Summer Suitcase: Samba research takes dance prof to Brazil

This is the fifth in a series of weekly “summer suitcase” stories showcasing the international breadth of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

York dance Professor Danielle Robinson recently returned from a trip to Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia, the cradle of Afro-Brazilian culture, where she was researching samba-de-roda, one of the samba styles indigenous to the state.

“I’m just beginning a multi-year ethnographic project on samba-de-roda,” says Robinson (right). “It’s a composite of musical practices and dances widely considered the forerunner of the famous urban samba associated with the carnival samba schools of Rio de Janeiro.”

Out of Brazil’s cocktail of African, European and indigenous cultures has emerged a dazzling array of rhythms, melodies and regional styles, including samba-de-roda, which originated from the dances and cultural traditions of the African slaves who lived in Bahia. Today, this dance style is largely associated with rural and marginalized populations.

“Far from being either a lost practice or a relic of folklore, samba-de-roda is a living tradition, especially among residents of the Bahian interior,” Robinson explains. “In fact, it was recently recognized as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.”

“Reflecting past and present, samba-de-roda represents a kind of crossroads between numerous social and cultural dualities in Brazil, such as the industrialized south/underdeveloped north, urban/rural, black/white, slave era/post-abolition, modern/old and tradition/innovation,” says Robinson.

Left: A Brazilian stamp celebrates the samba-de-roda

One of its main characteristics is that the participants gather in a circle, referred to as a roda (pronounced “ho-da” in Bahia). All participants are invited to join the dance and learn through observation and imitation. The dance is usually performed at public celebrations, popular festivals and religious ceremonies, but is also practised spontaneously.

A memorable moment during Robinson’s trip was when she was pulled into a roda by a young boy during the Festival of St. John celebrations on Itaparica Island across from Salvador, the capital city of Bahia, on the Bay of All Saints.

“He was a fantastic sambista,” recalls Robinson. “He taught me several steps along the way, as we laughed at my gringa samba hips and shouted with the repeating choruses of the cyclical music that mobilized our feet. So often, samba-de-roda participants outside of Salvador are older men and women. This young man’s skill and passion made me hopeful for the future of this dance form.”

Music is an integral part of life in Brazil, as seen in the photograph to the right where Robinson (centre) is dancing in the middle of a roda with professors, staff and students of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), home to the oldest university dance program in Brazil.

“We were celebrating the beginning of the semester, led by a group of Baianas, women dressed in large white hoop skirts and colorful headdresses,” remembers Robinson. “These performers first symbolically cleansed the school with perfumed water and palm fronds and then created a roda for samba, pulling us into the circle one by one. Participants in the circle clapped together in a syncopated rhythm and called out to the dancers, encouraging and laughing with them.”

Click here to listen to the rootsy, moving rhythms of samba-de-roda, performed by some of Brazil’s hottest young artists and music masters. This sound sampler includes the music of Filhos de Nagô, one of Robinson’s favourite Brazilian groups.

In the city of Salvador, Robinson teamed up with ethnomusicologist Jeff Packman and dance theorist Eloisa Domenici to teach a graduate course on cultural research methods in dance at UFBA. Then, as part of UFBA’s specialization program, the trio conducted a week-long intensive course at Angel Vianna College, a school focused exclusively on dance practice and research in Rio de Janeiro, another one of Brazil’s musical hotbeds.

While in Bahia, Robinson also laid the ground work for an exchange program between UFBA and York University that will allow students and faculty to move more easily between the two institutions. “In the future, it will be possible for York students to study and faculty to teach in Salvador da Bahia, as part of this exchange,” says Robinson.

Robinson, who has been visiting Brazil since 2002, is planning a longer stay in Bahia next July to further the work she started on this visit, helping to ensure the rich cultural tradition of samba-de-roda will remain a strong musical and dance medium for years to come.

This article was submitted to YFile by Mary-Lou Schagena in the Faculty of Fine Arts.