BRAZILIAN DANCE: THE GIFT FROM TRADITIONS
“My expertise as a dancer and teacher includes my culture. When I started learning and searching for the roots, the origins, the meanings… I also found myself in a way.” — Luciana Da Silva
Brazilian Luciana Da Silva’s life work is the dance of her home country. In Colorado (and recently across Europe) she performs and teaches both the deeply feminine samba no pé (pronounced samba no peh) and the dance coming into the United States via Europe where it’s taken couples by storm, the forró (pronounced fo-ho). Each, like Luciana, glitters with joy and passion.
You might recognize her as a Carnaval-style dancer wearing a bejeweled crown and royal halo of huge, vibrant feathers, a jewel-studded bikini and high heel shoes.This is the powerfully feminine Brazilian costume that comes from an ever-evolving combination of indigenous bird adornments on head and shoulder, European crowns, and modern bikinis, bangles, and aesthetic. Though she is uncomfortable with the title as it’s understood in the US, where it is culturally separate from Brazil’s famous samba schools, Luciana is renowned as a faithful representation of a Samba Queen. Its forms are well-suited to her compelling nature: generous, insightful, expressive, and present. She performs for functions where femininity, rhythm and authentic culture meet a need for fun and human connection and she teaches women and men who are longing to develop these qualities in their dancing.
Samba Making its Mark
Luciana’s father ran a disco club in southern Brazil. Alongside Brazilian dance music, she grew up listening to Madonna, Cindy Lauper, and Michael Jackson, thinking everything good came from America and Europe, unaware of what was right there. But when she was about nine or ten years old her father hired samba dancers to do a show on the weekend.
“…sparkling, beautiful dancers with big butts. And I remember being backstage with them and there was the perfume, the glitter, they were talking with each other and they had the Carioca accent from Rio. I was just mesmerized. And feathers! I could not leave them and, sure enough, when they went onstage, I went onstage with them. And that was a big point for me: a white girl from the south. I was exposed to them and they created a mark on me.”
Originally a dance of oppression, the samba’s rhythmic response is a source of liberation. Percussion-saturated samba music has a deep, lunging feel underneath with a quick rolling rhythm on top. The dance appears minimal in form, at its foundation a rapid step-ball-change or pas de bourré with open arms, which charges the hips into figure eights, circles, and rolls; a distinctly Brazilian center of feminine presence that each dancer maximizes through personal expression and that skilled, sensitive dancers can channel into their own message of power or expression.
“As I’m getting a little more mature I’m working with this powerful feminine energy to be on good terms with one’s own body, it’s OK to be sensual, it’s OK to feel beautiful. Sisters! Let’s get together and celebrate the feminine.”
As American students and audiences, it’s part of our cultural education to learn that when we see samba as something beautiful, glamorous, and deeply sensual, if we don’t also understand where it comes from and that it is a dance of repression, sadness, and ultimately resistance and a powerful representation of the feminine, we might be dazzled out of experiencing its capacity to transform human suffering.
Forró Embracing Joy
“But now,” Luciana says, “we cannot leave the man out. We are talking about the feminine, but men have a big part of everything so we cannot take them out.”
The joyous forró is about the connection between a man who guides the energy of the dance without using force and a woman who dictates the embrace– how much space or closeness– and follows with an expressive spirit. Some people think this couple’s dance resembles salsa, bachata, or American swing dance. It comes from a harsh region of northeastern Brazil where life itself is a struggle. The traditionally sad words express these and more modern difficulties but its joyful music brings masculine and feminine together. Forró is fun embodied! Being, enjoying and expressing oneself, feeling free to respectfully express one’s sensuality, and playfulness are key.
Couples dance at a breakneck speed, swirling, turning on a tight axis, and being super playful. It’s sensual, full-throttle partnering that is exciting to watch, full of connected hip circles and crazy arm twists and turns. The feminine hips move constantly in fringed and ruffled skirts on their own or in unison with the masculine, so you can definitely see how it’s a life-affirming celebration of human, if not nature’s, thriving. People cheer each other on. “People are looking for expression and connection at the same time we lead such individual lives. We end up forgetting how we can bring more joy into our lives.” Check this dance out on Luciana’s facebook page or google forró dance. And, good news, you can study without having your own partner.
Traveling through Dance
When Luciana married an American pilot several years ago and came to the US, it seemed dancers were only in ballet, modern or jazz. Because she’d had no formal training in these areas, she stopped thinking she was a dancer. She was exposed to the culture in Atlanta, Georgia for a year, then moved to Colorado Springs. She was alone several days a week, a foreigner disconnected from her home culture. What originally saved her from depression and from losing herself were some belly dance videos a friend had given her. She took English in the mornings, danced to the videos for six to eight hours in the afternoons, and went swimming in the evenings.
In Colorado Springs, Luciana came across a key instigator in her dance career, Auro Tejas Hemsell. Hemsell is a Classical Indian Dancer, half-American, half-Indian, who was born in India and raised in America. When Tejas was putting a performance together, she asked Luciana if, instead of belly dancing, she would perform samba. Luciana was initially terrified, but she was interested so she did it! Luciana laughs when she says that in her first samba performance she inadvertently, “…mixed in some belly dance because I had so much training!”
For several years, she also devoted herself to flamenco. “There is this passion about a culture, but there is also a misunderstanding because when you are learning a dance, you also want to understand the culture behind that dance, which takes time. I was attracted to the fire, passion, roughness, that organic expression in flamenco.”
Looking for the ease of belly dance and the passion of flamenco, and now mother to her American-Brazilian son, she asked herself: “How do I honor my own ancestry, culture and the history that’s built into me? And if I really want to bring Brazilian dance to the stage, what is the message that I’m bringing there?”
Committed to becoming a professional samba dancer, Luciana went to Rio de Janeiro for intense training with Fabiana Oliveira, a Rainha de Bateria, Queen of Bateria, or the Samba Queen of Mangueira, one of Rio’s most traditional samba schools. The bateria is essentially the drum “band” or massive rhythm section of each school or samba community. In fact, Fabiana was from a traditional samba family so Luciana spent time in the family home talking with the grandmother, mother, and three sisters, studying, visiting samba schools, dancing, watching, and experiencing the samba within its own community environment, the favela.
“It was there the whole time! It was my dream but I didn’t know. I grew up thinking that the Americans are the best, the Europeans are the best and then here we (Brazilians) are, so good! And we are not singing it.”
In Salvador, the interior of Bahia, Brazil, Luciana met Dona Nicinha de Santo Amaro with whom she spent time dancing, talking, laughing, crying, and studying samba de roda. “It was just an amazing experience to be in front of such a powerful woman representing the roots, what in modern times we call ‘the gift from the traditions.’”
The ancestry of the samba rhythm is in the orixas, dances rooted in earth and in a deep spirituality from both Brazil and Mother Africa, as well as a complex weaving in and imitation of multiple cultures including all that is the melting pot of Brazil. In the past, samba was done in a roda, a circle; it was used for fertility with a woman dancing her samba dance until, by touching belly button to belly button with another woman, she invited her to come into the center.
In order to not raise the dust, traditional dancers used a flat place where they would limit the quick 1-2-3 ball change step to a slice of space near to the ground and mainly in one place, an action that is the source of fluid, what Luciana calls “happy,” hips. People express their struggle and affirm life together. As Luciana’s most recent connection to the dance, she actively brings the orixas, the essence of samba, into her classes.
If you are intrigued, you can watch samba de roda on YouTube and then watch samba no pé, where you’ll see movement similarities and evolution but also connections to a variety of cultures.
Respecting the Gifts
These days, American and European people want Brazilian dance. Women want the glamorous look of samba with the feathers and bikini, and to become this feminine, sensual goddess. Couples want the high energy and intricate partnering of forró. But it’s helpful to have cultural understanding. What is the history behind these dances? What is truly being expressed?
In contrast with other dance forms, traditional dances can seem darker or more mysterious in ways that make us uncomfortable and might scare us off or encourage appropriation. But after talking to Luciana and exploring these dances online with even a little more background and curiosity, there is honor and honesty in these traditions the way they are. The forms tune us in to suffering, liberation or joy, so we can be honest; they’re part of our human DNA. They are also linked rhythmically to American slave history and African rhythms including blues, jazz, hip hop, rock and therefore dance forms like jazz and swing (and potentially at the roots of presentational versions of similar dances we see in Las Vegas shows or on Dancing with the Stars). Luciana is committed both to her Brazilian dance ancestry and to sharing it with Coloradans and others around the world.
Even as a native Brazilian, Luciana is on a life-long journey to keep learning the dances, their origins and evolution, and to transmit respect and curiosity as well as the steps. In her classes, she teaches women to become more conscious and comfortable with their bodies and to use the form to free up the soul and express themselves. In the forró, she is on an educational journey to learn more about teaching men how to lead properly so they encourage women to express themselves.
Brazilian culture invited Luciana in through those gorgeous samba dancers who mesmerized her as a child, but it took years to learn, appreciate and master this form. Colorado is lucky to have her humble and dedicated presence as she welcomes us into her Brazilian culture.
“The invitation is: how do we take this gift, keep it, respect it and appreciate it?”
Luciana offers regular classes, dances, performance opportunities for students, and she performs. She and her partner, Alirio Silva, produce Viva Brazil! in Boulder and Colorado Springs for which they offer sponsorship opportunities to the greater Colorado community.
Rebekah West spent 35 years immersed in dance; currently, she is an interdisciplinary artist-in-residence in France. Liz Lerman’s upcoming book on creative critique includes one of Rebekah’s essays and she’s in post production on a tango film she shot in her village. Her dance photography and short films have been selected for exhibition and screening worldwide. As a story finder for the Hallmark Channel’s New Morning Show, she featured Colorado artists and dancers. She is known for passionate, rhythmic, soulful choreography and integrating movement with media, theatre, and text. West created the Youth Arts Institute for the Colorado Dance Festival, taught for the National Dance Institute New Mexico, brought dance to dozens of schools, and taught flamenco. She co-founded the Kenney-West Fund for Promising Young Dancers. As artistic producer, Rebekah served Space for Dance/Boulder Dance Alliance and the Center for Arts, Media & Performance at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s ATLAS Institute for a combined twelve years where she developed spaces, artists, and public interaction. West holds an MA in Interdisciplinary Studies: Writing & Poetics and Visual Art from Naropa University and two BAs: Dance Therapy and Dance Movement Studies.