Despite accidently getting lost in one of Rio’s roughest neighbourhoods on my way to attend the opening night of my very first Samba congress, destiny came into play that summer evening and somehow I ended up in the middle of a magical street rehearsal with thousands of members of the local Samba school community.
I had never felt such exhilaration, energy and emotion at an event before, and stayed on at Salgueiro’s quadra (headquarters) until the early hours of the morning, dancing my heart out and soaking up the sensation of finally feeling like I was part of a like-minded tribe.
Needless to say I didn’t make it to the opening party of the congress that night, but instead headed home with a head full of drum beats and my heart bursting to the rim with the passion of Samba.
Despite arriving home as the sun was coming up, I managed to set my alarm for bright and early to ensure that I didn’t miss out on my first full day of dance workshops.
Exhausted but still buzzing from the night before, I made my way back on the metro to Tijuca, making sure not to get off at the wrong station this time! In the daylight, the deserted, scary suburb from the night before seemed like any other in Rio, with people going about their daily lives – street vendors selling fresh tropical fruits, counterfeit CDs, handmade clothing and all types of delicious sweets with guava paste and sticky condensed milk. I stopped at a botequim (corner café) for a quick Brazilian breakfast of misto quente (toasted white bread roll with melted cheese and ham) and a café com leite (coffee with milk) and then finally found the dance centre where the congress was taking place.
As I approached the entrance, I felt a wave of anxiety. Was I doing the right thing? Had I really given up my relationship for a dream of being a dancer? Would it all be worth it?
I took a deep breath and walked in. I was met with a friendly smile and a flurry of Portuguese phrases, and nodded to the receptionist without understanding a word. Presenting my purchase receipt, I started to think about how many things I’d had to overcome just to be here today.
I’d travelled over 30 hours to arrive in Rio, given up my well-paid job teaching English in Australia to immerse myself in the language, culture, history and dance scene of Brazil. I’d just ended a long-term relationship because my boyfriend didn’t want me learning to Samba and was now living all alone in a city where I knew no one.
I have no formal dance training (besides some jazz ballet classes as a child) and no idea if there is even an opportunity in the future to be a non-Brazilian, professional Brazilian dancer. All I knew is that I’ve never felt like I felt the night before at Salgueiro Samba school, and I had to find out why.
Entering the dance studio, I heard the alluring sounds of what is now one of my favourite music styles – Zouk Lambada – but at the time all I knew was that it just sounded so dreamy, and was being danced so close that you could sense your partner’s every breath.
Whoa. I never knew dance could be like this. I felt like Baby from Dirty Dancing when she walked into the secret dance club carrying a watermelon and witnessed Johnny grinding with Penny. Who are all these gorgeous people dancing this sensual style?
The dance Lambada was made popular by the song “Chorando se foi” in the late 80s by Brazilian band Kaoma, and swept the world like wildfire, with the style being given the infamous name of the “Forbidden Dance”.
A decade later in Rio, dance couple Renata Pecanha and Adilio Porto, who were despairing the decline in interest of the style they loved so much, started to experiment with dancing Lambada to Zouk music – a slower, more sensual African rhythm from Cabo Verde.
I had learnt a little bit of Lambada at a Brazilian dance academy back in Brisbane, but this truly was something else. I was mesmerized.
Since then, Zouk has been a huge part of my life. I taught it, performed it, DJ-ed it and danced it for over a decade, and one of my favourite things to do when I return to Rio each year is to go out dancing it with my Brazilian friends.
But back to Samba!
That week was an incredible experience – one that was literally life changing for me. I spent the days absorbing everything like a sponge and the evenings putting into practice everything I’d learnt. Each night I went home in the wee hours of the morning with incredibly sore feet and tired, aching muscles, but with an energy and passion for something I had never felt before.
The workshop that changed everything for me was with Jimmy de Oliveira, a renowned Samba de Gafieira master in Rio, and his partner at the time, Luanda Lins. We learnt some partner moves first, then broke into groups of girls/guys, with the ladies following her. I had never seen anyone move like her before – she was like a panther with strong, precise footwork and feminine, feline arms. I was enchanted and intrigued by how she could look both powerful and delicate at the same time.
At the end of the workshop, despite not being able to speak much Portuguese, I approached her, wanting to thank her for the amazing workshop. As I tried to express my gratitude, she looked at me blankly, put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes.
Now looking back, that SHOULD have been the moment I walked away, realising that she was a TOTAL DIVA.
But of course, as fate would have it, I felt like I just had to find a way to learn with this woman. I took out my mobile phone (which at the time was a rare thing for anyone to have in Rio) and pointed to the screen, signalling for her to enter her number. She did so hastily, then turned her back and strutted off, without even saying goodbye.
The following week I called her and mumbled my way through some phrases I’d prepared about wanting to book a private class. She hung up on me.
I was so furious that someone would be so rude, but again, something inside told me to keep persisting. I rang back the next day and this time she shouted at me to meet her that Friday at a lunchtime baile (dance event) at a studio in the city.
It was here, in an old Colonial-style art deco building with french doors that opened out onto balconies overlooking the old part of Rio’s Centro district, that I met my future husband-to-be.
That was the beginning of my Samba journey.
It’s honestly any wonder that I didn’t give up after all of those challenges, but now, after much time and reflection, I do believe that we are put here on earth to learn specific life lessons and discover our true purpose.
Somehow, I must have known deep down that mine was to SAMBA.