Yesterday was a great event for me! Escola de Capoeira Perna Pesada had a women’s encounter that included some of my favorite things: capoeira, frevo, and even Irish dancing! I was invited to teach an Irish dance class as part of the day’s activities and I was really happy to have the opportunity to share a bit of my culture with the group. It all came circle for me.
My first introduction to capoeira (and Brazilian culture in general) was in Ireland when I was doing my Master’s in Traditional Irish Dance Performance at the University of Limerick. I was reading a book chapter about Laurie Booth, a British dancer and choreographer who used capoeira to develop his technique, and I thought, “Capoeira? What a funny word. What is that all about?” I was intrigued and asked my course director if I could do capoeira for my second semester elective. She found a teacher for me, Mestre Piau of Grupo Candeias in Limerick, and so it began.
I returned to the US and started training with Mestre Curisco’s Grupo Capoeira Malês in Chico, CA and then the same group in Washington, DC. And it was through capoeira that I was introduced to frevo—someone said to me, “You should try frevo because it’s more like Irish dancing”—that is, more vertical, lots of footwork and kicking, heels and toes, etc. I think the implication was that I didn’t quite have the ginga (or swing, swagger) for capoeira; I’ve always struggled to “get low.”
So I did a bit of research on frevo and immediately loved it. I thought, “Hey, I can do that!” Until I saw the big leaps and squatting movements. That’s another story 🙂
In any case, this is why is was very special for me to be able to teach Irish dancing at a capoeira event, and we even had a frevo+capoeira class at the end. The frevo+capoeira was taught by Professora Paula who was visiting from Halifax and I had a great time mixing the frevo moves I’ve learned with the “game” of capoeira. The game felt liberated from the aggressiveness of capoeira but also from the pressure of having improvise a solo in frevo—I could play off of my partner so there was more action/reaction. I got a chance to see how effective the move abre alas is in practice. It works! It made me understand a bit better, experientially, how capoeira could have turned into frevo back at the turn of the 20th century.
There was also a lecture at the end about Valdemar de Oliveira’s Frevo, Capoeira e Passo book from 1942 about the development of frevo from its capoeira origins. She explained something I hadn’t thought much about before—that is, how capoeira in Pernambuco is (and has been) different from capoeira in Bahia. I think the capoeira from Bahia is more widespread now, even in Pernambuco, but historically they were very different. So when we are thinking about how frevo could have developed from capoeira, it is important to remember that not only did it not develop from the capoeira we know today, but did not develop from the capoeira that may have existed at the turn of the century in Bahia. Pernambuco has, of course, its own specific context.
So it all came full circle for me. A perfect end to my six months here in Recife.
I have a little more than a month left in Recife and things are speeding up more and more as I approach the end of this research trip. A lot has been happening since my halfway point reflection so this is my “three-quarters point” reflection.
The month of May has been filled with interviews which have been fun, informative, and overwhelming. I spent the first couple months here just soaking things up and getting a lay of the land (also called “deep hanging out,” to quote anthropologist Clifford Geertz), and then I spent the next couple months in dance classes every day to dig into the “participant observation” phase of my research. Now that I have met some people, and I have a better idea of what is going on here, I have been able to approach some important figures in Recife’s frevo world to ask them some better-informed questions.
Eduardo Araújo and Lucélia Albuquerque from Guerreiros do Passo offered great insight into their group and their commitment to ensuring the continued legacy of Mestre Nascimento do Passo.
Ferreirinha do Frevo spoke passionately about historical and current cultural context of frevo in Recife and explained some of the “darker” history of frevo, indicating that frevo is not all smiles and colorful umbrellas.
Valéria Vicente comes to frevo as a foliã (someone who enjoys carnival and dances frevo in the streets) and is also a dance artist and scholar who has created works and written books about frevo. Her scholarship and artistic work has been very informative for me, as she touches on themes of resistance as well as the somatic experience of frevo.
Bruna Renata is the director of the Companhia do Frevo de Recife and practices many different dance styles besides frevo, including ballet, jazz, dança de salão (ballroom/partner dancing), and more. She offered a unique perspective on modern influences on frevo and innovation within this genre of dance.
Júnior Viégas directs his own Stúdio Viégas and is my frevo teacher at Escola Municipal de Frevo. He is an artist who works primarily within the frevo genre—he is extremely active in the frevo world and he talked to me about his experiences directing his own company, teaching at Escola Municipal, and offering “vivências” for visitors at the Paço do Frevo (a museum dedicated to frevo).
Laércio Olímpio comes to frevo as a folião and is also our professor with Guerreiros do Passo. He demonstrates inspiring creativity and ability in his dancing that brings a certain carnival “spirit” to the space. He spoke to me about the differences between the frevo of previous generations and frevo today, offering great perspective on what has changed and what has stayed the same.
Fabinho Soares spoke to me about cavalo marinho and maracatu rural from Zona Da Mata. Fabinho is one of the best dance teachers I’ve ever had because he combines historical/cultural/political context with the nuances of the movement and he teaches us how to respect these traditions. He offers an important perspective for better understanding the multiplicity of cultural expressions in Pernambuco.
And I still have more interviews to go! The amount of information I’m learning from each of these people is overwhelming, and each one shapes my understanding of frevo in unexpected ways. I’m grateful that they have all been so willing to speak to me and share their knowledge.
As a result of these conversations, I have also been pointed in the direction of many important books and articles written about frevo and popular dance in Recife/Pernambuco. In case you think my days are filled with dancing (those are my evenings, haha), I have been trying to cram as much reading in as possible. This is no easy task for me in Portuguese, but I’m managing.
(By the way, Evernote is my best friend, and I am not being paid to say this. I don’t know how I’d organize all this information: articles, photos, notes, video links, journal entries, etc. All tagged and compiled into digital notebooks.)
Meanwhile, I am continuing to take dance classes nearly every day and my body is in pain, but happy (good pain). We are also going to capoeira classes at Mestre Perna Pesada’s academy in Encruzilhada, which has been great fun. It has been awhile since I’ve trained capoeira and it feels good to get back in the jogo (game). My introduction to Brazilian culture was through capoeira, so it’s been interesting to go back to that world after having been in Brazil for a few months.
I am planning a couple more trips for my last month. At least one of these will be purely recreational—I still have not spent time at the beach, besides a short walk in João Pessoa, and I am also hoping to swim under a Brazilian cachoeira (waterfall). Festa Junina is also coming up throughout the month of June so we are planning to travel to some other cities in Pernambuco that are known for great music and dancing. I’m ready to dance some forró! 🙂
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!
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.
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.
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 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!
In my last post, I wrote about Otávio Bastos’ frevo cinquentão class and how we are playing around with dynamics using the story of frevo’s origins in capoeira. He shared this video on his channel “Mexe com Tudo,” in which he explains what he told us in class about the two styles and “drible.” Check it out!
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!
We’ve just returned from an unforgettable weeklong trip to São Paulo!
The primary purpose of the trip was to do some research at Antônio Nóbrega‘s Instituto Brincante, which included classes in music, dance, and poetry. The space itself is gorgeous and inviting; I immediately felt a great energy when I walked in. They have a few classrooms and dance spaces, lined with Brazilian percussion instruments and other costumes, props, and set pieces. I loved the staircase, where photographs and other memorabilia were displayed.
I participated in a number of classes. First, I attended a Brazilian percussion class for beginners with instructor Luis Zanetti. We started with some warm-up clapping exercises and gradually built up to more complex Brazilian rhythms, eventually splitting up into groups and playing different percussion instruments, including alfaias, caixas, shakers, tamborins, and agogôs. I spent the most time playing it safe on the agogô (already familiar to me from capoeira), but also tried a bit of tamborim, which was a bit more complicated but really fun to play. It always feels good to connect to other people through music and percussion.
I was most excited to attend Alisson Lima’s frevo & capoeira class, since my introduction to frevo was through capoeira, and specifically because I’m interested in frevo’s roots in capoeira and the connection between the two as “dances of resistance.” I’d seen this video from Instituto Brincante last year as I was preparing my research proposal, and I’d never seen anything like it! The idea of playing with frevo and capoeira together, and dancing frevo with a partner like in a capoeira roda, really appealed to me. Part of that appeal comes from my personal preference to approach capoeira training as a dance rather than a martial art (although I appreciate and respect both approaches and their histories). Check out the video:
Alisson is a great teacher and when I interviewed him one afternoon, he told me about his somatic research and dance pedagogy. What he articulates about his experience as a dancer and performer comes through in his classes. I was able to participate in two of his frevo/capoeira classes, the first of which focused on frevo and the second of which focused on capoeira. We started each class with playful exercises that warmed us up and also broke the ice a bit: solo improvisation, group improvisation, jump rope (it had been years since I’d jumped into a rope!), etc. We learned some frevo moves and some capoeira moves, which were familiar to me from previous classes I’ve taken in each style. However, what struck me the most was his encouragement to play with the movements and express ourselves. In class, he had us dance to all kinds of music—not just frevo or capoeira music—so it opened up a lot of possibilities that I want to continue experimenting with. I wish I could continue the semester in São Paulo to experience the journey he has planned for the class.
Finally, I attended a Brazilian poetry class with the great dancer, musician, poet, actor, and artist Antônio Nóbrega! I will admit that I was a bit star-struck. He is one of the foremost frevo artists in the world! The poetry class was quite a challenge for a struggling beginner Portuguese speaker like myself (rhyming in a foreign language is hard!), but it was incredibly inspiring to spend three hours in a small classroom with him. He not only spoke about poetry, but also about music, dance, theatre, art, and performance—and how they are all connected. I could see that connection in his body as he spoke and moved. He talked about erudite and popular culture in Brazil: where their different lineages have intersected and where they have branched off, and how they continue to do so. Besides learning about some of the technical nuances of grammatical, metric, and strophic forms in Brazilian poetry (!!!), it was a thrilling experience to hear him speak and sing—and even see him dance a bit.
Besides visiting Instituto Brincante, we also, of course, explored São Paulo. The trip involved catching up with our friend Lucas, meeting new friends, visiting a handful of museums, hearing live music and dancing (of course), and eating a lot of good food. We have to thank Lucas for being an incredible host and shepherding us through this enormous city! We certainly took advantage of our seven days in São Paulo.
One of my favorite pieces of art at Museu Afro Brasil: part of The Veterans Series by Gerard Quenum of Benin
Parks, landmarks, and cool spaces: the fun and colorful graffiti at Beco do Batman; the impressive Catedral de Sé; the beautiful landscape and fun exercise equipment at Parque Ibiripuera; the Renaissance, Baroque, and Art Nouveau architecture of the Teatro Municipal opera house
Beco do Batman
Markets and shopping: the Japanese neighborhood and market of Liberdade; the endless rows of delicious exotic fruits and insanely enormous mortadela sandwiches at Mercadão Municipal; the variety of musical genres (samba, forró, rock, axé, indie rock, heavy metal, reggae…) and people-watching on Avenida Paulista on a Sunday; a few shopping malls (obligatory part of any Brazilian city experience, it seems); and a unique flower and plant boutique at FLO atelier botânico
Bottom left: fruits at Mercadão Municipal / Top left: humongous mortadela and chicken sandwiches / Right: ceviche tower at Rinconcito Peruano
Food and drinks: drinks at Fast Berlin and Salve Jorge in Pinheiros; a pleasant afternoon chat over coffee and kombucha at Isso É Café; amazing ceviche at Rinconcito Peruano; the most incredible northeastern cuisine and beautiful fruit caipirinhas at Recife-owned Mocotó (where I sampled the tiniest bit of sarapatel, which wasn’t bad, but definitely doesn’t taste like chicken); authentic (so my Bahian expert friends say) acarajé at Tabuleiro do Acarajé; a quick coffee at Nano’s pop-up in Vila Madalena; an unforgettable coffee “ritual” experience the Coffee Lab; and famous São Paulo pizza at Carlos Pizza
Fruity caipirinhas, an unforgettable lunch with old and new friends, and photo with chef Rodrigo Oliveira at northeastern Brazilian restaurant Mocotó
Needless to say, I’m tired! But also refreshed and ready for the next phase of research in Recife.
Carnival has ended, which means that the first “phase” of my Fulbright research plan is over. I’ve been in Recife for about a month and a half, and I’ve experienced some of the lead-up to carnival and carnival itself. I say “some of” the lead-up to carnival because it is clear that the prévias and ensaios of the various blocos have been going on for months, and I only caught the tail-end of it. By the end of carnival, men and women covered in glitter and wearing masks and costumes were commonplace, and I hardly even reacted when a man dressed as “The Mask,” in a bright yellow suit and green mask, cross the street in front of me. (Okay, I totally pointed and exclaimed, “The Mask!”)
I feel like we just plopped down into the middle of a huge vortex and I’m still trying to make sense of it all. I am still struggling with Portuguese, although I am starting to understand better as I learn more vocabulary, and maybe more importantly, what to expect. For example, after ordering water, I can now anticipate the question, “Quer gelo?” and confirm, “Não, sem gelo [ice], por favor.” (That simple question took me by surprise for at least three weeks and I just kind of stammered and mumbled something incomprehensible in return; I need to be more confident, calm down, breathe, and realize that I know more than I think I do!). I am thankful that my partner Pablo is here with me, because without his total fluency between Portuguese and English, I think I would be crying a lot due to frustration and feelings of isolation. In our first couple weeks, we had to navigate a lot of bureaucracy that I think I would not have been able to do on my own.
Over the past month, there have been so many events to choose from! I came here to study frevo, which is central to carnival here, but is also not, of course, the only thing. There are also the caboclinhos, two distinct types of maracatu (baque solto and baque virado), papangus, tons of official concerts (frevo, samba, reggae, etc.), even more impromptu musical gatherings in bars, and just the millions of different costumes and creative personas that people put on for each day of carnival. And did I mention that there are three different types of frevo? Frevo de bloco, frevo de rua, and frevo canção. I only sort of knew this before I got here, but I certainly didn’t know how different they really are—not only in terms of style, but also the context in which they are experienced. But then again, they are also clearly linked, especially in the joy and alegria that they inspire as people jump, shout, and sing along.
I have met many people from many different areas of expertise and perspectives, who are opening my eyes to what carnival and frevo and other popular dances mean. I am interested to learn where they agree on meanings and, more intriguingly, where they disagree. The nice thing about this Fulbright research trip is that, although I have a primary focus on frevo, I am free to explore different paths and see where it leads me. I am coming from a very fast-paced working environment where I never had time to fully read, reflect, or think; and even with my dissertation work before that, I felt pressure to stay on track with my original proposal. Here, I have my central questions about “dances of resistance” that I’m working with, and those questions are getting honed each day, but I have the freedom to look for answers in more than just my originally planned focus. Frevo itself is not just one thing—as I hear over and over again, frevo “is everyone,” frevo “mixes with everything,” and frevo is “of the streets, of the people.” I’ve fallen in love with the genres of cavalo marinho and coco as well, which are stylistically so different from frevo, but which inform me of what frevo is and what it isn’t (and vice versa). Being able to dance down these various paths (pun intended) opens up new modes of understanding and, of course, introduces me to more people and more cultures.
I have been able to participate in a number of dance classes, which is by far my favorite way to spend my time (here, or anywhere else). I like to move, “try on” new steps and styles, explore different shifts of weight, try to train new “ways of being” into my body. I like feeling really uncomfortable and then seeing how I can adjust myself until, aha! everything snaps into place. (That aha! moment takes a long time and is just the beginning—there is still much more work to go.) I have taken classes with the Guerreiros do Passo, whose pedaogy is dedicated to the late frevo master, Nascimento do Passo. I have also been to the Paço do Frevo a number of times to see their demonstrations, participate in mini-workshops, view their exhibitions, and also take a couple of frevo and cavalo marinho classes. After everyone recovers from carnival, I plan to take many more classes with these groups and elsewhere, and also dig into the research—both in the archives and also talking more with people involved in popular culture about what they do and why. It has been hard, so far, to ask questions and get answers because carnival time is always so loud and I can only just barely understand and formulate my thoughts in English, let alone Portuguese. (Sensory overload!)
Now that carnival is over, I am also planning to take some trips to see more of the region and the country. This is my first time in Brazil, and I’ve heard that Recife is quite different from other parts of the country, especially those that are most often visited by American tourists (such as Rio, São Paulo, Salvador, etc.). Did I mention how few foreign tourists there are here? I have only met one other American. I’d like to experience other cities for some perspective.
It was to be expected that I would end up having many more questions than I arrived with, but somehow the flood of questions is still always surprising and overwhelming. It’s exhilarating and scary—how will I ever wrap my head around all of this? I won’t, of course, in just six months. But I do hope that things will start to fall into place a bit. I’m just keeping my eyes open and my feet ready to dance.
Yesterday we went to the ladeiras de Olinda (the hills of Olinda) to enjoy carnival. The crowds were incredible! I saw some wonderful costumes and really enjoyed the bonecos gigantes and papangus, who are so funny, scary, intriguing, and revolting, all at the same time. What an experience!
Last night we went to the Bloco Escuta Levino gathering, which was essentially a huge dancing parade through the streets of Recife, from the Praça Maciel Pinheiro to Recife Antigo. Maestro Lessa’s orchestra played and the Guerreiros do Passo performed. The Guerreiros created a roda at the beginning of the parade and gave a taste of what frevo might have looked like in the 1940s, in full costume and dancing in the style of the time.
This was the first bloco I’ve been to where, despite the crowds, people made space to dance full out. We would walk for a bit, and then, once the mood hit us, we would “cair no passo” again, finding a space to kick and jump and swing. Every so often, a roda would form amidst the crowds, and some amazing dancers showed off their tricks, maneuvering their sombrinhas and some full-sized guarda-chuvas (umbrellas) under their legs, between their legs, behind their backs, and up above their heads.
Indeed, the umbrellas came in handy. It poured down rain, which only made the frevo dancing more fervent! We didn’t have umbrellas, so we were soaked…and happy.
Yesterday we saw some great frevo performances at the roda de frevo com Maestro Spok in front of the Paço do Frevo! We saw Otávio Bastos, of the great YouTube channel Mexe Com Tudo, Wilson Aguiar of Brincantes Das Ladeiras, dance master Ferreirinha do Passo, and Jae Shin, the champion of the 2017 European frevo competition, among many others. Check out the video to see their individual styles and nuanced interpretations of the music!
Paço do Frevo, Recife Antigo. 4 de fevereiro de 2018.