York dance professor researches the samba de roda

Salvador da Bahia, the second most popular tourist destination in Brazil, is a lively, tropical city on the northeast coast with a population of over two million. Musical rhythms from many different cultures can be heard in its bustling marketplaces, amidst the old Portuguese architecture and on its sandy beaches. In Salvador da Bahia it is commonplace for music and dance to transform streets, backyards and living rooms into performance spaces.

If you are lucky enough, you might get a chance to see the dynamic circle dance that the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has called "a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage" – the samba de roda. It is here in Salvador and its surrounding countryside that York dance Professor Danielle Robinson (right) engages with the music, dance and culture of samba de roda, the history of which is rooted in rural Brazil and its plantation past. Robinson is drawn to the improvisational character of samba de roda "as a way of moving, thinking, adapting and living."

In this practice, "the music and dance are held together by shared syncopated rhythms, a collective history of colonization and an overall ethos of joy," said Robinson. "People switch between dancing, playing, singing and clapping as the spirit moves them. No one can just watch, everyone eventually ends up in the circle, which is a powerful, inclusive community space."

Robinson’s Social Science & Humanities Research Council of Canada-funded research aims to emphasize samba de roda’s improvisational character and the consequent diversity of movements. Throughout her research, Robinson seeks to understand how participants imagine and embody their relationships with the "roots" of samba, how they distinguish themselves from other movement and dance practitioners and how increasing cultural tourism is changing the practice profoundly, thanks to the recognition from UNESCO.

All of the original materials, including music recordings, music scores, interview transcriptions and translations, video documentation and still images, will eventually be held in the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections in order to promote further research. A parallel collection will also be placed at the Federal University of Bahia in the new Brazilian Popular Culture Research Centre (Centro de Estudos das Tradições Orais Brasileiras) that is currently being planned.

Robinson adds that the people she is working with in Salvador da Bahia want to collaborate and contribute, not be treated as passive research subjects. For this reason, the culminating book, with its numerous forms of writing by lifelong sambadores, includes interviews, song lyrics and essays, as well as writings by local Brazilian researchers.

Although Robinson’s research aims to speak to ethnographers, especially those working in dance and music of the African diaspora, Robinson also hopes "to offer another model of decolonizing research to other scholars working cross-culturally."

Throughout her academic career, Robinson has focused on experiences of identity, industry and appropriation as lived by participants in popular African diasporic dance practices like samba de roda. In particular, she is interested in "community-based dancing and its ability to construct, navigate and contest social divides and stereotypes." Growing up in the southern United States just after segregation ended, she is especially invested in understanding race relations and their manifestations in expressive culture.

Before joining York’s Dance Department in 2005, Robinson taught at the Federal University of Bahia  in Salvador, Brazil, as well as at the University of California, Riverside and the University of Texas, Austin. Her articles have been published in Dance Theatre Journal, Dance Research Journal, Dance Chronicle and Dance Research. At York, she is cross-appointed to the York & Ryerson Joint Graduate Program in Communication & Culture. She is a Fellow of York’s Centre for Research on Latin America & the Caribbean, the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples and Winters College. Her varied research and teaching experiences have led to what she considers one of the high points of her career so far. In 2009, she received the Faculty of Fine Arts Dean’s Junior Teaching Award.

By Jacquelin Chatterpaul, Faculty of Fine Arts research officer aide