08 August 2011

Bahia or Bust: PART THREE Samba Seeps In

If you're just jumping on board VJR for the first time, you'll want to read the two previous installments of this series here

Ana's class. Brasil Brasil Cultural Center. I have to force myself into the crowded room, onto the uneven floors. Most of the women fall somewhere on the skin tone spectrum between caramel and ebony. I am prepared to flaunt my pretty pretty ButterflyPony dance moves, as perfected under the tutelage of Monica. But this teacher, this Ana, gives us no choreography. She works us like a drill sargeant, sending us in warm-up laps around the room. She leads us in floorwork and I think my heart will, no kidding, bruise the back of my ribs. My breath is ragged and sharp like broken glass in my windpipe. "You guys are just warming up. You're not dancing yet", she bellows in her lilting Brazilian-Portuguese accent, which seems to soften, slightly, the insult.

Then comes the dreaded circle. Circle time, where Ana invites us one at a time to enter the circle of dancers, try to keep up with her, then dance on our own. I realize I know absolutely nothing about how to samba. I've been doing the wrong dance all this time. I was in a parade? What an aberration I cast on the Brazilian culture by "dancing" in their parade! You want to see samba? Ana is doing samba, and she is a dynamo, a force of nature,  a whirling hurricane and its calm eye all at the same time. She is more powerful, graceful and faster than any woman I've ever seen, arms flying overhead, feet blurred in speed, smiling broadly (a warm, genuine smile, not like Moe-nicka's) and making it look like anyone could do this. Like no one could ever do this.  I dread the moment she comes to me, invites me in with her fluid arms and stacatto hip juts. I don't understand: I've done belly dancing and tap and ballet and jazz and Drill Team and cheerleading and swing and polka. I can mop the floor with 90% of the other dancers in the clubs. Why is none of this available to me in this moment? I'm stuck in this goddamn circle and everyone is wondering when the white girl will give up and go home.

Why I don't give up and go home is a mystery. Maybe I am a glutton for punishment. Maybe a tiny dust mote of confidence existed in me that I could one day master this beast of a dance. Every week I look forward to class and then when I get there, every week I hate it. I hate how ungainly I feel. I know how to dance! I want to scream at all of them. I'm not your typical white girl! I swear! But then I get pulled into the circle and rigor mortis sets in; I stare at the floor and punish my body into whatever weak proximation of the dance I can muster, arms stiff like 2 X 4s, hips locked into place. Hideous.

But after the circle torture concludes, Ana breaks it down for us. First she whips us into shape, screaming at us to samba samba SAMBA, faster, keep going, arms higher, don't stop. She stops the music, and we stand -- barely --  panting and holding our chests so our hearts don't burst out (at least I'm not the only tired one), and let her walk us through the steps, slowly, broken down at quarter speed. She sings "The Girl From Ipanema" to give us a beat, but instead of the words, she phonetically pronounces the drum beat "FA dee te da du DAH dah du deee du da de DASTA du dee du du". And I start to think maybe I can learn this. If I can do this slowly, maybe someday I'll get it.

Weeks of this. Little progress. I fight my self-hatred just enough to get in the door and stay. I fight back tears every week. I leave feeling broken and dejected, but physically spent in a way I've known too few times in my life. The emotional work is almost harder than the punishing physical effort. Exhaustion doesn't even cover it. Monica used to tell us that real samba dancers, if you watch them, only actually samba for a few seconds at a time: it is too brutally exhausting to do any more. Most of it is just beautiful filler. If they sambaed for an entire performance, they would drop dead. But Ana doesn't seem to prescribe to this. She makes us samba nonstop for song after song after song. I don't have any reason to believe I am capable of keeping up. But I keep trying.

One week, Ana, frustrated with our zombie samba-ing, takes off the Produto Nacional CD and puts on some contemporary dance music, something playing in the clubs. "I don't teach choreography. I don't care what steps you do. All that you can do is to find a connection to the music. If you are not connected to the music, you may as well stay home. Pick one instrument, listen to it, and let your body respond to it". Then she plays the song and tells us to do our own thing. Finally, I get to move in a way my body knows. It is a relief, and a reminder that I'm not a hopeless case. After a few bars of this, she tells us to samba again. And it is almost -- imperceptibly -- easier.

Friday nights I begin meeting Pegi at a Brazilian club, Cafe Dansa. Dark, utterly lacking in decor or physical ambiance, but impossible to stay away from after my first visit. A live bateria of a dozen or so beautiful men of all description (God bless Brazilian diversity) all in white takes the stage and sets the tone. The night starts off with a tiny, perfectly formed man playing what I would call a ukelele, and singing a capella. Like a benediction.

Then the dancing begins. Real dancing; not choreographed, not instructed. Just dancing to the corps of drummers. Call and response. They beat out a rhythm, we respond in kind. The drums tell us what to do. There is an energy, a palpable force between each of us on the floor. It is not like in other dance clubs where the energy is purely erotic. Oh yes, that is there, too, but it is not the be all and end all. Samba is brilliant because it is highly charged with sexual energy -- but you don't need a partner. No one has to coordinate themselves with you (though you can, if you want). You can do it alone. So I dance alone, but charged with the energy of all these other sweaty, jubilant people, dance until it is too hot to stay in the airless room. I go outside and take deep breaths of cool coastal air and then head back in when I can't stand being away from the music any longer. Maybe I am finally beginning to understand.

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