Note- this reflection was written as part of an on-going MFA Dance program class on HIstory, Theory & Criticism of Contemporary Dance. The question "what is black dance?" is an important and valid question to ask, with no simple answer. To dive more into this conversation, I recommend the following readings: "The Black Dancing Body: A Geography From Coon To Cool" by Brenda Dixon Gottschild (book) & "I Am Black (you have to be willing to not know)" by Thomas DeFrantz (article).
My relationship to black dance is one of indebtedness.
There would be no Latin dance without black dance.
So much of Latin dance is black dance.
What was that meme I saw a couple years ago? The difference between African-Americans, Dominicans, Jamaicans, and Brazilians was a boat stop? Something like that.
Brazil is a majority black country, to be a non-black Brazilian is a little bit paradoxical. Quite literally everything I grew up with, from food to music to dance to language, was directly created or deeply shaped by my African ancestors. Ancestry is something I think of often.
When I was in Brasília for Christmas a couple years ago, my tio mentioned in passing that my grandpa, vô Miguel, "had a black grandmother". That was how he said it. This was the first time I ever heard of her. Who was this woman? Why didn't he say her name? And why did he phrase it so awkwardly? After all, she was his great grandmother, my great great grandmother. But somehow, she becomes less a part of our history, our family, if we say she was "vô Miguel's grandmother". As Brazilian as samba or futebol, sweeping blackness under the rug like it was never really there.
Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it.
I remember in an interview a little while ago, the interviewer asked me how I learned to dance samba. I told her the same story I always tell.
I was 6 or 7 years old, and my family had been living outside of Brazil. We moved back to Brasília, and at a family barbecue my cousin Camila came up to me insisting that I learn how to dance samba. "How could you be Brazilian and not know how to dance samba? And how are you supposed to learn samba living abroad? I'll teach you!". And what happened next I remember clear as day. In my confident 6 year old voice I told her, "I know how to dance samba!". And I showed her. Pa pa pa, pa pa pa. Feet and hips moving, I did my little passinho de samba for her. And she shut up.
I tell that story a lot. It was one of the first moments I saw myself as a dancer. It's also pretty mysterious, because no one had "taught" me prior to that moment. My parents can't dance for shit, and I had been living in Tokyo & Buenos Aires from ages 2-6.
Who knows. Maybe I saw it on TV. Or maybe in our little Brazilian enclave in Tokyo or Buenos Aires I saw someone do it. Or maybe memory really is fickle, and when I thought I was showing Camila a samba step it was actually total nonsensical footwork.
But at that interview, when I was telling the story, the interviewer had a different theory.
"Maybe it's ancestral," she said.
And when she said that, my whole being resonated, recognizing there was some truth in that statement. When I first started training in Afro-Latin dances many years ago, it felt both foreign and totally familiar. Like I was remembering something I already knew. Rhythms and movements that didn't require a whole lot of explanation. They just made sense to me.
But to say "it's in my blood" feels too reductive and simple. My samba training didn't start happening in a classroom until I was much older. But even before that, yes, I was training. At family barbecues, weddings, street parties, and my parents' living room. The dance classroom truly is anywhere people are dancing. And folks sure were dancing in the senzalas of Brazil, enslaved Africans on plantations, embodying joy and play as resistance in its most profound sense.
That is, in many ways, my relationship to black dance-- learning this embodied knowledge of radical joy and playful resistance, through the dances of my African ancestors.
But what does it mean to be practicing these dances as a non-black person? What does it mean to practice Brazilian dances as a non-black Brazilian? What does it mean to live in, and as, a paradox?