My first experience with truly authentic black culture and dance in Brazil happened in the city of Ilhéus. As we traveled closer and closer to Salvador the culture continued to change, the number of Afro-Brazilians rose and the African influence on Brazilian culture became apparent. After a short tour of the city of Ilhéus, we were greeted by an Afro-Brazilian dance group at the entrance to the Batacan Cultural Center, a former brothel that had been converted into a restaurant and historic site. The brothel used to be a place where the so-called colonels (of cocoa) of Bahia would meet to discuss business and be entertained. According to Teresa, our guide originally from Angola, it had an underground tunnel that connected the church to the brothel. During church service the colonels would sneak down to the tunnel and have secret meetings.
The Afro-Brazilian dance group consisted of three dancers and three drummers. Two of the dancers were dressed in gold, with white highlights, and they danced on the lower step of the restaurant. The other dancer on the top step was dressed in white laced in gold. She seemed to be more accomplished in the art of Afro-Brazilian dance than the other two dancers. I could tell this by her more intricate movements compared to the other two dancers. The movements of her feet were quick, and there was a lot of hip and head motion. The drummers were very talented; the beat of the drum was in sync with the dancers. The cultural ensemble also performed during dinner.
Inside the restaurant there was a singer who also played the guitar. His music was not Afro-Brazilian until he joined the Afro-Brazilian dance group and drummers. The dancer in white was the main dancer during this performance. The other two dancers got the crowd involved, making the night fun and enjoyable.
The Rio Scenarium club is located in the district of Lapa, in the old town of Rio de Janeiro. The street was illuminated with neon lights, which gave the street an appeal of its own. That night there was a steady drizzle, which dampened our mood, but little did we know what surprises the samba club would have. It had five floors that were furnished with antiques, giving it the charm of a bygone era. As soon as we walked in, we took a few steps and around the corner there was a live band that played traditional forró and contemporary samba music.
From the start the band had the crowd dancing. As I looked around the club, it seemed to be a place where Rio’s middle class could enjoy themselves. Soon after we arrived, another band performed, and this band was better than the first one. As soon as this band started playing nearly everyone left their seats to either enjoy the music or watch the dancers.
The movements of the dancers were very fast with their feet keeping pace with the music. I noticed that the females would dance on their toes, while the men danced on their heels. Both men and women had amazingly fast hip movements. When couples danced together, their hips would move in the same direction, but their feet would not. To dance together the males’ feet have to replace where the females’ feet used to be. It was incredible how the males never stepped on the females’ feet. One couple was especially good; they twirled and danced all around the floor, showing up everyone else. The male was Afro-Brazilian and the female was Asian-Brazilian. I was not quite sure if they were professional dancers, but they were very talented at dancing the forró and made a great team.
Video of Ilhéus
Video of Rio Scenarium