Arriving in Europe was a breath of fresh air.
All of the heaviness I had been feeling back home seemed to instantly disappear as I stepped off the plane in Amsterdam and was met with an enormous hug from a beautiful Aussie friend who had just recently moved there.
Despite the exhaustion of travel, we spent the day exploring the vibrant city of my mother’s family, and catching up on everything that had happened since we’d last seen each other. It felt so wonderful to be on the opposite side of the world but in the presence of a true, dear friend. There is nothing more nurturing than spending a day in the sunshine with a soul sister, pouring out your heart and being supported by someone who truly cares about you.
There’s also no better remedy to get out of your head and back into the land of the living than to travel (except for dance of course!). I love travelling solo as it completely pushes my boundaries, challenges my courage and forces me to be even more independent than I usually am. I also love the fact that so much magic can happen when you open yourself up to new experiences, and allow yourself to go with the flow rather than have everything planned in advance.
Learning to go with the flow has been one of my major life challenges as I always like to be organized and to have things mapped out. This gives me a sense of security, which I feel I need in this very unpredictable industry of the arts and being self-employed. Whilst it is important to have a plan (and a budget!), I’ve often missed the beauty of coincidence and the joy of simply enjoying the moment as I’ve been too focused on the future.
I am also guilty of not taking the time to celebrate my achievements. For too long I would set myself a goal and work tirelessly towards it, often for many years and through many tears. I would doubt myself along the way and constantly ask myself how on earth I thought I had to capacity to achieve it. But I’d never once give up.
It must be the Taurean bull in me, or because I was brought up to begin and finish a task, despite the outcome. Once I achieved it (and most often I surprisingly outdid myself!), I would allow myself to feel a brief moment of pride, and then immediately move on to the next goal, always trying to up the ante and push myself harder.
My close friends would often comment about how they admired my drive and work ethic, but suggested that I needed to take some time between each success to really process what I had achieved. Yet to me, I didn’t think my successes were anything to celebrate as I still wasn’t a millionaire, didn’t own my own home, didn’t have the ‘perfect’ body and wasn’t internationally recognised as a dancer or business woman. I would criticize myself daily about not having achieved this or that, not being disciplined enough for this or that, and would hence set the barre even higher for the next goal.
It was exhausting and utterly debilitating.
Despite how glamorous and successful my life appeared in the social media world, I was at a breaking point. I was 37 years old and seriously considering changing careers. I had been burnt so many times in business, and was starting to crack under the pressure of relentless industry critics trying to push me down so they could elevate themselves, and the deep isolation of working day in and day out alone – the only cheerleader in the cheer squad trying to motivate myself to keep going despite the utter sadness I felt deep within that I wasn’t as successful as my friends and peers.
But what did success even mean?
Did it mean getting married, having kids, dogs and a lovely home whilst juggling a medical degree with working part-time like my sister? Did it mean working my entire life dedicated to a sole profession like my parents? Or was it working a corporate job, owning a fancy car, attending events in designer outfits and travelling to Instagram-worthy destinations like my friends?
I truly didn’t know anymore but I knew that for some reason deep down, I just didn’t feel successful.
So I made a stern promise to myself that my trip to Europe would be different. My only goals were to reconnect with why I loved to dance and teach dance, to remind myself of how Samba and Brazil had influenced and inspired my life, and to share this with the Sambistas of Europe.
I had heard that the Samba scene in Europe was thriving, and that there were thousands of dancers who were part of long-established schools who were affiliated with Rio’s famous samba schools, and who held annual parades across the continent, reminiscent of Rio’s Carnival. I was excited but nervous, as I knew that many of these festivals regularly brought over the cream of the crop of Rio’s Samba Queens and Muses to perform and teach, and so I would need to offer something very different in order to be booked for workshops and shows. I had also heard that many of them, despite being foreigners themselves, only booked Brazilian artists.
When I started to reach out to schools a year in advance to schedule my tour, more often than not I was turned down. Despite having taught Samba for over a decade, toured all over Australia, Asia and the USA and performed in Rio Carnival 7 times, many schools responded with: “You are an Australian Samba dancer right? Sorry, we only work with authentic Brazilian dancers.”
What did that even mean?
It was then that my inner critic fired up and I started obsessively comparing myself to Rio’s magnificent Carnival Queens. I don’t have a body like theirs, I don’t dance like them, I’m not from the ‘community’ (slums), and even though Samba has been my full time job for the best part of a decade, I don’t ‘live and breathe’ Samba like they do. I speak fluent Portuguese and have lived in Rio for long periods of time, but I’m not “Carioca”. Who was I fooling to think that they would want to hire me, an Aussie, over an ‘authentic’ Brazilian?
At that point, I could have given up on the idea of touring Europe and simply settled for the fact that I would never be accepted into the top echelon of Brazilian dancers, despite being an English/Portuguese-speaking, university trained teacher, as well as a Yoga/Pilates instructor and performance coach who had been going to Rio for the past 16 years and immersing herself in the culture. None of my extensive experience, knowledge or passion seemed to matter – I had apparently hit a glass ceiling in my career.
Again that inner critic reared its ugly head and I questioned myself why I was even bothering in this scene anymore. I had worked so hard, trained so much and sacrificed much more than most to get where I was, and yet no one seemed to care.
But in fact some people did.
Despite the knock backs, something inside told me that I needed to dig deeper. The more I researched and started to personally connect with Samba students from all over Europe, the more I realised that there was an entire scene of women struggling with the very same issue as me.
Foreigners who had fallen in love with Samba, who attended weekly classes in their hometowns, travelled across Europe to attend festivals and saved their pennies to make the pilgrimage to Rio Carnival. Many of them had Brazilian boyfriends or were studying Portuguese or simply loved the music and the amazing workout Samba provided for their bodies.
Yet they too were feeling the crunch of not being Brazilian. They too were comparing themselves to the Instagram videos of the mighty Queens of the Sambadrome, secretly wishing they had bigger booties and fake boobs, bulging muscles, sun-drenched skin and exotic features.
It was then that I realised that I needed to step up.
I needed to share my story and spread the word that it didn’t matter where you were from, what your body looked like, what language your spoke or whether you had white/yellow/brown or black skin, you had a right to Samba.
You had the right to immerse yourself in a culture that wasn’t yours and fall completely, madly and passionately in love with it. You had the right to connect with your body, connect with the music and dance Samba for your own self-expression, femininity and sensuality. You had the right to form friendships and a community with Samba as the anchor.
Dance belongs to no one and to everyone. We all have the right to dance to the beat of our own drums in whatever way moves us.
This became my mantra.
As my tour finally unfolded and I travelled across 10 countries in Europe teaching hundreds of women, I became more and more aware of the importance of my message.
In my workshops, women broke down in tears, they had light bulb moments, and they got out of their heads and into their hearts and finally felt free to express themselves through Samba in their own unique way.
My heart burst with joy. I had been thrown back onto my path by listening to my intuition and focusing on my individuality, and in turn had regained confidence in my Samba journey.
At the end of my trip, I had a spare few days and decided to visit Italy to connect with a Brazilian woman from Rio, who was now living in Milan, and whose work I had admired for many years.
Her name was Quiteria Chagas, and she was known not only as a famous actress on Brazilian TV, but also as an icon in the Rio Carnival industry.
Little did I know that, along with all of the incredible women I had met on my tour, Quiteria was about to reignite my self-belief and ultimately help me alter the course of Rio Carnival history….
With Quiteria Chagas in Milan, Italy