You know those moments in life when you feel like a bull in a ring, and the torero is waving an enormous red flag at you?
Well that is exactly how I felt when I first locked eyes with him. In an instant I knew he was going to be bad news, but of course I didn’t listen to my intuition and allowed myself to be swept up by his charm.
He was tall, dark and handsome, and walked straight towards me with such confidence and conviction, and with an enchanting, sparkly smile, that it was all I could do not to fall head over heels and into his arms.
He invited me to dance and our bodies melted into one another, and the rest, as they say, is HIStory.
He was Carioca (a local from Rio), born and bred in the slums, and I was from a middle-class migrant family in Brisbane, Australia. He spoke Portuguese and I spoke English. I was 23 and he was 37. He had never left Rio and I had at that time already travelled to Asia, Europe and the USA. He’d never finished high school and I had graduated with a Post-Graduate degree in Languages and Linguistics. He’d been married and had 2 kids to 2 different women. I had hardly even had a serious boyfriend. We were from completely different worlds but the chemistry was electric. The expression “opposites attract” couldn’t have been truer for us.
In the first few months of dating, he introduced me to the magical worlds of Brazilian danca de salao (ballroom dancing) and Pagode (street-style Samba music).
In Rio, Samba de Gafieira is an iconic ‘ballroom’ dance that has often been likened to Argentinean tango because of its intricate footwork, but it’s actually incredibly playful and energetic – not intense and serious – and so very Carioca in its unique style.
It is taught at dance studios around Rio as part of a common dance syllabus, which also includes styles such as Bolero, Soltinho, Forro and Zouk Lambada.
I expressed to him my burning desire to learn these styles, in particular Samba, and my frustrations at not being able to find the right places to do so, and he relished the opportunity to introduce me to his colleagues, friends and dance mentors. By day I would immerse myself in dance lessons, undergoing gruelling training sessions complete with bleeding feet, screaming teachers and many tears, in order to fast-track my dance skills. By night we would head out to dance events at local hotspots such as Cachanga do Malandro in Lapa, Academia do Jimmy in Catete and the Sirio e Libones club in Copacabana to dance the night away.
More often than not, these nights would also end in tears, as I would feel so intimated by all of the amazing dancers (who, mind you, had been dancing since they were kids!), and I’d just freeze up like a deer in headlights and forget everything I’d been learning. Despite his encouragement and patience, I was a nervous wreck most nights and just couldn’t seem to get over my stage fright.
On top of this, I had started to notice MANY women eyeing him off at the events, with some even slipping notes his way while he was seated with me, or holding onto him a little longer than appropriate after a dance had ended. I had never been a jealous person, so at the time I put it down to the fact that I was feeling insecure with my dance, and they were just these gorgeous glamazons who I thought I could never be like. But as my dance skills began to improve and so did my Portuguese, the veil started to lift and I began to understand why I had felt so uneasy around all of these women.
You see, he was a professional “taxi” dancer, meaning that he was hired by wealthy women to escort them to elite events at fancy hotels and be their dance partner for the night. Many of these women had husbands who either didn’t like to dance, couldn’t dance or had passed away, so it was a very lucrative scene for young male dancers as these women didn’t want to sit by themselves waiting to be asked to dance all night, so would book them out exclusively!
He assured me that nothing untoward ever went on, but when he started to receive gifts of high-end clothing, watches, cologne, a brand new car and free rent at one of their apartments, I couldn’t take it anymore.
What the hell is going on? Are you cheating on me?
Of course not meu amor! It’s only a job and as you know, working as a professional dancer here in Rio pays so poorly.
These women respect my talent and pay me well. Plus, I always come home to you!
I was so young and naïve that I thought he was telling the truth. So I returned my focus to my dance training and Portuguese studies, and this adventurous new life I was living in a completely foreign land started to feel less lonely and unfamiliar with someone local to share it with.
As well as Samba, he introduced me to one of his favourite styles of underground Rio street music, Funk, and on weekends we’d often head up into the slums to go to baile funks.
Now, if you were to invite me up to a slum nowadays to a funk party, my response would be HELL NO! But at the time, I was just so excited to be living in Rio and wanted to soak up as much of the atmosphere as possible.
He did however prep me in advance. He explained that the slums were run by drug lords, and that there were only certain slums we could go into as he knew people who would keep an eye on us.
Again, HELLO RED FLAG!
But of course I thought it was all very thrilling!
One particular evening, we headed up to Morro dos Macacos (Monkey Hill) for a baile funk that was being held at the local basketball stadium (how very glamourous!). I was “dressed to the nines” in my tiny new denim skirt covered with diamantes, big hoop earrings, super high platform heels and bright red false nails and lipstick to match – a look he had picked out for me (much to my disapproval) in an effort to ‘blend in’ (despite at the time having bleach blonde hair and being at least a foot taller than most Brazilians!).
As we entered the venue, I was hit by an electrifying energy from the crowd. The stadium was packed to the rafters with funkeiros. Everyone was getting down and dirty on the dance floor to the tunes of a local MC, gyrating their hips, popping their booties and grinding up against each other. It was all I could do not to stare with my mouth agape.
What is this world?
He grabbed my hand and led me through the pumping crowd and upstairs to the camarote (VIP area – in a slum!) where he left me in the hands of two heavily armed guards with AK47s, while he went to pay respect to the president of the slum.
Oh my god. Guns? At a party? I looked out and over the balcony to the crowd below. Suddenly as the next song came on, a group of guys all raised their pistols and started dancing with them in the air. More joined in and then the two guards next to me raised theirs. What was going on?
Then it happened. Someone fired the first shot – a show of bravado – to warn everyone in the venue that if there were to be any trouble tonight, they would be instantly surrounded.
Without even thinking, I bolted. The two guards who had been ‘minding’ me ran after me, calling out “Senhora, wait!” but they couldn’t catch me, despite me being in super high heels. I ran out of the venue like my life depended on it, with my heart almost leaping from my chest. Across the road, I saw a brightly lit local restaurant and headed straight for it.
As I sat down, breathless, I immediately thought of my parents. What on earth would they think if they knew their 23 year-old daughter – who they had taken such great care of and had sacrificed so much to put through a private school and university – was in the middle of a Rio slum partying it up with a bunch of drug lords?
And even worse, what if someone had actually caused trouble, and I was caught in the crossfire? How would they even know where I was? This was back in the day where there were no smart phones, internet was dial up and only found at a bunch of cafes in the rich south zone, and there was no online Australian government service to register your whereabouts whilst overseas.
The tears started to roll down my face and ruin my ghetto make up as the severity of the situation and my utter carelessness started to sink in. The restaurant owner must have sensed I was distressed, and brought me over a caipirinha to calm my nerves.
With this gentle gesture of kindness, the floodgates opened.
I started bawling my eyes out, almost shouting at the poor man in English about how stupid I was, how much I missed home, how my boyfriend was so controlling and had a bunch of women after him, how I dreamt of one day being a professional dancer but just couldn’t seem to get past my stage fright, how hard I’d been practicing my Portuguese but now only English was coming out…
To his credit, he just sat down and held my hand, pretending to understand and nodding reassuringly.
I have had so many of these beautiful moments with total strangers in Brazil.
Despite all of the economic, political and social issues the city (and nation) constantly faces, Cariocas continue to surprise me with their kindness, resilience and willingness to help out another person, despite cultural and language barriers.
This is one of the reasons that kept me pursuing my dance dream in Rio, despite the enormous amount of obstacles in my way. Knowing that even though I was on the other side of the world, there was always going to be someone watching out for me, even if I didn’t even know them and they couldn’t understand a word I said.
But then again, who needed words when we shared the mutual love of SAMBA?