Cavalo Marinho Estrela de Ouro

Yesterday I went to Condado in the Zona da Mata to see a cavalo marinho event by Estrela de Ouro. The group was founded by Mestre Biu Alexandre, who is Fábio Soares’ grandfather. I have been taking cavalo marinho and maracatu rural classes with Fábio for the past couple months at Paço do Frevo, and he encouraged us to come out to see the event.

The event started at around 9:30pm and went all night! (I admit that I only lasted until around 1am. We had to drive 1.5 hours there and back.) I have been watching videos of cavalo marinho and learning some basic steps in class, but I was so excited to see it live and in its complete context. There is something about cavalo marinho that I am drawn to—when I first saw a video (less than a year ago) I was immediately drawn to the music, which, for me, is reminiscent of some combination of Appalachian and Irish fiddle with minor Greek tones and Brazilian rhythms (all of which have personal meaning for me). Then the dance is intriguing—it reminds me of Appalachian flatfooting mixed with urban house dance (?!). But it is not those things and there is something about the posture, a tilt of the head, or something—plus something a bit different in the music—that has made me curious to learn more. I still don’t understand it at all, but I’ve learned more.

Cavalo marinho is very colorful, full of amazing costumes, instruments, and props (for lack of a better word). The energy is intense—it is simultaneously a bit intimidating and also light-hearted. There were lots of kids there who seemed to openly express what I was feeling at every moment: fear, concern, confusion, laughter, boredom, intimidation, disgust, joy.

I am not in a position to explain the content because (1) I am unfamiliar with the characters and the stories, (2) I couldn’t hear anything, and (3) Even if I could hear, I couldn’t understand. So I picked up what I could visually and, I suppose, kinesthetically. What was clear to me was that this was not a performance by any means—it is not a “product” to be “consumed” by others. This event was for the brincadores, the people who were directly participating in the folguedo. That said, there were a few moments when the floor seemed to open up to anyone in the crowd, and people would join in for a few steps. I was interested to see that Fábio played multiple roles; I don’t know if that’s common or if he was filling in for lack of participants, but his energy and versatility were astounding.

Here are some of the characters:

Mestre Ambrosio (Fábio Soares)
Mateus and rabequeiro
Capitão Marinho

Cavalo marinho has nothing to do with frevo. The only connection, it seems, is that they originate from nearby places, but the people who dance them and the contexts in which they are danced are very different. Still, I am learning a lot about the “landscape” of popular dances in Pernambuco by learning what some dances are and what they are not.

I’m fortunate to have many great teachers here to guide me through this research. Fábio is one of the best dance teachers I’ve ever had because of his attentiveness to the nuances of the movement and insistence that we continue to search for the proper “energy” (which comes from body posture; exact angles of the feet, legs, torso, arms; rhythm and connection to the music; facial expression; etc.). Along with teaching these basic steps and physical postures, he is open to sharing his thoughts about the state of cavalo marinho today and provides lots of historical and present-day context. These lessons only deepen the kinesthetic learning and help me better understand what it means to “embody” a collective memory or experience. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to see cavalo marinho live and better understand where this folguedo comes from.

Quem não sabe vai pra aula…

Photo credit: José Henrique Lustosa Roriz

April has been the month for dance classes! This month I dove headfirst into frevo and cavalo marinho classes, and I’m starting to see the hard work and consistent practice pay off. Not only are the movements getting physically better, but I’m also working on musicality, rhythm, and developing the right “feel” for the dances. I’m also lucky to have instructors who are willing to talk to me about the historical and cultural context of the dances.

I have been taking two classes a week at the Escola Municipal de Maestro Fernando Borges with instructor Junior Viegas. The class is for beginners, but there seems to be an expectation that everyone in the class has seen frevo, is familiar with the context (i.e., Carnival), and has a willingness to try some pretty difficult moves. We always start with a quick warm-up and stretch, followed by some movements in the middle of the room. The class is fast-paced and the music is loud, so I always feel jolted awake with a bit of an adrenaline rush. I am still learning the names of steps, so it takes me a second to, first, know what step we are being asked to do, and second, figure out that step! We also do some movements across the floor in pairs, which gives us some time to observe our fellow classmates (and catch our breath). I am enjoying the challenge of learning a lot of new steps and feeling improvements in speed, control, and flexibility over time. The class is an hour long, and it goes by quickly!

Photo credit: Guerreiros do Passo

I am also dancing with the Guerreiros do Passo every Saturday afternoon at Praça do Hipódromo. The class is three hours long! I started taking classes with them before Carnival, but they took a break and started up again after Easter. This class is based on Nascimento do Passo‘s method and is quite different from class at Escola Municipal, although there are similarities. We do a lengthier warm-up and stretch to non-frevo music (salsa, hip hop, anything to get the heart pumping), followed by a frevo-specific warm-up that includes rhythmic exercises that help us ease into the music. Although one instructor leads the class (currently Laércio Olimpio), there are a bunch of other Guerreiros instructors who walk around and give us individual tips.

   Photo credit: Guerreiros do Passo

We do two rodas, when we make a big circle and clap to the music while each of us has an opportunity to improvise individually in the center. The first roda follows the first section of class, which seems to focus more on footwork, and the second section seems to focus more on floorwork. I appreciate having two opportunities because I have been trying to use the first roda to get warmed up, feel the music more, and not try to do anything too fancy. In the second roda, I try to take more risks, which for me is doing more movements “em baixo” (low), and eventually I want to try to do some jumps too.

   Photo credit: Guerreiros do Passo

We always end each roda with a fun confusão that is reminiscent of the fervent, sweaty madness of Carnival 🙂

After the second roda, we usually cool down with some other popular dance styles. Over the past few weeks, these styles have included Afro, coco, cavalo marinho, and ciranda. This is awesome because each style is very distinct (in terms of both movement and music), but there are little connections between each of them. Including other dance styles in the class helps contextualize frevo for me (as an outsider), as something that is distinct but is also part of a larger “constellation” of popular dances from Pernambuco.

I also did an interview last week with Lucélia Albuquerque and Eduardo Araújo of the Guerreiros do Passo. It went for 2+ hours and I was so appreciative of all the information and opinions they were willing to share with me! Class goes by so quickly and we don’t often have a chance to ask questions and hear the reasons why certain things are done a certain way, but it is clear that the Guerreiros do Passo have thought through everything and create their work with clear intentions.

In addition to frevo, I have continued Fabio Soares’ cavalo marinho and maracatu rural classes at the Paço do Frevo. I’m always astounded by his attention to detail and insistence that we feel the nuances of the movement. The footwork may seem rather basic at first (for example, stamp two feet together and then step back twice), but Fabinho corrects our posture, our knees, the height at which our foot comes off the ground, exactly how our feet hit the floor and how they sound—everything matters. As he says, if we don’t do it just so, “é outra coisa” (it’s something else). For example, he can demonstrate how the same footwork in cavalo marinho and caboclinhos can have such different dynamics in terms of weight and sound. I might not have noticed if he hadn’t pointed it out, but it’s clear if you know what to pay attention to.

Maracatu rural is an interesting style and I am aware that I need more context to fully understand what we have learned so far. We, of course, do not dance in the amazing costumes that they wear, but Fabinho leads us through some exercises that help us get “the feel” for the dance. It is a bit aggressive and what we have done so far is “deflect” attacks from him or from another classmate while doing a simple footwork pattern to the rhythm of the music. It feels very much as though it exists in that in-between (liminal) space between seriousness and playfulness; I’m not sure what part of it is a game and what is a fight, or if it’s both simultaneously, and whether I should laugh or run away (ha!). Although it looks nothing like capoeira, that feeling of impending attack countered by playfulness is familiar.

Cavalo Marinho with Fabio Soares / Photo credit: Paço do Frevo

Cavalo marinho continues to be challenging. I have never been so intimately aware of the bottoms of my feet and how they connect to the floor—which is an interesting thing for a percussive step dancer to admit, but, of course, I always step dance in shoes, and we do cavalo marinho class barefoot. We usually only do two or three steps per class and we repeat them over and over again. Somehow it doesn’t get boring; Fabinho gives so much feedback that I’m constantly adjusting and readjusting my posture and weight transfer, and discovering new things in the process.

I also attended one cavalo marinho class with Frank Sosthénes at Carvalho Stúdio de Dança in Boa Vista. That class was an entirely different experience. We did a ton of steps, one after the other, by following Frank dancing at full-speed in the front of the class. I loved the exposure to more steps and variations, and it was very challenging to keep up! We learned a choreography in the second half of class which included a mergulhão, which I’d only seen, but never participated in. This is a roda (circle formation) where one person goes into the center and “calls” another person, who then calls another, who then calls another, and so on. The “caller” and the “called” do a specific step that seems to go by in a blink of an eye. I have been fascinated while watching this because I can’t quite tell what the relationship between the caller and the called person is—there is momentary eye contact, but by the time you are called, you already have to think about who you are going to call next. It was fun (and admittedly frustrating) to try this for the first time, and I’d love to know more about what’s going on there.

Finally, I had one more new dance experience this month! I tried a vogue class with Edson Voguee, who is also a Guerreiro do Passo. He often incorporates vogue into his frevo solos, which works surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) well. There are certain similarities, especially in terms of floorwork (e.g., duckwalk and “patinho”). The class was also at Praça do Hipódromo and it was incredibly fun; I accessed some attitude within me that I’d never known was there 🙂

When I first met Edson, I actually recognized him from a video I saw last year on Facebook: “Dance Your PhD 2017 – Pop, Dip and Spin: The Legendary Biosensor For Forensic Sciences.” A vogue version of a dissertation in Forensic Sciences at Universidade Federal de Pernambuco!

Here also is a short video made by Ricardo Mantovanini about how Edson thinks about the relationship between vogue and frevo:

And on that note…are wrapping up the month of April in Salvador, Bahia, so stayed tuned for an update on that trip!

Halfway point reflection

It’s hard to believe that three months have already passed! It’s gone really fast and also really slow. Three more months to go, and I am feeling the pressure to get a lot done before it’s time to leave.

Since the non-stop craziness of carnival has been over for about six weeks, it’s been good to relax and get my bearings back, travel a bit (see posts about my trip to Zona Da Mata and São Paulo), catch up on reading, and have more conversations with people.

I am feeling a bit more comfortable with Portuguese, but still get frustrated with not being able to communicate fully. This has been my process so far —— Month 1: total immersion, leading to total confusion, culture shock, and frustration (in a good way). Month 2: listening more attentively, including becoming slightly addicted to cheesy novelas with subtitles (“Deus Salve O Rei” is my favorite). Month 3: forcing myself to have more conversations and relying less on Pablo as translator. I think months 4-6 should be more of all of the above, with the specific goal of speaking in more complete sentences 🙂


I was delighted to find sombrinhas (little umbrellas) in the Labanotation
in Maria Goretti Rocha de Oliveira’s book,
Frevo: uma apresentação coreológica

I have been collecting a lot of books and articles about frevo, carnival, and Recife, so I am slowly working my way through those. I’m trying to take the time to read now, rather than rush through with the idea that I’ll go back later (I won’t). The literature on the passo (frevo dance, as opposed to the music or carnival in general) is somewhat sparse, but it is interesting to read perspectives from various sources, such as journalists, professional dancers, dance scholars, and more. I have also started working on a new project with Professor Amilcar Bezerra from UFPE-Caruaru on the relationship between frevo music and dance, along with larger questions about what constitutes performance in the context of Recife’s carnival. We are examining how frevo music and dance together create a soundscape through various “fields of cultural production” (to use Bourdieu’s terminology) that are all interconnected and interactive. We’ll be conducting a series of interviews with dancers and musicians from these different spaces (including schools, companies, experimental artists, etc.) in order to examine the connections, confrontations, and ambiguities between them.

In addition to this research, I am continuing to explore my questions about frevo as a “dance of resistance” and it’s relationship to (i.e., roots in) capoeira. What has been most helpful for me so far has been attending classes and hearing how this narrative is communicated to students. For example, I went to Alisson Lima’s frevo and capoeira class at Instituto Brincante in São Paulo and interviewed him about his perspective on the subject (see my previous post). In addition, I have been taking Otávio Bastos’ “frevo cinquentão” at the Paço do Frevo. His concept is to teach us how to dance frevo “for ourselves,” as opposed to the more presentational and virtuosic style “for audiences” that we see on the frevo stages during carnival. Frevo cinquentão is more like the style you would see on the streets, typified by someone who is 50+ years of age (hence the name cinquentão), and incorporates what he calls “mungangas.” This is what you do when you are dancing/improvising and you draw a blank. You have a choice—you can either freeze and stop, or you can figure out a way to keep going. This latter choice of simply finding a way to keep going is “munganga.” Of course, to “mungangar” isn’t simple at all and requires a lot of familiarity with and knowledge of the steps and the form. And although the name “cinquentão” suggests that the style is for an older, perhaps less physically fit crowd, I think the name really suggests how many years of knowledge and experience it takes to build up that ability to “mugangar no passo”!

Here is Otávio’s video about frevo cinquentão, on his YouTube channel “Mexe Com Tudo”:

In class, we are encouraged to develop our own individual style and play around with dynamics. For example, Otávio has us play with an idea that hearkens back to the days when capoeiras led the frevo bands and were subject to repression—we pretend that the “police are watching,” so we make our movements small, subtle, internalized, but when they “go away,” we can go full out, fully extending our limbs and taking up as much space as possible. In both cases, I am slowly learning to feel the “jack” of frevo (to borrow a term from house dance, meaning the “groove” or that internal feeling/bounce that underlies all movement in a particular style). So far, I am feeling it the most in my shoulders, but there is also that tension between introversion and extroversion in the chest. Frevo still feels structurally very different from capoeira, but there are some similarities in the playfulness of both styles and the feeling of playing “small” versus going full out.

On Monday, I visited the Escola Municipal de Frevo in Encruzilhada for the first time. I was able to observe the Companhia de Frevo do Recife during one of their rehearsals. I was surprised by how familiar it was to me because the format of the class was very similar to jazz, contemporary, and hip hop classes that I’ve taken in the U.S. They started with a warm-up, followed by about 40 minutes of choreography that looked like a combination of frevo and jazz. That is, every end pose was a frevo shape, but all of the transitions in between were from jazz or ballet (e.g., a barrel turn, a fan kick, a battement, etc.). Then they proceeded to do some short patterns across the floor, and finally they worked on a frevo choreography called “Frevariando.” This last choreography seemed more like “straight” frevo, although I could see influences from jazz and ballet as well.

Last night I started a new beginner frevo class with Junior Viegas at the Escola Municipal. Since it is Semana Santa and people are in holiday mode, the class was more informal than usual and we started with some “brincadeiras,” which in this case were variations on the game of tag, with a frevo flair. I’m looking forward to continuing this class. I am expecting it to be quite a different experience from classes with Guerreiros do Passo (who emphasize Nascimento do Passo‘s teaching method) and with Otávio. I am looking forward to examining the difference, in terms of class format, teaching approach, and how the movement style feels in my body.

In addition to frevo classes, I will also be starting another session of cavalo marinho classes with Fabinho Soares starting next week at the Paço do Frevo. Although I am here primarily for frevo, I am really interested in learning more about this dance and performance tradition from Pernambuco’s Zona Da Mata. I’ve learned that there are fewer passos (steps) in the cavalo marinho repertory than frevo, but, when I see it, I feel that each movement carries a lot of weight and significance. Fabinho’s teaching method also suggests how nuanced the movement is, as he is very particular about adjusting the body just so, in order to make it cavalo marinho and not “outra coisa” (something else). The footwork and rhythms are familiar when I compare them to other dance styles I’ve done (e.g., Irish step, flatfooting, house dance, etc.) but there is something particular and nuanced about the posture and the tilt of the head/upper body that I want to understand. I won’t get the full context of the dance just through classes (performances are 4-8 hours long with many characters and storylines!), but I will get some sense of what it takes to do it. Unfortunately, it seems as though cavalo marinho is more active during the other half of the year (July-January, exactly when I’m not here). Maybe I’ll come back? 🙂

Here is Fabinho’s group Estrela de Ouro performing cavalo marinho a few years ago:

So I am expecting a busy schedule for next three months! My reading list is growing exponentially, but I also have to use the time while I’m here to meet with people and take the classes that I won’t be able to do after I leave. Vamos dançar!