaican, was introduced later and went to the mas camps over the summer. The two were immersed in the lifestyle, and their time at Arnold Hughes became the foundation for costume making. At first, King made costumes for a kiddie section. After a successful run, she was offered the opportunity to do an adult section and decided to partner with Stephens. It was then that Danza was born.

A Danza team member assembling a costume. (Sharine Taylor)

The theme they were given in 2016 while playing with the Toronto Revellers was music, and they were having difficulty with finding something distinct and unique. King says, "We didn't want to pick Calypso; we knew someone was going to pick Calypso. We didn't want to pick reggae; we knew someone was going to pick reggae." Upon the suggestion of one of King's coworkers, they ended up choosing Danza, inspired by Don Omar's 2010 hit featuring Lucenzo, "Danza Kuduro".

"That was honestly the section name and then from that, it just became our brand," says Stephens. Danza — a team made up of about ten family members and friends of Stephens and King, managed by King's father — is only on its third run but has been unapologetic in making spaces for masqueraders of all shapes and shades. Their mascot is an animated vivacious Black girl sporting a fro whose costume changes with each new Danza design. "She embodies what we represent," says Stephens. "She's a little Black girl, she's shapely, she's just full figured and that's what we represent."

A Danza member and a costume. (Sharine Taylor)

Their desire to offer accessible costume sizes and options came out of an unfortunate situation. They were once turned down because of a sizing issue — so they made accessibility part of their larger goal. King explains: "We went to Trinidad and they were screening us to get into sections. If you weren't a certain shape or size, you weren't getting into the section, so it was really just that that kind of just made us want to make sure everyone was included and accommodated for." The two ensure that their costumes are accessible to folks of all sizes and are mindful of body types when making costumes, offering an array of options in many sizes but also making designs that flatter the masquerader wearing it.

In addition to their size-inclusive mission, this year they decided to champion a cause close to home. Each year, bands participating in Caribana are given a theme and the sections within the band are to create costumes in conversation with the given theme. This year, Carnival Nationz chose "We Spreading Love" and King and Stephens decided that Danza's theme was going to be "Fight the Power" to pay homage to someone they had recently lost. "Last year, in the middle of costume making, [the sister of] one of our Danza members who helps with the costumes committed suicide," King shares. "That was very hard for us. It was supposed to be her first time playing mas and she didn't get to do it. So this year, our inspiration was definitely for her, and 'Fight the Power' is fighting the stigma against mental health in the Caribbean [community] and self-harming."

Boxed men's costumes. (Sharine Taylor)

King works with the school board and mentions that she interacts with many Black students who struggle with mental health, so she wants to use her ability as a costume maker and designer to bring awareness. Amidst the revelry are the bright and vibrant colours of the costume, but Danza's choice colours this year are black, purple, blue, mint green and coral. The black, purple and blue represent the darkness of suicide and the stereotypes around it, and the mint green and coral represent the optimism of light being at the end of the tunnel for folks who are struggling or have sought help.

Even though the two describe the costume making process as all-consuming — Stephens admits that they have even dreamt about the costumes after going through at least five prototypes before arriving at the final design — they enjoy every moment of it. For them, quality, colours and design are what make a good costume. King emphasizes that "you don't want to see repetitive things. We're very out the box and we try our hardest...You don't want people to say, 'I already seen that. Been there, done that.'"

Another section's prepared costumes. (Sharine Taylor)

They are given three months to hand-produce the costumes for all of their masqueraders, usually doing one piece of the costume for a singular day, like headpieces and arm bands. Their most difficult pieces include the collarpieces and feathered backpacks, which require a few days to complete. As they make their impression in Toronto, they have their eyes set on designing for Barbados and Cayman Islands before taking on Trinidad.

As for the turning tide of Carnival's representation, Stephens sees that changes are being made. She says, "I think it's getting better, which is a good thing. It's a good thing for society to be in a place to display various body shapes, sizes and people of different colours...I'm happy."

With Caribana being a means of paying homage to traditions of Caribbean carnivals abroad, the women behind Danza do just that — but they're keeping the future in mind as well. For Keyauna and Nikole, the art of costume making is being mindful of how far we've come and where we're going.

About the Author

Sharine Taylor is an Afro-Jamaican, Toronto-based digital content creator, artist, writer, critic and editor. She is currently a contributor at Noisey and the Editor-in-Chief of BASHY Magazine, and her work has appeared on various publications including Shondaland, BuzzFeed, VICE, Pitchfork, Bitch Media and more.