Here we were again in one of our classic arguments. My Brazilian boyfriend telling me that Samba was for poor people and forbidding me to follow my dream, and me with a flyer in hand for a Samba Congress in Rio, begging for his support.

If you go to this we are through!

How I ended up in this predicament all started with Rio’s saviour.

I remember it like yesterday. Soaring through the vivid blue sky and surrounded by puffy white clouds, I suddenly saw HIM…in all his glory, with his arms widespread welcoming me to his marvellous city. Christ the Redeemer – the eternal protector of Rio de Janeiro.

I am not a religious person, but what I felt in that moment could be described as a somewhat religious experience…a feeling of coming home. I felt like I’d been there before, perhaps in another lifetime.

Rio enchanted me and stole my heart from the moment I set eyes upon her jaw-dropping beauty – the imposing granite rocks standing guard over the sweeping beaches, the crystal blue waters of the bay of Guanabara, the breathtaking views across Lagoa, the lush tropical rainforests of Tijuca National Park.

I loved the sound of Brazilian Portuguese – what seemed to me at the time like a mixture of French, Spanish and Italian – all blended into one playful dialogue with lots of animated hand gestures and facial expressions.

My first impression of the Zona Sul (south zone) was one of wonder. Beautiful people with sunkissed bodies strutted about their daily lives dressed in glamorous attire, having cafezinhos (espressos) at chique sidewalk cafes in tree-lined Ipanema, but at lunch time they would change into a bikini and pop down to the beach for a quick dip or an afternoon Acai.

Strolling along the black and white cobblestoned sidewalks lining the beach was one of my favourite ways to not only exercise in the fresh salty air, but also to people watch.

Outdoor gyms are positioned at various points along the sidewalks, where spectacular bodies are on display, glistening with sweat in the afternoon sunshine. Young guys play futesol on the sand (a mixture of soccer and volleyball) and girls in fluoro, skin tight active wear ride their bikes or parade past with swaying hips, and for a moment every able bodied man stops in his tracks to appreciate their beauty.

The beach vibrates and pulses with life – bodies of all shapes and sizes, with everyone sporting equal confidence, wear tiny bikinis and miniscule swim shorts. They sprawl out facing whatever direction there is the most direct light, like sunflowers chasing the sun.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that the beach is the heart of Rio’s culture, with Samba music being the soul. In every corner bar or café, some type of Samba music plays till all hours of the evening, and Cariocas (locals from Rio) walk with such a swing in their step that it seems like they Samba all day long.

Interestingly, it was incredibly difficult to find a dance studio that taught Samba no pe (Samba of the feet, danced solo). At that time (and even in many places now), upper class white Brazilians had a blatant dislike of Samba, considering it a dance of the masses (i.e. blacks) and therefore deeming it uncivilised and uncultured.

This opinion includes the Carnival industry, which most Cariocas believe is rife with corruption and underworld drug dealing (they are mostly correct!), and therefore many people with means flee the city during Carnival time in an attempt to avoid the ‘uncouth’ behaviour of the slum dwellers, who descend on the city for the annual 5-day pre-Lenten celebration.

So, during my very first year living in Rio, I found myself gravitating more towards the Danca de Salao (ballroom dance) classes as they were the only ones available in relatively ‘safe’ locations. I delved into the beautiful styles of Samba de Gafieira (Samba danced together), Zouk Lambada, Bolero, Forro and many more.

There are plenty of hole-in-the-wall studios dotted around Rio where you can go on any given night and dance up a storm; however, my heart was still set on learning how to Samba like the sensual Carnival rainhas (Queens of Samba schools) I had seen on TV.

At the time I had a Carioca boyfriend who did not like me dancing at all. It was a constant struggle for me to make it to a dance class, and often I would go to lunchtime classes (for senior citizens!) during my English teaching job in an attempt to avoid an argument in the evening.

I was so young and naive! Nowadays I would never let anyone control me the way he did, but back then it was all I knew about being a ‘good’ girlfriend, especially in a country that wasn’t mine where I knew very few people.

However, it wasn’t long before the influence of my grandfather’s strong will and my mother’s fierce independence started bubbling to the surface.

One fateful day, at one of these lunchtime classes, my dance teacher handed me a flyer for a Samba Congress in Tijuca, a suburb in the outskirts of Rio, famous for its Samba school Salgueiro. It was a weeklong event with teachers from all over Brazil flying in to teach workshops in all of the ballroom dance styles, plus one Samba no pe workshop with a real Carnival Queen!

I was so excited! My first opportunity to immerse myself in dance for an entire week and learn the Carnival Samba I’d be dreaming about!

I bounded in the door that night brimming with excitement and childlike glee.

 

What’s wrong amor?

Nothing!

But why are you smiling like that?

Because I’ve just found out about this amazing course!

Oh really? What course?

It’s a week-long Samba intensive.

Silence.

There are going to be instructors from all over Brazil!

More Silence.

There are workshops all day and dance parties all night!

You’re not going.

What? Why?

Because Tijuca is dangerous. It’s in the north zone and surrounded by slums (mind you at the time we were living in posh Gavea that was backed by the largest slum in South America, Rocinha!)

But I want to dance!

No, and that’s my final word. If you go, we are done.

What?

You heard me. It’s me or Samba! Now make your choice!

 

Tears started to form in my eyes. What he didn’t know was that I had already enrolled in the congress with my hard-earned cash and no one, not even him or our relationship, was going to stop me from going.

So be it.

It was time follow may dream and learn to Samba!