Dancing with the Deities: A Brazilian Workshop
by Sheila Mary Koch
The hypnotic pulse began. As drums pounded around me, I stumbled around the floor as if drunk. The rhythm changed and I reached for imaginary fauna to make a medicinal potion. Another shift of the music brought me to my knees, lifting my thumbs to my mouth in rapid succession as if gulping down the potion that would intoxicate me all over again.
Rhythms of the Past
My unusual movements were part of a centuries-old folkloric dance for Ossain, the deity (orixá) of the forest and herbal remedies who is recognized by the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion. Like the mythological Greek gods, the Brazilian orixás have distinct personalities and represent aspects of mortal life and nature.
The dance was just one of many I would learn during my five days of studying Afro-Brazilian dance and percussion with the California-based cultural group Fogo Na Roupa in the colonial city of Salvador da Bahia (often simply called Bahia).
Located in the heart of Brazil, there couldn’t be a more sensual place to pursue my passion for rhythm and dance than Bahia. While I had studied dance for over 10 years, it was usually in an isolated class in the midst of my everyday life. Never had I traveled to where the dances originated. Suddenly, I was surrounded by the rich African culture of a region dubbed the “Africa of the Americas.” Perhaps more than anywhere else in the Western world, Bahia’s community of African descendants have kept the vibrant rhythms and spirit of Africa alive.
Throughout Salvador de Bahia, especially in the narrow cobblestoned streets of the historic Pelourihno district, a dynamic human tableau provided a dramatic backdrop for our studies. Women dressed in billowing white cotton dresses and colorful orixá bead necklaces prepared bean fritters called acaraje, which they cooked in metal cauldrons of hot dende (red palm) oil that filled the humid air with a rich, distinctive aroma. As the rhythmic twang of the bow-shaped berimbau echoed against brightly painted, 17th-century Portuguese colonial buildings, people of all ages paired off inside a large circle to do Capoeira, an acrobatic, martial art dance developed during slavery.
One ochre-colored building in the Pelourihno held our dance studio. Each day, our group of 10 people climbed the dark stairs to the third floor to receive instruction from members of Bale Folclorico da Bahia, an international performing group that has received rave reviews from the New York Times, and Mestre King, a teacher renowned for his pioneering study and stylization of the sacred orixá dances from Candomblé.
No Pain, No Gain
The classes were far from easy, though our group ranged from beginners to seasoned dancers. Even in the relatively mild weather of October, heat and humidity saturated the air of the studio and sweat had nowhere to go. To keep dancing through my exhaustion, my body and mind clung to the repetitive drum beats, taking me to a nearly hypnotic state.
Drums are an essential element of Afro-Brazilian culture and dance. Becoming one with the beat is said to bring dancers closer to spiritual unity with the gods; the rhythm is the dance. Our instruction, whether in dance or percussion class, was always the same: “Listen to the beat, feel the rhythm.” Drumming was especially intimidating because everyone could hear when I was off, which was most of the time. It wasn’t until I relaxed and felt the rhythm moving through my body that my hands hit the drum on beat with the others.
After our classes left us breathless each day, our learning continued in the streets and patios as drums echoed through the night air. Joining large groups called blocos, we imitated the moves of young, self-proclaimed masters as they led everyone in popular street dances to the music of famous Carnaval bands Didá, Timba-lada, Ilê Aiyê and Olodum. The result was a synchronized, high-energy wave of motion across the ground. Jumping, turning and gyrating together in such a tightly packed group was like playing percussion, only our physical well-being depended on everyone staying on the rhythm. I found it amazing that without knowing anyone or speaking much Portuguese, I could instantly be part of such a passionate and harmonious community.
Connection with the Candomblé
One evening, we had a magical opportunity to witness the origin of the folkloric and popular dances we’d been learning when Mestre King brought us to a Candomblé ceremony high in the hills of Salvador. This spiritual practice is based on traditions brought by the West African slaves combined with those of the indigenous people already living in Brazil. Candomblé survived supres-sion from colonial authorities and missionaries due to the hidden nature of its practice and its ability to disguise itself as Catholicism. While some ceremonies are open to tourists, most are still private.
Inside the Candomblé house, tiny white paper flags covered every inch of ceiling. Men and women were ushered to opposite sides of the room where we sat hip to hip on sawdust covered benches above an open space in the center.
During the ceremony, the whole building resounded with the raw vibration of 10 tall wooden drums hit forcefully with L-shaped sticks, and the chanting of several girls who kept time with the rhythms. Men, women and a few children danced in the center of the room, usually in a big circle. Their movements were much subtler than those I’d learned in class. Clearly, they weren’t performing for an audience but from a place deep within themselves.
Another night, I saw the ultimate in stylization and dramatization of these dances in a flamboyant performance by Bale Folclorico da Bahia at the Theatro da San Miquel. Dressed in exquisite satin costumes, dancers who could rival ballet’s best brought such superhuman grace and power to the deity dances that they easily could have been mistaken for the gods themselves. The small, tightly packed audience collectively shuddered in awe as the dancers threw fire and leapt to the ceiling only a few feet away from the audience.
An Ageless Pleasure
On my last night in Brazil, I experienced first-hand how music spans generations and unites the community. Following what sounded like thunder, I found a band rehearsing for Carnaval just blocks from my hotel. Males from five to 75 years old filled the street playing drums of all sizes; in front of them, a woman in her late seventies danced alone.
It started raining, so I joined a group of women and children watching from under an awning. Here, two teenage girls were dancing samba. One girl grabbed my hand and pulled me out to dance with them. I was delighted and honored, though I couldn’t even approximate their lightning-speed hip movements and effortless shimmies to the ground. Eventually, I joined the older woman on the other curb and struck up a conversation in my broken Portuguese. When the music started up again, I held her coat and watched her dance until the rehearsal ended. The image of her dancing in the rain — the music so much a part of her being — continues to stay fresh in my mind.
For two weeks in Salvador de Bahia, I drank in the rhythm that fills the streets, fuels the culture, joins families and turns strangers into old friends in Brazil. My dance had become more than exercise — it was now a connection with others, and a connection with the rhythm of life itself.
Fogo Na Roupa is a cultural exchange program with year-round dance, percussion and Carnaval classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. Director Carlos Aceituno leads semi-annual dance and music study tours to Brazil. Tel: 510-464-5999; Website: www.gofogo.com
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “Brazil.”