Julio Thijs: Profile of a “Tilt Man.”

Among the legendary Guyanese masquerade men is the late Boysie Sage. He was a successful band leader and was an innovative stilt dancer. He was a “’Tilt man.” One of his mentees was Julio Thijs.

For more than 50 years, Julio Thijs has maintained his passion for Guyanese masquerade and the stilt dancing art. He recalls being mesmerized by Boysie Sages’ band while growing up in Albouystown. “I followed the band since I was a little boy.”

Boysie Sages’ band was the Boysie Sage All Stars. It was a community-based organization that respected masquerade’s connections with West and Central African spirituality and its role in social commentary. For example, the stilt characters (Mother Sally, Tall Lady/Long Lady), represented the goddess that dances through the village driving out evil spirits. Those stilt characters along with Bam Bam Sally represent social commentary.

Julio Thijs joined Boysie Sage All Stars in 1969. This was after his performances at the 3rd Caribbean Scout Jamboree held in Guyana during that year. 1969 was the 60th anniversary of scouting in Guyana—its Diamond Jubilee. Also, the 5 cent Masquerade postage stamp was issued for Christmas 1969.

By 1972, Boysie Sage All Stars represented the apex of the masquerade arts in Guyana. The band was contracted to train high school students in the masquerade segment, in “The Pageant of the People” one of Guyana’s presentations during Carifesta 72. According to Thijs, “this was the first time to my knowledge that they were women dancing on stilts … Karen DeSouza and Ingrid Daniels.” During Carifesta, Boysie Sage All Stars did many shows in Georgetown and interacted with other masquerade groups from around the Caribbean that were in Guyana for the festival.

For Thijs, Carifesta represented a cultural shift in the way the folk arts were viewed. It was still a time in Guyana when there was still some stigma for being associated with Guyana’s masquerade heritage. He recalls being thrilled by the fact that Barbados’ masquerade dancers were treated equal to the “professional” dancers by their country.” He considers that fact as one of his indelible memories from Carifesta 72.

Carifesta 72 was a stimulating moment for Thijs. It motivated him to “push the proverbial envelop … to bring masquerade dancing to the mainstream.” In his early efforts, he experienced resistance from influential gatekeepers.

Thijs stayed with Boysie Sage All Stars until 1974, when he joined the first intake of Guyana National Service Culture Corps. It was during this service he produced the “Death of Ojembo,” his “first attempt at taking masquerade stilt dancing from the streets to mainstream.”

Thijs has described “The Death of Ojembo” [as] “a dance/ spoken word piece created for stilts.” It was “presented at the 1975 Guyana Festival of Creative Arts (Guyfesta)and received an Award of Excellence. It’s the story of a young boy Ojembo the village stilt dancer, his mother the village obeah woman and his love for Akima a village maiden.” The music was scored by Harold Bascom. The musicians were Harold Bascom (trumpet), Akoyaw Rudder (bass drum), and Tyrone Doris (kittle drum and vocals). He has described his GNS experience as “fertile ground as his desire to bring the art form to the main stream was encouraged.”

Thijs started on the international dimension of his career in 1977. He went to Suriname where he taught masquerade and performed in the “The War of the Worlds.” He has described that show as one of his biggest productions in Suriname. The show had 6 stilt dancers as the Martians.

In 2012, Calgary-based Julio Thijs returned to Guyana to participate in the “Masquerade Lives” symposium. That ended 32 years in “exile.” Thijs has described the exile as very painful. “I would put on my masquerade music and flounce in my apartment and get on my tilts and dance in the street especially around Christmas.” Among his cherished international productions are:

  • Production of a full masquerade band for the Guyana Cultural Association of Calgary in 1994.
  • Presenting “The Death of Ojembo” at the 2014 Global Stilt Congress, Arcosanti AZ.
  • Presenting the Duet “Wind and Leaf” at the 2014 Global Stilt Congress, Arcosanti AZ.
  • Organizing a stilt dancing workshop at Guyana Folk Festival’s Family Fun Day 2015, Brooklyn, New York. The workshop featured the Brooklyn Jumbies based in Brooklyn NY and the Los Angeles-based Carpetbag Brigade. The Carpetbag Brigade is a group of stilt performers that travels the world teaching and performing Acrobat stilt arts.

Julio Thijs marked his return to Guyana in 2012 with the debut of the Bosie Sage Mk7 stilt. This below the knee type of stilt has opened a whole new world of possibilities for stilt artists. The name “Bosie Sage Mk7” is homage to his mentor, the legendary Boysie Sage. These innovative stilts have been adopted by stilt dancers in Australia, Canada, Gambia, Guyana, Spain, Burkina Faso and the United States. The original Mk 7 stilt was donated to Guyana’s National School of Dance in 2012.

In 2016, he returned to Guyana to lead the Guyana National Service costumed band during the Golden Jubilee Float and Costumed Bands parade.

Julio Thijs lives in Calgary where he teaches circus skills to at risk youth with the Green Fools Theater. He continues to develop new types of stilts, teach masquerade to youth in Canada and the United States, and lead the Boysie Sage International All Stars.

A salute to Julio Thijs–a pioneering “tilt man” from Guyana.