Humor me if you will, and picture this: 1) a chicken trying to fly; 2) a dog doing a full body shake after a bath; 3) and an oompa loompa doing jumping jacks. Now, meld those three images together. Got it? If so, you have a pretty good idea of what I looked like at a samba class the other night. Shockingly, I am a professional dancer, but dancing this kind of samba is like learning a Scandinavian language—some of these movements aren’t even in my alphabet. The Brazilian women make it look so easy, and their athletic bodies are made for it. My body, on the other hand, was made for something a little more gentle, like lying in bed. Let’s just say various parts of my anatomy looked like two teddy bears wrestling under a blanket. My attempts at moving gracefully were completely thwarted at every turn. This is not the kind of samba you see on the ballroom dance floors. This is wild, raw, racy, and full-out fun.
Samba history states that there are several different kinds of samba, all are Brazilian with African roots. Think Bossa Nova, The Girl from Ipanema, Ballroom Samba, and their wild upbeat relative Carnevale Samba. To some, Samba is not just a form of music and dancing, but a religion. For example, there is an Afro-Brazilian religion called Candomble that views Samba as praying, invoking their personal orixa (gods/saints). The African rhythms of the music came from the West African people who were transported to Brazil as slaves from places like Yoruba and the Congo. In Africa, the rhythms were used to call forth their gods. For me, dancing has always been my way of praying. I love the scene in Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantsakis where Zorba is talking about the death of his three-year-old son, but he has to quit talking and dance his grief because there are no words to describe his pain. And I have always loved the Psalm that says something like, “You turned my wailing into dancing. You removed my sackcloth and clothed me in joy.” (I’d look up the exact words, but I’m lying in bed.) For me, dancing has always expressed what I cannot say through words.
And so I go to Samba dance class in New Orleans taught by a professional dance company called Casa Samba. They wear the full regalia—high heels, glittering g-stings, feathered headdresses–and perform at a multitude of NOLA festivities. They also open their rehearsals to the public as a dance class accompanied by a large group of live drummers. You can practically feel the building jumping up and down with drum vibrations. The dance room is filled with grandmas and babies, watching their moms and daughters dance. Children shriek but you can’t hear them over the drums. These dancers take their samba very seriously. This is the real deal. I walk in with my baby daughter in a sling on my chest and immediately worry about her hearing, but as the room is filled with children who aren’t wearing headphones, I go with it. But alas, it’s truly hopeless. Not only can I NOT move my feet and ass that fast while baby-free, I certainly can’t shake it with 20-pounds of love strapped to my chest. But I’m determined to try. I love to dance and am most willing to make a fool of myself. As the Japanese proverb says, “We are fools whether we dance or not, so we may as well dance.”
The teacher teaches a move, and then the dancers do it two at a time while everyone watches. Not the best method for learning if you ask me, unless public humiliation is the teacher, but when in Rome… and so I do it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I can shimmy with the best of them, but this is a whole new ballpark. I hop, I jump, I let my belly quiver like a bowl full of jelly. I move my two left feet forward and backward and sideways, but I skip the cartwheel. Their feet move so fast!! How the hell do they do this in high heels? By the time I leave, I am drenched in sweat and I can barely move, nevermind the fact that I can barely hear anymore. “That was fun!” I say to one of the other students, and strangely enough, I mean it. I feel invigorated, wild, inspired, primitive. I feel like donning some feathers (I think I’ll skip the g-string) and dancing down the streets. The great thing is, this is not an uncommon sight at any given time in New Orleans. The streets are paved with dancing fools at all times of the year. So, I’m advising you, if you feel like letting your hair down and getting wild, communing with your personal god, or just shaking parts of your body you didn’t know existed, try Samba. You won’t be disappointed.
Marci Johnson is a master middle eastern dancer. She has danced around the world and performed with many top artists, most recently with Paul McCartney. She lives in New Orleans and holds degrees from UCLA and Harvard.