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

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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

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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

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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!




A Love Letter to South Africa from Brazil

A Conclusion and Reflection of the Last 4 Months in Johannesburg

I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for a while now. My last blog post from South Africa. Technically, that ship has sailed because I am currently at Heathrow airport in London, waiting for my connecting flight for LA that leaves in about 2 hours. But no stress. In fact, it’s fitting, kind of like posting this on “Africa time”, as many South Africans have explained to me these last 4 months to justify their tardiness to meetings and events starting about 2 hours later than the publicized time. *Footnote- CP time, as it turns out, is quite universal. Brazil time and Africa time aren’t that far away from each other, except I think Africa time is even more exaggerated… my theory is, the stronger the African influence, the more abstract the Western notion of linear time becomes. Yep. I just theorized that shit.

I have been wanting to write this blog post for so long because it has become increasingly clear throughout my stay in South Africa just how special this trip is. More than I could have ever imagined before arriving. How comfortable, welcomed, witnessed, heard, embraced I have felt here. And along the way I’ve been trying to figure out why that is exactly- why, in a country and a continent I had never been to, I would find such kindred spirits and such great resonance with my professional work, cultural values, and radical politics.

I think the reasons are layered.

Firstly, South Africa is much closer in its history, politics, and economics to my native country of Brazil than the US is. South Africa and Brazil are both developing nations part of the emerging BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) with an economic infrastructure that has grown exponentially in the last decade and subsequently made them new and big players in international politics. South Africa and Brazil also share similar histories of a sustained oppressive regime that ended relatively recently, making their current democracies quite young and tenuous. For Brazil, it was the military dictatorship that lasted 20 years (1964-1984), and for South Africa, of course, it was the Apartheid regime that reigned over its people for over half a century, ending in 1994.

The result of these conditions make for a bizarre political landscape - on a good day, democracy feels alive, dynamic, bubbling. On a bad day, it is riddled with corruption, scandal, and abuse of power. The televised events of both our congresses make for more exciting drama than the riskiest Brazilian novelas and South African soap operas (think Congressmen Jean-Wyllys spitting on Congressmen Jair Bolsonaro earlier last month and the chaos that ensued from the Economic Freedom Fighters at Zuma’s State of the Nation in February). 

The cast of @dramaforlifewits AMP performing their hilarious and powerful show "Unzipped" at @bushfire_festival @jacqlynej

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

But like I said, on the flip side, is a population of people who are the opposite of apathetic. A people who viscerally remember the trauma of institutionalized racism, censorship and torture tactics and are committed to never letting that happen again. There is a palpable culture of political participation, a widespread and deep knowing that public demonstration and direct action can make a difference, because that was what brought about the demise of the military dictatorship in the 80’s and the Apartheid regime in the 90’s.

As tragic and disheartening as the recent impeachment proceedings in Brazil have been, as much as it has threatened the very nature of democracy in my country, ironically, it has also given me incredible hope. The backlash to the impeachment movement has unleashed a forceful wave of resistance – young people my age, who have no firsthand memory of the military dictatorship, and people my parents’ age, who grew up under it, coming together and protesting by the millions in the streets, universities, government institutions, and theaters.  In a way, democracy being threatened has mobilized many of us (dare I say most of us) to exercise it in the extreme.

And I suppose I hold an interesting positionality in all of this. I am from Brazil, and continue to hold only a Brazilian passport to this day, but I have been living in the US since I was 13 years old. In fact, in about 2 weeks time I will be conducting my US citizenship oath and officially (finally!) become a dual citizen. As much as I love the roots and community I have built in the US, especially in Los Angeles, I get quite frustrated restricting my work and life to those borders, geographical and imaginary. The everyday rhetoric of American exceptionalism gets to me, as does the general apathy that many people feel towards the US political system. It seems to me that these two things are the biggest barriers to democracy in the US, a self-centered population with little knowledge of the rest of the world who, ironically, does not feel invested to actively participate in their democracy. It’s almost like a taking for granted of democracy – it has been around for centuries, and it won’t ever go away, so why struggle to uphold it?

What I have found in South Africa these last 4 months is a kindred spirit – in politics, nationhood, artistry, friends and so much more. I have had the great honor of meeting and working with artists who see their role in society as that of joker, provoker, and connecter. Artist-colleagues who are deeply engaged with what is happening in their country, and just as committed to inciting questions and making meaningful contributions. Artist-friends who will blow my mind with their radical critical consciousness one minute, and slay to a mind-blowingly funky House/Kweito song the next.

In a way, South Africa, and perhaps particularly Johannesburg, is the perfect half-way point for me between Brazil and the US. I get to work in English most of the time, and though it is not my native language, it is (whether I like admitting it or not) the language I feel most comfortable working and expressing myself in due to all the years I spent attending English-speaking schools. And yet, unlike the monolingual dominant culture of the US, there is a strong sense of multi-lingual diversity, due to the melting pot of South African ethnic communities (Afrikaans, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Zulu, and many more). It is also where I can easily find all of my favorite dance and movement forms within a 10 kilometer radius of each other – applied and embodied theater art for social change (the radical and amazing Drama For Life at Wits University), Afro contemporary dance (through Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving Into Dance Mophatong), House and Afro-street dances (if you’ve never heard Black Coffee or Mafikizolo google them NOW), Hatha yoga (thank you Yoga Warrior), and Afro-Latin dance (forever indebted to the BailaAfrika familia). Hotdamn.

I don’t say all this to compare South Africa to the US, to claim it is better or worse. It’s just different. And I think there is value in interrogating this difference.

Needless to say, I will miss Johannesburg terribly. So, while I build plans to return, may this blog post be a love letter with the promise of reconnection.

In love and gratitude,



Chronicles of a Dancer's Body

On Injury, Recovery, and Longevity

Last Wednesday I woke up and had mysteriously injured my knee overnight. So much so that I had trouble walking and putting weight on it. I had been perfectly fine the day before, and the day before that, had even done my morning yoga practice and gone to dance class and felt great after both experiences. But at some point I must have hyperextended in a pose for too long or done some kind of high impact jump with a weird landing, because the pain was undeniable.

And goddamnit, it was Wednesday.

Wednesday is my favorite day in Johannesburg. On Wednesday mornings, I take an amazing and uber advanced Afro Contemporary company class with the world-renowned Vuyani Dance Theatre, followed by a slow and fluid Hatha yoga class with my favorite yoga teacher in SA, Martiz Steyn, and a fun high-energy Cuban salsa social with Baila Afrika at night. It is like a yummy and delicious bite of my entire dance and movement background in 1 glorious day- the fluid modern dance, the centering spiritual yoga practice, and the rhythmic freestyle of Afro-Latin social dances.

Catch, release, open, sweep, slide, smile #joniandmarinadancedayslay @thatanelo

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

Needless to say, I fucking love Wednesdays in Joburg.

But that day I woke up and my body was denying me all three of these experiences. Telling me to stop moving, slow down, and take care of myself. So, reluctantly, I did.

See, feel, play, respond. Choreographic experiments with @thatanelo #grateful

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As I did last December, when a reoccurring condition in a reproductive gland flared up again worse than ever and required a last minute surgery and a month of bedrest and recovery. That time, I had to drop out of a series of performances I was doing with Viver Brasil dance company and give up my spot in BodyTraffic’s highly competitive winter dance intensive with world-renowned choreographer Kyle Abraham. I was heartbroken. And deeply afraid.

I was afraid that I was wasting time, at 27 years old and at the prime of my career, wasting time to be reaping the most of my dancing body. Afraid that the instrument I depend on the most, my body, was failing me and how the hell am I supposed to make a living without it. Afraid I was losing professional momentum I had worked so hard to build, and afraid of whatever was going on inside me that was causing such mysterious and extreme physical ailments on the outside.

Having to stop working and slow everything down for a month allowed me (ehem, forced me) to confront all of this head on. After all, I could only binge watch Netflix for so long. So, when I finally felt ready, I sat with all of it and began having some profound breakthroughs, the ripples of which I am still feeling today.

I came to realize the abundance of time, and thus my ability to move more slowly, confidently and patiently through my career. Ironically, I came to realize just how strong and not fragile my body actually was, cultivating a deep gratitude for its resiliency. And I came to understand the cyclical nature of my life as an artist, that it is impossible for me to be dancing full out, rigorously training and generating work, at all times of my career. There will naturally be moments of rest, reflection, recovery, and cerebral work, and though I have a preference for the highly physical, it doesn’t mean that all that other stuff is less valuable or less productive. In fact, all of it is symbiotic and completely necessary.

Today, I still feel tested, trying to cultivate a deep love of and appreciation for my body exactly as it is – whether it is toned and defined, stronger and more fluid, or rounder and softer, slower and more anchored. Because my body is my instrument, the site through which I investigate and generate ideas, it will shift and change as much as my work does.

Love these ladies. #unbridaled 👰🏾💃🏿✊🏾🇿🇦💞😎

A photo posted by Marina Magalhães (@marinamagalicious) on

At the moment, I am trying to soak up as much as I can of my last 10 days in Johannesburg – eating delicious greasy braai barbeque and creamy milk tarts, and wanting to take all of my favorite dance and yoga classes but unable to due to my knee injury, the combination of which is making my body a little rounder and less sprightly than I would like. But hey, it’s just the point I’m at in the cycle. In a few days my knee will heal, and I will be back at the yoga mat and the dance floor in all my sweat and glory.

I once heard Amara Tabor-Smith, a visionary dance artist based in the Bay Area and one of my favorite choreographers, say that people nowadays mistakenly confuse their bodies as theirs, when in reality, our bodies were never really ours to begin with. Reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s “How To Eat” this morning reminded me of that golden piece of wisdom Amara shared, a simple and profound section titled “Your Body Belongs to the Earth”:

In modern life, people tend to think their bodies belong to them, that they can do anything they want to themselves. But your body is not only yours. Your body belongs to your ancestors, your parents, and future generations. It also belongs to society and to all the other living being. The trees, the clouds, the soil, and every living thing brought about the presence of your body. We can eat with care, knowing we are caretakers of our bodies, rather than their owners.
— Thich Nhat Hanh

To that, I add, we can dance - train, perform, teach, create, work - with care too.