26 July 2011

Bahia or Bust: PART TWO In Which Our Heroine Finds Herself Falling Into Every Cultural Imperialist- and Chick Flick/Lit-Cliche in the Book

IN our last chapter,Bahia or Bust, I explained the genesis of my fascination with Brasil. Here, the fascination takes root.

The last place anyone would expect to get bored would be a successful international art and erotica publisher. But circa 2005, that was me. My job was to hunt down world-class celebrities (politicians, spiritual leaders, actors, athletes and rock stars from the 1960's onward), convince them to participate in our project,

then ship enormous pages of a book (literally the size of a coffee table) for them to autograph, while ensuring those precious signed pages came back  in one piece. It was fun, but not entirely engaging my creative side. I needed an outlet.




So one day I got a wild hare to learn how to dance the samba. I don't know what I thought the samba was -- a sexy dance done in feathered headdress and sequined bikini, probably (being around all that nudity at work was getting to me on some level, apparently). A quick internet search revealed a class offered that night at a Portuguese cultural center in Artesia. I roped two friends into joining me for the hour-long rush hour drive, and watched my Brazilian musical fascination take its next logical step.

Our teacher, Monica (pronounced "Moe-nica"), had thighs like pistons, white patent platform high-heel boots, and imperiousness enough to fill a football stadium (she was, in fact, allegedly the first American to dance on a Carnaval float in Rio's Sambadrome. A big deal.). Her samba: fast and furious. Her smile: gleaming and a little forced. Her choreography: like a hybrid drag queen/butterfly/My Little Pony prancing on a rainbow through a tropical jungle parade. To keep up, I began to sweat more than I ever had in my life, paradoxically without one moment of exhaustion. I had never known my body was capable of such physical exertion. Or such grace. On the rare moments when I got the hang of the samba it felt like flying, like existing within the music I'd so long loved.

I practiced everywhere, all the time; sitting at my desk, sitting in my car, in my office, the living room, bathroom stalls, the storage room at work... you get the idea. Finally one evening one of the Brasilian veterans of the class whispered to me, "It looks like the screws have fallen out of you hips". In other words, my white American body had been initiated; broken free of it's Puritanical constraints,  moving the way samba required it to.

Now let's be brutally honest here.  Though I loved the samba, the feeling was not necessarily reciprocated. I was going through the motions as best I could, but those motions were a far cry from the dance as executed by those who begin as toddling babies and samba until their bodies stop working. The samba, if you've never seen it, is a dance of deceptive dexterity and stamina (Click here for an idea of what it can look like). The idea is to brush your feet super-rapidly -- almost imperceptibly -- to the quickfire, complex, African-born drum beats, without looking like you're working a whit. Just as sung Brazilian Portuguese jams extra syllables where English speakers would hear no space, the samba requires sixteen steps where I would have only put eight. Sometimes I would "catch" the beat and keep on it, like a surfer hanging onto a wily wave. Other times I struggled just to locate the space I was supposed to jump into, dumbfounded and immobile.

The only reason I got away with it as much as I did is because I am not afraid to move. I had the good fortune to grow up listening to RandB, early west coast rap and funk, in order to be socially viable in junior high (that hideous crucible of human development), then just because I liked it. I had to keep up with all the other girls, beaded braids jangling in time to their shell-toe Adidas double dutch. When Nila and Maisha, Ciji, Royal and Shavonne all decided to try out for Drill Team, I was sucked into the pre-teen girl undertow and found myself trying out, too. To make the cut, I had no choice but to drop my center of gravity, expand my ribcage, roll my shoulders back, and unfurl my narrow pre-pubescent hips, jutting them left and right until they softened and wheeled in some approximation of Tanzy Scott's. (At the 8th grade dance, Tanzy (short for Tanzania) had four boys doing "The Nasty" -- the mid-80's Inglewood version of The Grind -- with her, like the four cardinal points on a compass.) I was lucky my forced initiation occurred while my body and brain were still plastic, malleable.

Besides, dancing runs in my family. My brother was a spectacular dancer. Family lore has it that my uncle and his girlfriend were so impressive on the dance floors of Kansas City in the late 40's or early 50's that the jazz musicians regularly invited them to come on the road with them.
Kansas City: A Robert Altman Film - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

This all gave me just enough passing familiarity with the kind of movement most white people shun sheepishly, tell themselves they can't do, or sometimes simply can't replicate. I could samba just enough that the Brazilians lent me a costume and invited me to dance in their annual parade, where I got to wear the feathered headdress of my dreams.

Little did I know it would catch the coastal breeze and send me sailing offshore like a frigate. It didn't matter, my dancing was fueled by a live bateria of easily 20 drummers. For over a mile, in heels, perpetually out of breath, I sang the escuela de samba's enhero (theme song) while blisters materialized on the soles of my feet and my heart threatened to explode out of my ribcage and the sweat soaked every ever-lovin' inch of me. Bliss. Every time my head threatened to give my exhausted body a rest, the drums would start in on another call and response, and how could I refuse? I was speaking their language, finally. This was a conversation I couldn't refuse.

Every year the cultural group that sponsored the classes and the parade chose a Reina de Samba (Queen) and a couple Princessas. Those girls danced in body glitter, tiny sequined bikinis and high heels, all while elevated on a float. I decided I would work my ass off (literally - those bikinis are unforgiving) and be crowned princessa the next year. A year was enough time to become that good, I thought, enough time to whittle my body into the right shape. I knew not to hope to be Queen. Those women were blessed with jaw-dropping bodies that stopped anyone with eyes in their tracks. Sequined bikinied-boobs and bums, tiny waists and long long legs make the samba look otherworldly, like artist renderings, or comic book superheroes. There were exceptions, I could see: one white girl had been crowned Queen but she also competed in 100 mile bike races. I didn't want the thighs that made her samba possible.  I knew better than to hope for more than princessa. But princessa I would become.  

Somewhere in the midst of all this I heard about a region of Brasil called Bahia. From the first, I knew this was where I was supposed to go. I can't even recall what it was I learned about it that made me know this, but I did. Was it that Bahia is the region with the strongest African influence? That most of my favorite artists all seem to come from there? Or was it just the sound of the name? Who knows. But I filed the place name away in that sacred spot in my brain we don't visit often, for fear of being blinded by the wonders therein. 

As much as I loved Monica's class (and the masala dosa Sadie and Pegi and I shared afterwards in nearby Little India), the schlep was a bit much.  Sadie enjoyed samba, but wasn't as gung ho as I was. Pegi, being of Afro-Caribbean descent, had issues with our mangled attempts to appropriate her cultural birthright (I can't say I blame her). So I found another samba class closer afield, one I could attend on my own. And this class moved me to an even more profound respect and awe for the dance, the dancers, the music, and the country that gave birth to them.

What next? If you guessed it would lead to a (cue wind chimes) Journey of Discovery, you would be right. I wouldn't be fulfilling my chick-flick/lit promises othewise, would I? For those of you who have yet to make peace with that particularly maligned (often rightfully so) genre, check out How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Chick Flick. Then take a gander at the bahia trip that figures prominently in the next installment.

And I'll be back to finish the story.

love and sea foam,
vjr



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