What is my relationship to black dance?

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?


We Write From The Body, It Remembers Everything

How To Decolonize The Body Through Dance

Many people have asked me what this “Decolonizing the Body Through Dance” research is about- “so it’s a dance class? How does it work? What led you to start it? Why decolonization? What does it actually mean to decolonize the body through dance?”

Truth be told, I am still figuring out answers to many of these questions. Here’s what I do know, and what I have discovered in holding the “Decolonizing the Body Through Dance: Choreo Lab & Showing” event at Pieter Performance Space last weekend.

we write from the body. it remembers everything. - melanin | bone and soil Poem by @nayyirah.waheed Photo cred @bobgsnapshots

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

These workshops began out of instinct. A deep and clear desire to want to piece together the varying parts of myself that feel so disparate and make better sense of them/myself as a whole. To fight against the constant sense of fragmentation that I feel for being so many diverse things at once (which, I remind myself, we all are in our own way). I am a dancer of African Diasporic and white/Western dance practices, a Brazilian-born person based in the US who travels the world, a light-skinned latina who constantly navigates murky racial waters, an artivista with a commitment to using dance & performance as intervention and tools for social change… you get the picture.

It occurred to me that most, if not all, of these categories and borders (literal and metaphorical) only exist within a colonial construct. It was colonialism that brought us notions of Western & non-Western, white & non-white, along with the inherent hierarchy and power imbalance associated with these categories. Colonial forces literally drew arbitrary lines on the ground to divide and claim territory, thereby separating families and instilling ideas of borders, foreigners, and immigrants.

Deep down, in my essence, I am whole. I know this.

But everyday systems of power make me feel otherwise. Capitalism makes me pick between being an artist and making money. Racism makes me read as white and strips me of my history and culture one second, and the next as brown, “other”, exotic, two-dimensional, stereotypical, all the while encouraging me to fear and deny my black and brown brothers and sisters. Xenophobia makes me resistant to fully embracing the term “immigrant”, even though I am one, and patriarchy makes me undermine my agency as a woman and distrust my own body and sexuality.

These unwanted lessons are deeply embodied in me. They’re deeply embodied in all of us differently. So it only makes sense that a collective response would be in that same language- through the body. 

The “Decolonizing the Body Through Dance: Choreo Lab & Showing” event I held last weekend was... moving. Eye-opening. Provoking. Affirming. Inspiring. It was the first time I held it in that format, and it proved to me I have so much further to go with this research.

The basic premise of the workshop is based on the belief that decolonization is a future-oriented process of reclaiming and reinventing tradition. In my view, decolonization absolutely involves a looking to the past – remembering, recovering and preserving parts of us that might have been lost, coerced, hidden and/or forgotten due to (the above-mentioned) systems of power and colonialism. But I also believe that an effective and useful process of decolonization necessarily involves a looking to the future, a re-contextualizing of these things to understand why/how they are relevant to us today. Or as Zeca Ligiéro aptly states in his book Corpo A Corpo: Estudos das Performances Brasileiras (Body to Body: Studies of Brazilian Performances), “maintaining tradition by transforming it”.

This process happens gradually and over time, like the peeling of layers and layers of an onion. Or as one workshop participant shared last weekend, a process of “digging”. One way of digging is individual.

Each and every person has their own unique voice and expression, their way of looking at the world, of embodying and interpreting these principles of decolonization. Augusto Boal, the prolific Brazilian theater director who codified and co-created the world-renowned Theater of the Oppressed methodology, said that part of the objective of T.O. was to de-mechanize the body which has been conditioned and made to forget its inherent and limitless ability to be creative. In line with this theory, part of the objective in my dance workshops is to provide tools and a nurturing yet provoking space to catalyze people’s own unique expression.

This part of the workshop involves a lot of improvisation, and is about inward-listening, cultivating and trusting instincts, taking risks and being honest with yourself about your choices. How can we bring the entirety of who we are into our movement- pulling from our many dance languages and our everyday idiosyncrasies? Am I doing this movement out of habit and/or previous training? Am I doing this movement as an attempt to impress others around me? Am I doing this movement out of fear, as a compromise for a riskier and less safe choice? Am I being honest with myself in this moment?

If individual investigation is one level in which decolonizing the body happens, then another equally crucial one is collective investigation. How do we move in space together? How can I see, truly see, another person? How can we learn from one another? What are the collective stories we come from? What does home look, feel, smell, taste, sound like? What are the cultural and familial histories each of us come from? What traditions and practices are associated with those histories?

As a Brazilian person with deep connections to Afro-Latin dance, this part of the workshop for me is about developing a shared movement language that honors and embodies five fundamental principles of African Diasporic dance practices: intimate relationship with the ground, mobile spine, playful improvisation, dynamic (off) balance, and circularity in individual movement and collective participation. I establish these principles as core aesthetic values, while valuing each individual dancer's unique expression and innate ability to embody the principles in creative and generative ways.

Here, I am not that interested in teaching traditional Afro-derived dances and rhythms, firstly because I don’t think I am in a position to do so. My traditional Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban dance teachers have dedicated their lives to studying these complex forms, and complex they are. To teach them with any less commitment than this would be a disservice and an insult to the form.

Blessed to be dancing with this queen 💃🏾👑💞👏🏾 @rachelhernandezdance @52blend @kahlilcummings

A video posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

Secondly, because I think it is unfair and part of the colonial legacy that we only see white/Western dance practices as “contemporary” forms, while everything else that doesn’t fit that narrow perspective gets shoved into the “world dance” or “traditional dance” category, which, let’s be honest, is really code for “colored people dance”. The most wide and diverse spectrum of practices gets thrown in there, everything from Hip Hop and Salsa to Bharata Natyam and West African dance (I am reminded that this is not unlike the racist paradigm that lumps together Brazilians, Puerto Ricans, Indians, and Nigerians and all kinds of diverse people as “non-white”). Yes, an aspect of these dances is traditional and, no, that is not inherently a derogatory term. The issue is when they are confined to “traditional” and “traditional” is seen as something static, non-evolving, of the past.

What if we allowed these dances to be as complex and full of multiplicity as any other dance- to be both traditional and contemporary? What if we saw these dance languages as creative and relevant to our times? What kind of dance and performance would we be creating and experiencing? Possibly (and I would argue, definitely), a more diverse, cutting edge, inclusive, provoking and equitable kind.

your soul is inflamed. good. pay attention. find water. come inside. - @nayyirah.waheed Photo cred @bobgsnapshots

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

This is not a finished thesis, but rather a launch of an on-going investigation. So, here are some of the many questions that emerged from our Choreo Lab & Showing that will continue to guide future iterations of this research:

  • If we do engage in diverse dance practices in creative ways, don’t we risk cultural appropriation, a major and toxic form of modern-day colonialism? Is there such a thing as appropriately appropriating something? Or is that an oxymoron in and of itself?
  • Is there such a thing as ownership? Do cultural practices really ever belong to anyone? Who gets to say if they do or don’t?
  • If decolonization inherently implies an acknowledgement of and a response to colonization, doesn’t there need to be a clear definition and understanding of colonization? WHAT IS COLONIZATION?
  • Is decolonization a destination or a never-ending process? Is it/can it be both? If it is a destination, what is on the other side?
  • What would decolonization look like as a sustainable, long-term practice? Something that goes beyond a 2-hr or 7-hr workshop?
  • How do we acknowledge and navigate both the colonizer and colonized sides of us?

And because celebrating what we do know is just as important as question-asking, I leave you here with a collective poem about decolonization by the workshop participants.



Decolonizing Poem

Decolonize the body                                                                                                           Decolonize… the body? The soul? The brain?                                                                     Where does it happen?                                                                                                       In a house, in our homes, here in this studio?                                                                     Decolonization requires an acknowledgement of colonization.                                         Decolonize…                                                                                                                       Can it be done?                                                                                                                   Is it radical? Innate? Learned?                                                                                             It makes me think of different parts of the body.                                                                 Exploring each part as a part and seeing all that it does.                                                   But what about the body as a whole?                                                                                 Body.                                                                                                                                   Whole.

Family                                                                                                                                   Things I see                                                                                                                           Food, taste, smell                                                                                                                 Use food as celebration                                                                                                       Hugging and kissing                                                                                                           Having dinner with others                                                                                                   Home.                                                                                                                                 Where my mother is.                                                                                                           No filter.                                                                                                                               Honesty. Respect. Care.                                                                                                       The dense earth, wet, rich trees.

Like when my uncle would hide matzah                                                                               Or when my fiancé makes breakfast, elaborate raspberry pancakes                                 Rani’s horn, a big deep sound                                                                                             The smell of a loved one’s skin                                                                                             Succulents                                                                                                                           Rain

I wish I knew more about my dad.                                                                                       I consistently scour my history through dance                                                                     We do that like how trees help each other                                                                         I tap into myself.                                                                                                                   In my body                                                                                                                           Safe                                                                                                                                     Making home in people                                                                                                       But were they gypsies?                                                                                                         They deny and sanitize our history.

Cuidadora. Cidadã.                                                                                                             Do mundo, del mundo, do mundo, del mundo.                                                                   I am nowhere and everywhere at once.                                                                             I am born here but live there, never belonged anywhere.                                                   A global dislocation?                                                                                                           Aren’t we all from everywhere?                                                                                           Some part of ourselves, a string of pearls, one from each ocean, an open opening, wrapping, draping, connecting, adorning, adopting, adapting…




Solta O Corpo, Moça! Let Your Body Go, Girl!

A Reflection on Playfulness As Resistance In Brazil

Solta o corpo, moça!”, said Mestre Rogério about 47 times during capoeira angola practice. This was a couple weeks ago at the FICA Rio capoeira studio in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the UCLA Travel Study program I was co-leading in partnership with my husband, Bobby Gordon, and the Rio-based Center for Theater of the Oppressed.

The “moça” (young woman) Mestre Rogério was referring to was me, and the “solta a corpo” (let your body go) instruction was exactly what I was having a hard time doing in my ginga, the basic side-to-side movement of capoeira. Every time I did, my partner who I was playing against would take advantage of my openness and successfully jab, poke, or trick me.

But how was I supposed to let my body go while still being able to effectively protect myself? Is it possible to find a sense of ease and playfulness in a state of resistance? Not just in capoeira, but in life?

Saudades de FICA Bahia #capoeiraangola #angoleira photo by @bobgsnapshots

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

The answer, according to most Afro-Brazilian cultural manifestations, is yes. This is what the history of Afro-Brazilian people has taught us time and time again- not only that it is possible to use playfulness as resistance, but it actually makes resistance that much more powerful and effective.

Capoeira Angola is a beautiful and complex microcosm from which to analyze this idea. It is an Afro-Brazilian martial art/dance/music/spiritual practice that simultaneously fits and defies all these categories, a uniquely Brazilian form of expression deriving from an Angolan self-defense practice that survived in slave quarters because enslaved people smartly disguised it with dance and music.

There’s a beautiful word in Capoeira Angola that really captures the idea of playfulness as resistance – mandinga. A complex word without a direct English translation, it is constantly referred to in capoeira as the mischievous and playful quality that a capoerista, or capoeira player, exercises in order to fool and trick their opponent. It is also closely associated with the idea of “fechar o corpo”, to close the body with fast and loose movements – literally protecting the body while keeping it playful and expressive. 

Eta mandingueiro! #capoeiraangola photo by @bobgsnapshots

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

I just came back from co-leading the annual UCLA Travel Study program at the Center for Theater of the Oppressed, and for five weeks in Rio it seemed everywhere I looked I saw this idea of mandinga, of playfulness as resistance, at work.

Where the magic happens... #uclariotravelstudy2016 #theateroftheoppressed

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

As most people are aware, Brazil is going through a particularly troubling moment, one of the worst in its political history. Democracy was essentially swept from under our feet in May, when the majority right-wing congress voted to impeach President Dilma (for unproven corruption charges), a center-left politician and our first female president, and induct her conservative Vice-President, Michel Temer, as interim president. Within 12 hours of his appointment, Temer abolished some of the most fundamental building blocks of Brazilian democracy, including dissolving the Ministry of Culture and the Ministries of Racial Equity, Women’s Rights, and LGBT Rights. He appointed an all white, all male cabinet and has not stopped cutting or challenging most of our cornerstone social programs – like free public universities, funding for the arts in schools, etc etc.

Brazilians’ response to Temer’s unprecedented actions? Music. Dance. Theater. Poetry. Song. Street art. Public concerts. Protests. Occupations of government buildings.

@ocupamincrj #dançapelademocracia #foratemer #uclariotravelstudy2016

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

Towards the end of my time in Rio, I had the incredible opportunity of entering the State Ministry of Culture building in Rio de Janeiro, which had been occupied by artists, educators and citizens for 64 days (it is now entering its 78th day of occupation) to share a creative movement workshop. The space had an indescribable yet palpable energy of joy, dialogue, community and resistance. Stories-high posters that read “Reage, Artista!” (React, Artist!) and “Fora Temer” (Out Temer), graffiti on the walls reading “Este é um espaço livre de machismo” (This is a sexism-free space) and papers posted on columns that said “Lute como menina!” (Fight like a girl!). Inspiring would be an understatement. It was mandinga from head to toe.

Lute como menina! Fight like a girl! #dançapelademocracia #foratemer #uclariotravelstudy2016 @ocupamincrj @bobgsnapshots

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

And that is our history as a Brazilian people. Afro-Brazilians who intelligently found ways of adapting and keeping their cultures and religions alive (i.e. Candomblé, Umbanda), artists who used poetry and metaphor in their songs during the military dictatorship to pass the censorship bureau and let the whole country know that change was coming (Chico Buarque), a Brazilian director who used children’s games to create a revolutionary theater methodology that gave voice to the people (Augusto Boal & Theater of the Oppressed), citizens who understand that there is no democracy without art or culture, and for that very reason we resist through music, dance, and poetry.

Salve o Sorriso da Mangueira! Salve o Samba do Trabalhador!! #uclariotravelstudy2016 #theateroftheoppressed

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

At the end of capoeira practice when Mestre Rogério was taking questions, I asked what had been nagging on my mind the whole class.

“How do you protect and loosen your body at the same time?”

I was expecting a revelatory and unique answer that would shed light on all these musings, in and outside of capoeira. Perhaps a new pathway for political engagement and cultural resistance – yes, the answer!

Mestre Rogério very simply and nonchalantly said, “with practice.”

And after my initial deflated disappointment at the unoriginal nature of his answer, this idea began making more sense to me. Because, like capoeira angola, there is no magic to social and political change. There is only hard, often tedious, work. Constant organizing, constant practice. Moments of break throughs and victory, big kicks and virtuosic flips - then back to hard, tedious work.

So I guess I’ll start making more time for practice, and work on letting my body go. Solta o corpo, moça!