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Blog 9: Conversations with Bgirls on how to be a ‘lady’.

Conversations with Bgirls on how to be a ‘lady’.

“I deserve to be heard, because I am a woman and I do have a dream”. Bridget Gray

I have questioned what is genuinely me and what is an affect of being ‘socialised’ since first being told I was ‘UnLadylike’ aged 4. Baffled stayed with me at suggestions that I ‘shouldn’t’ do certain things according to my sex.

Whilst I was making Ladylike I have had the honour of interviewing B-girls, Salseras, Tangueras, Rockers about their views on being a bgirl, being a girl, and being a ‘Lady’.

We all need real life superheros who reflect and inspire us. Seeing someone who you can fit the shoes of just speaks in a different way. I had a dream to make Ladylike, a piece that reflected real women, latin women, black women, mixed women, break-women, superhero women.

In the media: the women I was seeing were beautiful, but they were not heroes, they were ‘sidechicks’ without much script, and they weren’t doing the saving but being rescued.

In Salsa, I had Iris de Brito to look up to, but I often experienced sexism, and of course dancing Samba (which had chosen for my love of the dance not based on the costume) not many people appreciated the steps I had trained so hard to get over my outfit. And then I discovered breaking. Breaking was empowering. I could step out of the box that defined me by body or dancing ‘sexy’. I could wear baggy tshirts, I could be a different side of me.

So I covered up my Latin background: In this new ‘gender-less’ world I wanted to be anonymous and androgynous (I love my latin world, don’t get me wrong… but here I could be a different version of me). But eventually, even in breaking, I began to realise that gender was interfering with my freedom. Some bboys saw me as ‘irrelevant’ if I couldn’t rep like the guys, or simply for being female. Sometimes I saw the bgirls who were accepted were complemented on them being ‘like a guy’. And sometimes I would hear the men speaking about women in a way much worse, more sexist than on the salsa scene. (I love this scene… but these are also truths I have experienced and witnessed).

I was wearing a mask to fit in and conform in these different worlds and became confused about where and who the real me was, and what I have learnt that I need to accept all of me. I need to celebrate and rejoice in my femininity without being told to stop ‘dressing for men’, ‘dancing like a girl’, ‘asking for it’ or ‘being a lesbian feminist’. So how can we stop these ‘shoulds’ or ‘should nots’ seeping in and making us conform, hide or deny our true selves? Below is my summary on some of the best quotes and thoughts I collected interviewing some inspiring women from across the globe on see how they see things and how they navigate being truly themselves in a society that tries to put us in boxes. You can also read the full interviews here:

Interviewees include: 

Rokafella (Nuyorican B-girl), Mantis (White NYC Bgirl), Brie (White NYC Bgirl), Judi (Canadian-Jamaican Bgirl), Iris De Brito (Portuguese-Angolan/UK Salsera),

Kiyah: (St Kitts-UK Street Dancer), B-girl Azara (UK-Jamaican bgirl), Lia (Cuban Rumbera/Contemporary Dancer), Anna (Anglo-Argentine Tanguera/ Contemporary Dancer).

How do you define a B-girl?

I think breaking attracts women because it is an opportunity to escape from a society that teaches us how to be defined by gender. At the same time, as Bgirl Lady Jules, says, ‘The competition of this dance turns a lot of women off’. Maybe women are not naturally competitive, maybe they are not taught to be, but those who do find breaking seem to find a sense of relief from societal ‘norms’ in the role of bgirl.

I love this quote by Bgirl Chyna USA: ‘You go to a battle & the idea is to be aggressive, offensive, like you’re attacking somebody… In your normal life your’e expected to be polite & ladylike. Breaking is an opportunity to be badass & it’s cool’

A Bgirl is someone who is redefining society’s idea of ‘woman’, but perhaps she doesn’t even think of gender when she breaks. She gets lost in herself and the music. She is confident, powerful and independent, and as Bgirl Briesky said, ‘she is determined as fuck’.

How do you be a girl?

As Azara Meghie said, ‘I don’t try I am a girl.’ Being a girl, a woman is not definable by others, by our appearance, or even necessarily our sexual organs, but by us ourselves. There is no box definition, each of these inspirational women is perfectly themselves and perfectly female just as they are. The world as we know it is a great game of dress-up that we can opt in or out off. As Ru Paul says, “You’re Born Naked and the Rest is Drag”. We can choose to put on the appropriate ‘uniform’ for different social situations, and to listen to or reject the pressure society puts on us to be ‘perfect’, ‘pretty’, ‘happy’ or ‘cool’. I think our freedom comes from accepting, loving and learning not to be true to ourselves.

As a child I desperately wanted hair that was so long I could sit on it, because that was what I saw in the story books. Now, I feel liberated by the ease of having no hair and by my own individual style which is sexy, tomboyish, but ultimately, woman. I don’t believe in conforming to how society teaches us to look, or even that our appearance really defines us. We have to do it for ourselves. Not for a man (or a woman) to think we are sexy, not to fit into a box, but for our own enjoyment, free from judgement. We have to question and redefine what we are taught and find our own truest identity.

How do you define a girl?

I think that nurture and society interfere with how we perceive gender on such a subconscious level that it is impossible to know what is true and what we copy or learn to assimilate. As Sirley Chisolm says, ‘The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl.”  Perhaps we as a society have created these gender roles to control and make sense of the world, or perhaps as Lia Rodriguez says, ‘Girls are the soft part the beauty the sensuality, the mother.’

I wonder how the world would differ if women ran it rather than men. Perhaps some of the qualities my interviewees attributed to women, such as nurturing, protector and intuition would change the world for the better!

Do you ever feel like you are more boyish/less like a girl?

‘See I embrace all of my masculine and feminine traits. And I accept the fact that there are those who might hate on me simply because I don’t act like their version of a lady’ Bridget Gray

Lots of the interviewees saw particular traits (despite being in themselves: a woman) as masculine, such as being passive to female (Omega), and dominant as male (Alpha). I personally think these definitions can be unhelpful. We will never fit completely into an archetypes, be that the sidechick or the superhero. I agree with Rokafella who said that ‘when I am working, I forget gender and go for functional: whatever best serves the work.’ If you are a leader, then you have to take on these ‘male traits’ to lead. Often women get told they are being ‘aggressive’ or ‘bossy’ or general words which are linked to masculinity as leaders and that that is a negative. I am a leader, but I am also feminine, I am sensual and I am soft voiced and my work approach too is collaborative- which is apparently a female quality not a male one…

Do you enjoy to be/feel sexy? How?

Feeling sexy is often about our life experiences, and how others have made us feel. Being an object of someone else’s desire can provoke both positive and negative feelings, and can become addictive or a need for validation, but ultimately it is when we choose to attract that attention, when we are doing it for ourselves and are in control of that desire that we feel sexy.

‘I’ve always been aware of others attention and enjoyed it mostly, but not always.’ Anna Alvarez

When we feel good in ourselves, we can feel and be sexy no matter what we look like. Maybe some people happen to look better than others in baggy clothes, or without makeup, or training means they have a better figure, but it’s the internal feeling that projects out into the world, and that we experience on a daily basis. Music can make me feel sexy too (especially if the lyrics are positive), but mostly it comes from feeling good about myself, feeling in love and inspired by the world.

Do you ever try not to be sexy or play down your sexiness?

Last year, Federal Court Justice Robin Camp asked an alleged rape victim, ‘Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?’. The 16 year old woman in Brazil who was being gang raped by 30 men’s images were tweeted, getting over 550 ‘likes’ with thumbs up, smiley faces and comments like ‘must have been asking for it’.

Women are still seen as objects. If I am walking home at night, even just from the bus stop, then I will try to look ‘unsexy’ and change out of my heels so I can run if I need to, or put on trousers to feel safer going home. Recently, I got off a bus, and on my way saw two other girls running… I found myself questioning at that moment how real this fear of sexual predators at night is? and feeling angry that women fear and feel vulnerable like that in a ‘civilisation.’

I think most women in the western world, most of the time do not feel oppressed by how they dress for fear of attracting the wrong attention. We have a way to go for women to be able to express themselves without judgement, being subconsciously influenced by the male gaze, or for it not to become a topic of conversation (for example the recent Olympic press around questions female athletes who were asked in comparison to their male counterparts).

Do you think being feminine has a different meaning in the Latin/ African American/ West Indian/Breaking/Salsa/Dance (etc) (your) community?

In breaking, I have not felt the force of having to be feminine.’ Azara Meghie

There are roles that we have to play specific to the behaviour in our community, and some empower us, and some box us into a role. In breaking I could be more aggressive or competitive, but at the same time, I am liberated that I can battle a guy and we are equals on the dance floor (asides from some body parts differences). It is a space where we can be equal, and free from judgement based on gender stereotypes. I love that in the breaking community, most of the time I train and focus on honing my skills to elevate to superhero without being looked at or come on to.

“In tango: the woman is active. We respond and reply with our. We interpret the music, flourish. We are strong. We are Dominant.” Anna Alvarez

In Latin danceI feel it is more of a celebration of the divine feminine energy. In the UK I have felt annoyed on jobs that sometimes it is more important how I look (figure hugging/tiny clothes, make up, a big smile) than how I dance. At the same time I can be so soft, sensual, divine feminine energy and quintessentially Ochun which makes me smile!

All the women I interviewed are empowered by creating their own rules according to how they feel. I love to be all of me regardless of any attachment to what society tells me is male, female, good, bad, weak, strong, old, young, and regardless of gender, ethnicity, class.

How do you define a feminist? Are you a feminist? Why?

“I recognise I am a female ahead of my time

And in a male dominated slam I will still shine”. Bridget Gray

A feminist is someone who believes in equality regardless of race, gender, sexuality or disability. Feminism doesn’t mean ignoring differences or pretending we are all exactly the same-we are not. But it does promote equal opportunities, eliminating sexism, racism, homophobia and discrimination against disability.

From my interviews, I learnt that it is still a word that is often misunderstood, even amongst women (which is worrying in my opinion). Feminism as a history has had problems, because it has ignored other inequalities, so perhaps Womanist is better? Alice Walker coined this term to it recognize women as survivors in a world that is still oppressive in many ways.

Things are changing positively, with many woman making a stand. There has been an incredible attendance world wide of the rallies against the sexism and bigotry of Donald Trump. Feminist debates are being fronted by inspirational and influential media faces such as Emma Watson (who is currently also causing ‘hype’ just because she ‘posed’ and showed ‘boob’. I love Chimamanda Ngozi, Beyoncé, Madonna, Alicia Keyes (who is also running her ‘no make up’ campaign) for what they are contributing to the feminist cause. There are also many incredible women fighting for the rights of women worldwide, such as Malala.

I think the patriarchy continues to have a negative affect on how we are taught we ‘should’ behave as a woman, and results in vulnerable young women and girls prioritising other people’s opinion, pleasure and approval over their own, and leaving us confused about trusting our own judgement and knowing instinctively what choices to make.

Whether society sees us as ‘Ladylike’ ‘Unladylike’, ‘Bgirl’, ‘Womanist’, no matter what our Gender, we are all such beautiful individuals, and we are also all the same… We are human. All the women I interviewed are wise in their individual choices, and are doing something important as humans, and they are also freely making choices and defining themselves as individuals.

 

Blog 8: Interview questions: Conversations with Bgirls on how to be a ‘lady’.

How do you define a B-girl?

Mantis: A female who breaks

Brie: She is determined as fuck. She has fire. She hasn’t been able to express herself anywhere else. I have my gear… There is a way she dresses and things she needs… The pants… Her shit. I recently support brands I stand for-building small companies… Unique graffics. Keep it large baby.

Rokafella: Someone who breaks using breaking vocab to the beats and knows the culture

Judi: Empowering, uber confident… In a sea filled with men… If you are a b-girl you need to be confident. You take on challenges, you are commited.

Anna: Someone who dances in the breaking scene. They are her people

Azara: If they define themselves as a b-girl someone who want that as their lifestyle

Lia: For them it is more than just dance, a lifestyle. It is a part of their personality. Some power inside them. They can do whatever men do.

 How do you be a girl?

Kiki: By being fashionable. Glamourous

Mantis: As a kid, I got on with boys… I guess I was a tomboy? My Mum wasn’t that feminine… Alot of friends taught me about things like make up and how to do my hair… I learnt from Rokafella too…

Brie: I am a sexy girl yeah! I am definately girly. Girl to me is super playful. When I get together with my girls we are girlsss- talkative, chatty- sometimes we are badddd- we drink, we smoke, we party… Sometimes we are obnoxious… In my relationship I feel feminine. There is equality… Both of us have a stance and a role and a responsibility-an attribute to being a girl-it cant be one sided… I bring a feminine energy… What feels good I express. I love skirts and heels… On my days off I get down in dresses.

Rokafella: Minimal make up, celebrating my curves when I dance, keeping my nails painted, clean, bright colours, celebrating my feminine energy

Judi: It depends on you as an individual. Some are super feminine, some are not- just be you. As b-girls we can show our feminity in the dance… There are significant movements that we can do… But it has to be real…

Anna: I need to remind myself I am. I am reminded by people’s reaction to me- for example men asking for my number or sitting near me, and I think- ‘Ah it is because I’m a woman’. In relationships. In bed with my partner… I don’t have to be strong all the time.

Azara: I don’t try I am a girl. Being with women, its more about reminding myself to be free in whatever comes out… If I am more feminine one day, another day I might be more strong… For me it is about allowing that… Allowing my partner to unlock that femininity in me.

Lia: When you live like a gypsy, you are very strong. I have to remember I am a girl and calm down and enjoy my part and forget the need to be strong the whole time. We don’t need to have the control all the time. I am so used to stress I have to remember that. I developed myself as a strong woman. I decided. After 25, I decided to be more woman, find my sensitive part and listen to my emotions first.

How do you define a girl?

Lia: We have different organs… That means a lot of changes. From childhood, your family decide how you dress, if you wear earrings, if you play with dolls. From childhood you are driven to be a girl… I think you have to just follow your rhythm… Girls are the soft part the beauty the sensuality, the mother. The woman is a natural protector.

Azara: That is a difficult question… Being around trans people I have learnt the term Sis-gender (this is the gender we are what assigned at birth)… As we grow up, non binary-people disregard what they were assigned at birth. Eg a trans female who is female… For her she feels she needs to have long hair make up act a certain way. Society says a girl is this…

Anna: girl or woman qualities… Regardless of the sis-gender there are feminine qualities: intuition, six sense, nurturing, power to make life: a different kind of authority to men. What you are & feel is complicated. We are conditioned: relationships: the roles we play. In my childhood I was a tomboy: they let me wear what I liked. In Ballet I wanted to be the male role.  

Do you enjoy to be/feel sexy? How?

Kiki: Yes-smiling everyday

Mantis: Sometimes… Breaking= sweatpants, tshirts… It is male dominated-you don’t wanna be ogled at for your body, but for your skill… So when it is that time… When I have time off, it is nice to feel sexy- Or to feel good about myself-the work we do- we work so hard and it keeps our body looking good-so yeah putting on a nice blouse/makeup… Maybe some low heels-that makes me feel sexy.

Brie: It is a mindstate- I channel it- there are certain things that help that. With my man, I just flip the switch… I can be dressed like this (we are at practise)- bleeding from my shoulder from training windmills, and be like I feel sexy because I am feeling myself… It is knowing who I am and loving that. R: I’m not sure-not when I break. Its about interactions… When I’m not breaking I feel I can intentionally pull sexual energy

Judi: It is how I carry myself. I am feminine, being me. Outside the dance-I dress up, heels, make up salsa dancing,… Sometimes I still break .

Azara: It comes from other people… Im trying to find that within myself more. I grew up not feeling sexy or attractive… I relied on other peoples attention a lot. To an extent I still do but I am much more comfortable in my own skin. I still need reassurance but I don’t necessarily need it from others. L: Its natural I love enjoying it. I love the reaction. Sometimes I dont want to be to sexy- I try not to get attention… In cuba sometimes I get angry when I am alone walking and the men are all flirty and heckling me, and I’m like ‘shutup’. But I love to feel sexy in a dress and heels and make up- it’s about the feeling. It doesn’t matter what you are wearing

Anna: Ive always been aware of others attention and enjoyed it mostly, but not always. Its something natural. I most enjoy it and feel sexy dancing tango. Its so intimate. Students say to me, ‘You’re so sexy when you tango-how?’ I think I use the other person to get off… Then i go home…

Do you ever try not to be sexy or play down your sexiness? Why?

Anna: I think it is a fine line between trying to be sexy and just being; I think Latin dance shows and in bed are the most clear times I try to be sexy/am sexy. As far as playing it down my sexiness, definately as a teenager and growing up in a Catholic environment, sexiness was something I would try to disassociate myself from. I would say I most often am able to be myself, which is perhaps a little sexy/sensual but this is not forced.

Iris: I’ve played down my sexyness whenever I was being me, was relaxed and not trying to impress anyone. When I was younger I didn’t wear much short skirts or small tops as I felt it was “too” sexy and would attract too much attention. I regret it now and think it was simply that maybe I wasn’t confident enough despite a tight washboard body!! I have the confidence now as a grown woman happy to embody her sexy self but don’t really simply on the body to do so.

Do you think being feminine has a different meaning in the Latin/ African American/ West Indian/Breaking/Salsa/Dance (etc) (your) community?

Kiki: In the Caribbean: the culture: the clothes: people in St Kitts wear less clothes. In England, there are so many looks and shops so more difference… There is more individuality here in the UK.

Mantis: Yeah… There are definately differences in women’s roles… In history-Native American women in some tribes were leaders- a matriarchy… In breaking I have seen it a lot that the girlfriend cheers on their b-boy boyfriend… There is one b-girl in each crew… Now there are more all b-girl crews… Things are changing.

Brie: Yes: In the Middle East, in my neighbourhood: I see so many orthodox Jewish women whose role is as a mum. The way they dress: wearing wigs, Stockings, long sleeves- they have a very clear identity and role. In my life however: I can do what I like. I have freedom, I make no boundaries for myself… I feel priveleged because of that… I am still limited by social norms & gender roles… But I have the freedom to decipher and stand for what I believe and find people who identify with that. I won’t be killed or beaten for that-in some countries women have no voice, are abused used almost as an empty vessel to procreate. In Breaking-I think we have equality? I am in a b-girl crew-I can channel that feminine energy when I am with them-I love both energies. I’m a gemini… I have that! You get looked at differently as a b-girl rolling around on the floor with big ass hips- and of course there are also physiological and mental barriers to deal with-so much is about being a beast… We have to break through what culture and society set out for us to find ourselves through breaking. So in breaking we are already breaking through cultural norms.

Rokafella: Yes: In vogue, the women are super feminine, and sometime the men too. In breaking it is toned down-there is no need for it because it is not part if the exchange. In salsa you can be more feminine and soft. House is not so much about femininity but I think there is more openness to that energy-the dance is more female. In Hip hop it depends- the choreography nowadays- yes definately. Then Popping & Locking not so much.

Judi: There are expectation from me: with my bgirl movement, I should be repping at battles cyphers eg bring it for my girls… I dont do this to fulfill expectation though, I do me. This is my song. Sometimes I’m in the corner… I feel the pressure now- It was easier when people didn’t know me… I don’t pay too much attention. I am old fashioned I feel men should approach women. Men should pay on the first date… A man should be a provider. A woman should work too, but the man should wear that crown… I like to be independant, but I want the man to be the man and feel appreciated… The roles are defined… Not so clear cut but… I often wonder why there is one token bgirl in crews, and why she is alsways the weapon to ben used on another bgirl in battles.

Lia: I think it is different in different continents: in India: the woman’s place is different: she is 2nd class… In South america, the woman is strong, jealous sensual. They do everything. They are entrepreneurs, they are dramatic… But it is also down to the individual. In Australia they have a woman’s day.

Azara: In breaking, I have not felt the force of having to be feminine it doesn’t ask for that, it allows the freedom to be you. It is you, it is how you express you. I haven’t encountered a push for a specific way to be. In breaking you may be praised more if you are less feminine. There is a blur between the lines of gender…

Anna: In Catholicism, the role of the woman is 2nd class. To reproduce. Support the men. In contrast, in tango: the woman is active. Women respond and reply with our body to the person we dance with. We interpret the music, we flourish. We are so strong. So Dominant. In Tango it is all about making the woman feel good.

How do you define a feminist? Are you a feminist? Why?

Kiki: Yeah, because I believe in equal rights

Mantis: Someone who believes in equality for women. There is still such an imbalance…as there is-if not more, when it comes to race. Yeah-if youre a b-girl it comes natural… With the territory-the industry is so male dominated instinct is I wanna represent the women… Show them the females can do it too.

Brie: Someone who takes a stand on certain issues: women’s rights and culture. I don’t like that title… But I like to stand for what I believe in… Putting myself out on the floor as a woman, naturally I am a feminist. I represent women in this culture- I have a responsibility and must set example and support other women out here trying it. As you advance you gain respect and it is not easy. For a woman it is so challenging… And our feelings too… I mean we all have feelings, but women and men are like Ying n yang-the woman has a different spirit and energy to men… Though I am a more aggressive woman child than most women!

Rokafella: Someone looking to defend the rights of a woman. Yes! Because so few in my community are… This is a perfect place to enforce that consciousness- hiphop is forward thinking-it has equalized & levelled the playing field people of colour and women. If I was going to break I had to represent for women… Without women its not really community. We have to have a consciousness about how important we are.

Judi: Yes- a woman. For women.

Anna: a feminist is… I don’t know how to define it… I think someone who believes in equality and works towards it: fighting, writing, talking. There are differences between men & women that are real, but feminists want to share things like work, the same space, respect, as led by women. I don’t know if I am one… actually I do… Yeah I am one. Woman have been a long time oppressed. I’d like to see that change, to see women with the same opportunities as men.

Lia: The people who recognise the world of women, the characteristics of women, but that but we are the same. We are human. At the end it’s only an organ that makes us different. Over time the male became the dominating energy in society- this led to prejudice, they have taken control. The people who are in power do not recognise the world of women, the characteristics of women. We are human. At the end it’s only an organ that makes us different. Men have become the leaders, women have stayed at home. These things need re-addressing. We need to be allowed to celebrate sexuality and all elements.

Azara: Yeah. It’s about pushing for equality, breaking down barriers. Eliminating preconceptions and blocks in society, and not keeping women oppressed. I don’t necessarily class myself as a feminist, but others might. I’m just me.

Blog 6: June 2016: Brazil WCMT

2015 Churchill Travelling Fellowship: Brazil Blog and reflections on Cuba

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Dates of journey: 17th January to 1st March 2016

Where: Salvador, Brazil

Favourite food: Aipim com Queijo (Cassava with cheese)/ Acerola com Laranja (A fruit which was juiced with Orange- apparently with the highest Vitamin C content in the world/ Abaré (An Afro-Brazilian dish from Bahia made from baking a paste of mashed black-eyed peas.)

Most inspiring person/people I met: Denilson Olawufemi, Pia Love, Karina Christie, Leda Maria Ornellas.

Greatest moments: A visit to Denilson’s home studio for a private dance session in his dance studio, swim and lunch with his family. Parading in Salvador Carnival, watching Ile Aye

Visiting Guarantingueta to train Capoeira training with my Mestre in the UK’s father. As there was no other distraction, I was able to focus 100% on Capoeira

The hardest thing: The fear of being constantly told it is dangerous & learning how to relax in a city on edge. 

The best thing: There is music and dance everywhere! It is a city full of energy, soul, music and history.

Smells like: Every smell good and bad within very short intervals

Feels like: A city rich with history, culture and magic and there is an amazing energy and weight-you can feel the history, & also that Salvador has so much African influence. 

Looks like: Beautiful cobbled streets, colourful buildings, colonial buildings, terrain, lush vegetation.

Sounds like: So much music at all hours of the day… Drums Drums Drums

Organisations 

Funceb: http://www.fundacaocultural.ba.gov.br/

Associação Artistica e Cultural Diáspora – Diáspora Art Center: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Associação-Artistica-e-Cultural-Diáspora-Diáspora-Art-Center

Bloco Kizumba http://www.guiadaboa.com.br/17556-bloco-kizumba-2017/details.html

Espaço Cronopios: https://www.facebook.com/cronoarte

Capoeira Mojuba (at the end of my trip), Guarantingueta:

The Teachers:

Funceb

At Funceb I was able to devise my own program of dance classes including Orixás classes with Jaguaracy Santos Mojegbe, Denilson Olawufemi, Contemporary using Afro Brasilian with Paco Gomes and the Silvestre school including Vera Passos and Rosangela Silvestre.

Particularly poignant for me was studying the work of Denilson Owalufemi, looking at the body as a spiritual vessel and his research into the gut as a sacred centre and another ‘brain’ giving equal importance to the rotation, and the contraction or head and tail connection. I also found his ideas in about the connections to the Orixás and Graham technique very enlghtening. These insights, gained in country through opportunities to ask questions, conduct interviews and learn about the cultural influences were invaluable.

Associação Artistica e Cultural Diáspora

Nem Brito’s classes were very direct and to the point. In his small centre, he held drumming classes and dance classes on the Orixa, Samba de Roda and Samba Caboclo. He used a Contemporary warm up followed by his unique teaching approach, which meant we travelled across the space in lines.

Espaço Cronopios

Leda Maria Ornelas taugh Afro Brazilian and Alongamento in this beautiful space in Santo Antonio- Salvador. Her classes featured live drums and often would fuse Contemporary and Afro Brazilian styles.

Carnaval

I paraded in Carnival in Salvador with Bloco Kizumba. It was a very different scale to Rio carnival. I loved this bloco and enjoyed seeing the dances I had been studying feature in modern day movement. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9uXIkuY8qg

My reason for travelling to Brazil:

To learn more about the dances of the Orixá. 

I travelled to Cuba and Brazil to refresh and further my dance skills and build confidence in my knowledge around the dances of the Orixàs/Orishas, and most of all, to experience the culture and dances first hand

I wanted to question the connections between Brazil and Cuban dances of the Orishas/Orixàs, and ask questions about the dances and the history of these techniques.

I wanted to see how Latin Dance features in the theatre in Brazil and Cuba to inspire my work and to better facilitate my role as Dramaturgy and mentor for Roots of Rumba.

Diary from Brazil

Day 1 at Funceb

Paco Gomes Orixàs class: Studying Nana- the earth mother who is upset with the world and humans for their maltreatment of mother nature.

Also Omolu-who is said to be  unattractive-the story in this class is that he was attacked by crabs- and he is fighting back at the way he is treated, saying ‘you can bully me, but I can see, hear, think, do’. 

Vania Orixàs class: Studying Oya- who represents the butterfly (my quote of the year) She represents birth death change. She lives intensely. This class was to live drums and the atmosphere was just beautiful 

Night time-I fear the zombies come out- I have been given so many warnings so decided to have a chilled and quiet dinner and bed… Quiet was not possible though being on a main street of Pelourinho 

Day 2 

Jaguaracy Orixàs Class: 9-1  which included a singing class and the dance section. He is ‘reinterpreting’ the Orixàs and even used some ‘Krump’

Silvestre Orixàs class

Noise of my home is difficult- I am needing to wear ear plugs the whole time 

Day 3

Stretch-Alongamento class with Leda

Orixàs Class with Denilson: We began singing and studying the Yoruba language. He broke down each Orixà in a simple way and gave detailed links between Cuba and Brazil

Meeting: Bale foclorico- I have organized to take class in three weeks time.

SilvestreOrixàs Class: Luciane: We studied Xango (I was excited at the links to Chango from Cuba!) There was one step so similar to chachalocafou (Chango in Cuba) but with lots of distinctions too. 

I am realising I would love to do a Phd in this.

Today I felt quite emotional connecting samba and the dances of the Orixàs. I began to wonder if the real reasons I fell for Samba at the beginning of my career was to do with the earthy footwork and this inate human movement and calling from the drums.

I watched an incredible Afro Brazilian Performance

Day 4

Alongamento class with Leda

Orixàs Class with Denilson

Bale foclorico meeting two with my letter from Jean Salomao

Silvestre Orixàs Class 

Day 5

Alongamento Class: Leda

Orixàs Class: Denilson: I felt really moved by Denilson’s theory about capoeira and the body. He said that we can see the body as symmetrical in that we have two head- the top half- where the arms, brain and mouth are. The bottom half where the legs, intestine anus are. He said we should respect live and think more spiritually about the bottom half as it is a sacred place. He said they are of equal importance and gave  importance to the rotation and to our balance in being upside down sometimes.

He made connections to the Orixàs and Graham technique.

We began with very Contemporary exercises to work on Contraction, and whilst doing a Cat and cow yoga type exercise, Denilson noticed my  scoliosis and clicked it mid class! Which probably made me feel a bit emotional.

As the very Graham class continued he began linking Graham to Brazilian and African dance. I felt really moved by this. Graham has always been my favouriteContemporary style, and I felt quite moved to hear there were connections to Orixà movement.  I was so excited about the connections, and that it confirmed something about my intuition in my choices of dances that are connected across continents. 

When we began to look at Orixà technique we focused on Iansa,  Ogum and Xango.

Orixà Class: Paco Gomes: We learnt material for Nana, Oya, Oxum, Ogum, Oxossi, Xango

I also did an interview for  Pia- a wonderful woman who was in Brazil shooting for a documentary around the world. Previously she had been in Nigeria where she visited the Oxum river. She asked me and another dancer about our personal connection to Orixàs. 

Tomorrow I will take part in an Orixà ceremony. There is just an unbelievable amount of energy in Salvador. It is a non stop city. I will sleep through the party ready for tomorrow.

Day 6

I had a very interesting Orixàs reading before heading to my Carnival rehearsal.

I also practised and revised everything I had learnt so far.

Day 9

Alongamento Class: Leda

Orixàs Class: Paco Gomes: This was my favourite class of the day focusing on the male Orixàs

Orixàs Class: Denilson

Day 10

Today I had an injury not from dance but the hills and wearing flipflops, and I am covered in mosquitos which I am allergic to!

This morning’s class with Jaguaracy covered Omolu, Nana, Xango & Oxum

And then I was invited to an Ensaio to parade in carnival with an Afro Brazilian bloco, though on my way they called to say it was cancelled.

Instead I went to watch and a local dance show where we were asked to pay our entry with tins of with food. The most memorable shows included a Samba piece based on Iansa, an all male cast of around 20 which seemed to be about city life, and a topless duet about Iansa and Oxum using contemporary dance and  Afro Brazilian. 

Day 11

Today in Denilson’s Orixàs class I started to understand the Yoruba language and connect the songs to their meanings for each Orixàs. Then we studied the dance of 

Yemanya. He said on Friday we will start learning Oxala (Obatala in Cuba). I am really looking forward to that. 

The second Orixàs class was with Vera, and we studied Ossain- who doesn’t feature in Cuba as far as I know, and I don’t know much about

This evening I watched the show of Bale Foclorico who I will train with in a few weeks. They showcased many Orixàs- including Omolu, Ogun, Iemanya, Oxossi. They also showcased Maractu with some incredible tricks, and Capoeira-which got me excited about my training in Capoeira which I will do toward the end of the trip as my own personal investment and research. Then finally they showcased Samba de Roda- which was exciting for me as I found a class today- which I will take on Friday. 

I feel like things are starting to make sense here. Today there was a bateria playing in the street, and as I swayed to the music, I realized I am starting to dance Bahia style- my go to movements to these rhythms are helping me to make sense of allthe training.

I also met a percussionist today, who was giving me some lessons which was nice.

It is so crazy here and so full on. I also discovered an amazing Vegetarian food today called Abara. It is a food like Acaraje, which is often linked to the Orixàs, but can be made vegetarian and is baked rather than fried in Dende oil. It is so delicious!

Day 14

Today there was a lot of rehearsals for the Carnival happening. It was so noisy walking back from rehearsals, and I heard a Samba rhythm coming from one building so I went to have a look. And there I found a beautiful Samba de roda!

Today I did a private with Denilson and was able to ask him loads of questions. He says so much which rings true to me. I have arranged to have tomorrow focusing in particular on the rhythms and dances. I think Denilsonhasan amazing intelligence and understanding of thebody and mind connection. He helped me to see the connection to contemporary dance and the Orixàs. We talked a lot about the history of Orixàs and he told me about Katherine Dunham’s visits to Salvador. She was an important influence in the scene because she set up a company with her husband here in Bahia, and began to train in the Orixàs in the 70s. Of course the Orixà have been here since the beginning of time but, she began to ‘formulate’ what she was learning into a technique. Maybe this is why there are links to Graham here? I wonder if this is similar with Cuba and Cuban Contemporary that is certainly a mixture of Afro Cuban and Graham technique. 

Today I also tried Silvestre technique. I discovered that this style is not for me. It is a beautiful contemporary style but that I don’t feel it is a part of my journey.

I also took a class with Vera where we covered every Orixà.

Day 15 

Today was the last Orixà class at Funceb. I took another private with Denilson. Today we broke down the movements and made more links to Graham, Horton and Limon techniques, and connecting these exercises and Orixà exercises which Denilson uses. I finally was able to ask about the shoulder isolations which had been confusing me as there doesn’t seem to be a set way or technique as there is in Cuba and from what I could tell there was much less movement of the solar plexus.

Next I took Denilson’s last class, and then a class with Paco Gomes.

At the Samba de Roda class I realised I have learnt lotsofthe style already, but it was great to formulate all of this.

Finally this evening I went to a barber’s to shave the sides of my head as I was over heating. And there I ended up meeting the ex Director and Choreographer of Bale Foclorico! I love how small the world is because it turns out he is the father of a friend of mine based in London. Finally I watched some live Samba in my very noisy street! 

Day 16

Today I was filming all day-dancing Oxum with the wonderful Pia who is out here also doing research. We went to a very famous sacred beach in the Candomblereligion, and filmed there and in the water with assistance from Nem Brito- a famous choreographer here in Bahia.

Day 17

Today I went to visit the Orixàs do Dique- a lake with sculptures of all the Orixàs on it, and then I went to the Igreja do Bomfim- a church in Bonfim which is a Chritstian church where there is alos a syncretism of the Candomble religion. Our Lord of Bonfim is associated Oxala,the father of Orixàs and creator of humankind. When I came back I went to watch some of the Carnival celebrations.

Day 18

Today I took another private with Denilson this time in a beautiful area of Bahia at the studio next door to his home. Again I was able to asked many questions, and we trained Ogun, Oxossi, Oxumare, Oxum, Iemanja, Iansa, Oxala along with his partner. I feel much more confident that I know this and will be going back with somethingstrong. In the evening I went with Pia to watch Ile Aye- an Afro Bloco who have been quite political in their parades and who it is said only allow black or mixed race people to perform with them.

Day 19

Today I paraded in the Carnival! It was incredible! By coincidence, the leader of our Bloco (called) was Denilson! The parade was very long and we were dressed in yellow and white (my two favourite colours). We paraded aroung the hole of Pelourinho, using all of the movements of the Orixàs! It was an incredible finale to the course and a dream come true to be a part of. I was even interviewed for the television!

Day 20

Today was Frustrating!

Alongamento: I got up early to take Leda’s class, but noone was there. I messaged her and she said she was running late so we finally took class, and then she said they would have another class after which I could join, but as I had organized to start my Bale Focloricotraining, I turned it down. I ran to the Bale Focloricobuilding and waited a long time, and eventually was told it was cancelled as it was carnival. Finally I went home to prepare then for another rehearsal which I had been invited to at the parade. It is quite hard for me to understand everything in Portuguese on the phone, and everytime he gave me the directions to get there I struggled. I kept on asking if he could send me the address written down so I could look up how to get there, and every time he called me back and said it again! Then finally he called again to say that actually the rehearsal was cancelled due to carnival which was disappointing. 

Finally I went down to Funceb where the security let me in to practice. I began outing together a new Class using everything I had learnt in Cuba and here in Brazil- whichwas really productive!

Day 21

Today there have been many more carnival cancellations! The security explained to me that ‘After carnival noone hads energy’ I was hoping to go to Bale Foclorico then an Orixàs with Nem Brito and percussion, but instead I ended up staying in revising, creating and writing ready for tomorrow.

Day 26

After a third day with no Bale Foclorico, I decided to take a trip outside of Salvador which was great. I have been doing quite a bit of self training over everything and realising how much I have learnt. I have really enjoyed making a new Company Class which is a mixture of everything I was doing already but also using all these new influences… Including a section on the hips and free improvisation. I have a feeling that this class is very important in finding a free and natural way to move and am starting to wonder if the whole world and ways of moving are connected- for example the healing quailitiesof Gaga, the strenghth in the Centre, the links to Graham and Afro Cuban and Afro Brazilian. Today I came back and took a wonderful class with Nem Brito on the dances of the Orixas- focusing on Ogum, and also a percussion class with Bira Santos, whom it turns out is a friend of my friends John and Marica- a couple now based in Scotland whom I helped to communicate when they met many years ago and John was not yet able to speak Portuguese. 

Day 27

Today I had my second Orixà reading. It was very different to my first- and felt much more right to me. I will take a cleansing with this Mae de Santos the day I fly to Rio for the end of my trip.

Day 28

This morning I took a class wth Leda- another Alongamento class. I am strating to feel very strong and supple from this class. It is wonderful to already be warm when class starts! I also took a private with Denilsoncontinuing to discuss the links to Graham and Horton, and this time also looking at the modern day dances of Brazil and how the Orixàs  feature in these. In the evening I visited Terreiro: the celebrations went on for over 4 hours, and was in a beautiful building. It was wonderful to see all the Orixàs in elaborate costumes and to be a part of this very special ceremony and celebration of Xango.

Day 29

Sadly today there were more cancellations- Bale Foclorico, and a private I had set up with Nem Brito inSamba caboclo- a section linked to Oxossi some say in the Candomble religion. I met with Denilson to ask him lots of my own inner questions about race, racism in Brazil and with regards to the traveller- if is this a new form of colonisation? Despoite the cancellations, I have learnt so so much, and I had an amazing trip. I know I will come back again, as my story here is not quite finished, and I know the Orixas will continue to feature in my path. I am so interested in the links and importance in the religion to listening to our intuition, to our spirit guides, and to the importance of the drums. On this trip, I have learnt so much abot my self, the power of my intuition, and the importance of putting all of me and all of my emotions into my movement. I love dancing the Orixàs because each one can reflect different sides to my personality and tell different versions of me. I have grown so much in confidence over the time here as I realize how much I have learnt, and as I realize that I know so much about this. At the same time I am excited to continue to learn.

The learning and the experience of a trip with the WCMT:

I embarked on this journey to learn more about Afro Cuban & Brazilian traditional dances. I took a course in Cuba: Havana & a course in Brazil: Salvador as professional research towards developing a style using Afro Cuban & Afro Brazilian- in particular the Orishas/Orixàs & Cuban/Brazilian Contemporary techniques. 

My goal is to bring these back to the UK, both for the theatre & as a teaching system using these styles alongside the elements as a teaching method & ethos. 

My mission is to promote the first Latin dances, the Afro Latin dances, and the true roots of Salsa and Samba in the UK and to push the scene so that eventually we will see many more Contemporary Latin Companies, and Latin dance Theatre on the mainstage.

In learning all I aimed to, I am actually just scratching the surface. There is so much to learn about these dances, the religion, the music, the language, that I know I will come back again. I know the Orixàs will continue to feature in my path and my passion for Afro Cuban and Afro Brazilian dance has intensified. I feel my story in these two countries and building links to the UK is just beginning. 

I feel I have not only refreshed my skills, but learnt much more deeply.  I have furthered my skills, technique and knowledge which has given me a  strengthened confidence, conviction and sense of identity in my role in the UK.

In both countries I covered the dances of:

Exu/Elegua

Xango/Chango

Iansa/Oya

Oxum/Ochun

Iemanja/Yemanya

Oxossi/Ochosi

Ogum/Ogun

Omolu/Babalu-Aye

Oxala/Obatala

And in Brazil

Nana

Ossain

Oxumare

I discovered many connections between Brazilian and Cuban dances of the Orishas/Orixàs as well as links to Graham and Contemporary techniques both within the techniques and the way in which the techniques enrich Contemporary styles in both countries.

I found it interesting to see how the dances and practises of these religions evolved in the two countries and the differences and similarities in the dances and the countries as a whole. Long term I would like to further compare Cuba and Brazil and eventually visit Africa to further understand. I am sure that eventually I will look into PHD opportunities to further this research.

The Cuban techniques seem to me to have more complicated rhythms often dancing to the off beat, and I woukd like to further research into whether this is the case or if it is because Brazilian rhythms fit more naturally on my body. In both countries the drums and the dance change together-the dance can dictate the drum rhythm, or the rhythm can dictate the dance. 

In both countries, music is present everywhere, and this I think contributes to two incredible execution of each movement. I am increasingly interested in the links and importance in the religion to listening to our intuition, and to the importance of the drums.

In Brazil, I found the Orixàs to be much more openly present in everyday life. 

Seeing how Latin Dance features in the theatre in Brazil and Cuba has inspired me to make more theatrical work, and I feel will strengthening my mentoring and Dramaturgical abilities with artists taking part in Roots of Rumba. In some ways, I felt that theatre in dance performances was less developed in terms of concept and content than in the UK, but in both countries the level and execution of technique, understanding of the movement and emotion behind each movement is phenomenal. Again I feel this needs further research to be truly understood.

The opportunity to research in both countries has allowed me to extend my practise and incorporate the Orixàs/Orishas, along with their Elements and emotions into my theatrical work. It has driven home the importance of putting all of me, and all of my emotions into my movement, and helped me to pass this on to my dancers and mentees. I love that in dancing these dances, one can reflect different sides to a personality and tell different versions of oneself. I feel this experience has enabled me to bring more heart and more soul to my performance. By experiencing these countries, and experiencing things first hand, I am able to make a deeper connection to the music, the movement and to belonging to it. I also understand that visiting somewhere else is not the same as growing up there, and this I understand more deeply. I also appreciate that it takes a certain kind of person to be able to travel, learn openly and who does not seperate and recognises we are all one-which was my favourite graffiti in Cuba.

Seeing Contemporary dance used alongside Afro Cuban and Afro Brazilian has helped me to devise a Company Class for Ella Mesma Company to take into schools and as a technique class for professionals.

Particularly poignant for me was studying the work of Denilson Owalufemi looking at the body as a spiritual vessel and his research into the gut as a sacred centre and another ‘brain’ giving equal importance to the rotation, and the contraction or head and tail connection. I also found his ideas in an interview about the connections to the Orixás and Graham technique very insightful. The opportunity to ask questions, conduct interviews and learn the cultural things about these styles that I am not able to grasp in the UK was invaluable.

My understanding of the culture was furthered by being in both countries and experiencing other elements of these dance forms first hand. Seeing the Orixás/Orishas in context was also invaluable.

Experiencing life in these wonderful and complicated countries, I am able to understand more about aspects which at first confused my western mind. I slowly relaxed, grew more patient and came to appreciate a different pace of life. 

I found myself delving into the history and politics of both countries and recognising the importance of Africa in these dance styles. All of these styles trace back to Africa, and so colonialism has to hold some accountability for that. There was an element of culpability as a Britain who is three quarters white for that. I understood how important it is to talk about it and acknowledge history and what has happened that is unjust, and what is still happening that is unjust. How important in our role as teachers, mentors and leaders it is to approach these subjects and to ask questions.

I asked many questions about race, racism in Brazil, in Cuba and in the UK and in particular with regards to the traveller and the traveller historically. On my travels I really understood the importance, devestation and relevance of slavery in the migration of these dances, which lead me to ask many morality questions around responsibility, cultural appropriation and the correct passing on of this work. One of my biggest questions-which I also asked some of my teachers was around whether cultural appropriation has any echoes of colonisation, is it perhaps stealing and profiting from another culture? Can anyone teach these styles? Practise these styles? And to understand the relevance of Ile Aye’s decision not to have white performers in their bloco. I feel the most important in these issues of morality is paying our respects to our teachers and those who share their knowledge and want to share with visitors. In Cuba in particular, I was struck by people’s warmth and generosity in sharing their stories and culture with others. There was a pride and a respect for the greater good in sharing.

My own roots also became important on this research trip. Knowing that I too would not be here if it weren’t for slavery- this devastating and pivotal event in history worldwide. It is very important to me it is that I know more about my roots, my identity and this year more than ever, I appreciate the importance in claiming that. 

On this trip, I have learnt so much abot my self, about the power of my intuition, and I have grown so much in confidence over the time here as I realize how much I have learnt as a dancer, creator and mentor. I am also excited to continue this learning and my journey as an artist.

What has happened since?

Creation of Schools package: Orixas project including theatre show (Ajé), School workshops on Cuban and Brazilian dances of the Orisha/Orixàs, Performance opportunities for schools. http://youtu.be/MGkS8iJb5G8 I have sent this workshop out to schools in London and Yorkshire

Theatrical work: Using elements from Afro Cuban amd Afro Brazilian to enhance tje technique and the stories behind my theatrical work. I have reworked Ajé and am currently producing Ladylike- an hour long piece using Afro Cuban dance.

A teaching system: I have been using these styles alongside the elements as a teaching method & ethos. I have developed an hour and a half class using technical exercises, emotional starting points and rhythms from Cuba and Brazil.

Specialist Dance Workshops: This year I will be choreographing the Commisao da Frente (Front Commission) for the London School of Samba. The theme is Oxumare, the rainbow and the dances of the Orixás. I will be using the skills I have gained in Brazil and Cuba along with Contemporary Dance to create an impactful dance performance, whilst also passing on my knowledge of the dance techniques and the history.

To promote more Contemporary Latin Companies, and Latin dance Theatre on the mainstage: By providing a platform: Roots of Rumba- for Brazilian, Cuban and Latin dance theatre to push the Latin Scene in the UK, I am promoting and supporting Latin American artists. I have begun offering dramaturgical support for Roots of Rumba artists, and giving feedback on their work to improve and push the level.

Promoting the first Latin dances, the Afro Latin dances, and the true roots of Salsa and Samba in the UK: Through my own performance work, education projects, blog, and event Roots of Rumba

Mentoring: I have offered mentoring support through Roots of Rumba and to company members as well as through Global Grooves.

Why Orixa?

I first found out about the Orixás aged 7. I recently moved out of my house and did a massive clear out. I found one of my first school projects, which was about the Caribbean. I had written about different carnivals, foods and religions including Santeria in Cuba.

Again during my A Levels studying Spanish, I did further research into Santeria, but it wasn’t until 2004 in Brazil that I first learnt about the dances of the Orixa and experienced it first hand. I began my dance training with Salsa and had been dancing Salsa, and a little Rumba around two years by 2004. Samba was my new love, and I had been training for around a year when I travelled with a good friend to Brazil for two months. I studied Samba in Rio, and we attended our first Candomble ceremony in Salvador where I also visited the Igreja do Bomfim when my mum was ill in the UK.

I travelled back to Salvador in 2005 as part of a project with the ABC Trust and Circo Picolino. This was where I first learnt the specific dances of the Orixa and was given the part of Oxum in a Circus performance. When I returned I set up a Samba group called Samba D’Oxum

In 2006 I stayed for 3 months in Rio and learnt more about the goddess Oxum. Upon my return I changed the name of the Company to Element Arts and designed a logo which made reference to the different characteristics of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. All the pieces I made with the company would focus on a specific Orixa or element.

In 2011 I visited Cuba for the first time and began my journey studying the dances of the Orishas, which I continued in the UK with my teacher Miguel Gonzalez.

In 2012 I worked with Global Grooves in Manchester as a group leader on their Journey of the Orixás carnival project and it was here I began to realise how much more I wanted to learn about the dances of Cuba and Brazil. Classes in London were limited, but I nonetheless realised that this was where I wanted to shift my focus.

I first began to create different versions of a piece based on the different Orixás between 2012 and 2014. This took various forms from an Afro-Brazilian House piece to a contemporary dance version commissioned by Billingham Festival.

In 2015 I decided to develop the Orixa piece and was successful in getting Arts Council funding to research and develop my ideas. I officially identified my contemporary work as Ella Mesma Company and we created the 20 minute piece performing at The Place, Circomedia, Yorkshire Dance and The Chelsea Theatre.

The History

The ancestry of the indigenous people of Brazil is known to date back at least 8,000 years. There are as many as 2000 different tribes including Jiquabu tribes and speakers of the Tupi-Guarini language. Many were semi nomadic tribes and hunted, fished and gathered.

Europeans invaded Brazil at the opening of the 16th century. There is some dispute over who was ‘first’, but in April 1500, Brazil was claimed for Portugal by Pedro Álvares Cabral. Miscegenation of the population began right away. Diseases from the West also wiped out tens of thousands of indigenous people as did murder and slavery.

The Portuguese ruled from the 16th to the early 19th century with invasions from the Dutch and French. The Portuguese began to impose Christianity on the indigenous people, believing they would be ‘saved’.

The biggest export during ‘colonisation’ was a tree that traders and colonists called pau-Brasil, which was nearly wiped out as a result of overexploitation. Others were coffee, sugar, rubber and gold.

Starting in the 16th century, sugarcane grown along the northeast coast (Brazil’s Nordeste) became the base of Brazilian economy and society. Slave labor was the driving force behind the growth of the sugar economy in Brazil.

Invaders began to import millions of slaves from Africa. Mortality rates were very high. Brazil imported more African slaves than any other country. 4.9 million slaves from Africa came to Brazil, most forced to embark at West Central African ports, especially in Luanda (present-day Angola), and Congo, Nigeria. In the 1690s slaves started being imported from Central Africa and the Mina coast to mining camps in enormous numbers.

Cattle ranching and foodstuff production proliferated after the population growth, both of which relied heavily on slave labor. 1.7 million slaves were imported to Brazil from Africa from 1700 to 1800, and the rise of coffee in the 1830s meant further expansion of the slave trade.

Although the average African slave lived to only be twenty-three years old due to terrible work conditions, this was still about four years longer than Indigenous slaves, which was a big contribution to high price of African slaves.

By 1819 the population of Brazil was 3.6 million, and at least one third were African slaves. By 1825 the figure may have been as high as 56%.

There were relatively few large revolts in Brazil for much of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, most likely because running away into the expansive interior presented an attractive alternative to the dangers of revolt. In the years after the Haitian Revolution, ideals of liberty and freedom had spread to Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro in 1805, “soldiers of African descent wore medallion portraits of the emperor Dessalines.” Jean-Jacques Dessalines was one of the African leaders of the Haitian Revolution that inspired blacks throughout the world to fight for their rights as humans to live and die free.

After the defeat of the French in Haiti, demand for sugar continued to increase and without the consistent production of sugar in Haiti the world turned to Brazil as the next largest exporter. African slaves continued to be imported and were concentrated in the north eastern region of Bahia. African slaves recently brought to Brazil were less likely to accept their condition and eventually were able to create coalitions with the purpose of overthrowing their masters. From 1807 to 1835, these groups instigated numerous slave revolts in Bahia.

In Brazil, escaped slaves formed quilombos- the most famous being Quilombo dos Palmares. Here escaped slaves, army deserters, ‘mulattos’, and indigenous flocked to participate in an underground society. Quilombos reflected the people’s will and soon the governing and social bodies of Palamares mirrored Central African political models. From 1605 to 1694, Palmares grew and attracted thousands from across Brazil. Though Palmares was eventually defeated and its inhabitants dispersed among the country, the formative period allowed for continuation of African traditions and helped create a distinct African culture in Brazil.

The mixture of African religions that survived throughout slavery and Catholicism includes Candomblé. In Bahia, statues of African gods called Orishas pay homage to the unique African presence in the nation’s largest Afro-Brazilian state. Not only are these Orishas direct links to their past ancestry, but also reminders to the cultures the Brazilian people come from. Candomblé and the Orishas serve as an ever present reminder that African slaves were brought to Brazil. Though their lives were different in Brazil, their culture has been preserved and evolved to a unique practice in Brazil.

Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. By the time it was abolished, in 1888, an estimated four million slaves had been imported from Africa to Brazil, 40% of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas.

Obtaining freedom was not a guarantee of escape from poverty or from many aspects of slave life. Frequently legal freedom did not come with a change in occupation for the ex-slave. However, there was increased opportunity for both sexes to become involved in wage earning. Women ex-slaves largely dominated market places selling food and goods in urban areas like Salvador, while a significant percent of African-born men freed from slavery became employed as skilled artisans, including work as sculptors, carpenters, and jewelers.

It was during Brazil’s military dictatorship, defined by many as Brazil’s darkest period, when a group called Ilê Aiyê came together to protest black exclusion within the majority black state of Bahia. There had been a series of protests at the beginning of the 1970s that raised awareness for black unification but they were met with severe suppression. Prior to 1974, Carnival was exclusive, and Afro-Bahians would leave their houses with only religious figurines to celebrate Carnival. Though under increased scrutiny attributed to the military dictatorship, Ilê Aiyê succeeded in creating a black only bloco, that manifested the ideals of the Brazilian Black Movement. Their purpose was to unite the Afro-Brazilians affected by the oppressive government, and politically organize so that there could be lasting change among their community.

Ilê Aiyê’s success has continued ever since and their numbers have grown into the thousands. Today, the black only bloco continues to exclude others because of their skin color. They do this by advertising exclusive parties and benefits for members. Combined with the influence of Olodum in Salvador, musical protest and representation as a product of slavery and black consciousness has slowly grown into a more powerful force. Musical representation of problems and issues have long been part of Brazil’s history, and Ilê Aiyê and Olodum both produce creative ways to remain relevant and popular.

Since the 1990s, despite the increasing public attention given to slavery through national and international initiatives like UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, Brazil has mounted very few initiatives commemorating and memorializing slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. In the last decade Brazil has begun engaging in several initiatives underscoring its slave past and the importance of African heritage. Gradually, all over the country, statues celebrating Zumbi, the leader of Palmares were unveiled. Capital cities like Rio de Janeiro and even Porto Alegre created permanent markers commemorating heritage sites of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade.

One of Brazil’s most severe problems today is its highly unequal distribution of wealth and income. By the 1990s, more than one out of four Brazilians continued to survive on less than one dollar a day. Though much progress has been made since abolition, unequal representation in all levels of society perpetuates ongoing racial prejudice. Most obvious are the stark contrasts between white and black Brazilians in media, education, government, and private business. Brazil continues to grow and succeed economically, yet its poorest regions and neighborhood slums (favelas), occupied by majority Afro-Brazilians, are shunned and forgotten.[57] Large developments within cities displace poor Afro-Brazilians and the government relocates them conveniently to the periphery of the city. It has been argued that most Afro-Brazilians live as second-class citizens, working in service industries that perpetuate their relative poorness while their white counterparts are afforded opportunities through education and work because of their skin color.

In 2012, Brazil passed an affirmative action law in an attempt to directly fight the legacy of slavery. Through it Brazilian policy makers have forced state universities, regarded very highly because it is free and of high quality, to have a certain quota of Afro-Brazilians. The percentage of Afro-Brazilians to be admitted, as high as 30% in some states, has caused some social discontent, that some argue furthers racial tensions. It is argued that these high quotas are needed because of the unequal opportunities available to Afro-Brazilians. In 2012 Brazil’s Supreme Court unanimously held the law constitutional. Such legislation should see improved overall quality of life, greater opportunities, and better political representation for Afro-Brazilians but the issue of slavery and its legacy may forever be felt in all facets of Brazilian life.

Glossary

Samba de Roda: The original form of Samba from Salvador danced in a circle, often all in White with big skirts.

Samba Caboclo: A dance and practice from the Indigenous people of Brazil, also a part of Candomble

Dramaturgy: A form of dance mentoring to help an artist to get the best out of their work and study the meaning and intention behind it.

Bloco: Carnival parade group

Yoruba: The Yoruba are an African tribes people, but Yoruba is also a language, culture, religion, belief system and way of life. Yoruba has influenced many varied practices across America and the Caribbean including Santeria (Cuba), Candomble and Candomble Ketu (Brazil), Trinidad Orisha, Umbanda (Brazil).

Practitioners of Yoruba religions believe that a good and successful life depends on proper alignment and knowledge of one’s ori. 

Ori: The head, but in spiritual matters a portion of the soul determining personal destiny and success.

Ashe: The life-force that runs through all things, living and inanimate, and the power to make things happen’. It is an affirmation used in greetings and prayers as well as a concept of spiritual growth. Orisha devotees strive to obtain Ashe, and in turn experience the ori, or ‘inner peace’ and satisfaction with life. Ashe is divine energy that comes from Olodumare, the creator and is manifested through Olorun, who rules the heavens and is associated with the sun. Without the sun, no life could exist, just as life cannot exist without some degree of ashe.

Candomble: The word Candomblé means ritual dancing or gathering in honor of god. Candomble is the evolution of Yoruba practices in Brazil.

 

Orixás as spelt in Brazil or Orishas from Cuba are gods of African origin. There are a total of 401 in Yoruba mythology. Each represents manifestations of the Supreme God/ the All Father.

Many Orishas have left traceable impact across the world as a result of slavery and colonisation.

Each Orisha has individual attributes and skills connected to natural phenomena and associated with specific rituals. Each also has their own colour, personality, rhythm, offerings and dance.

Some of the Orishas:

Exu/Elegua opens the ways. His colours are black and red. In Cuba he is represented as a child (Elegua). In Brazil he is a very sexual man.

Xango/Chango: This Orisha represents masculinity, fertility and strength. In both Cuba and Brazil, his colour is red and his element is fire. He represents lightning.

Iansa/Oya is a female warrior who represents the element of air. She is headstrong and fiery. In Cuba she wears all the colours of the rainbow. In Brazil she wears red and is represented by the butterfly.

Oxum/Ochun represents femininity, sexuality and fertility. In both Cuba and Brazil her colours are Yellow and gold. Ochun represents the fresh or sweet waters. She has a mirror and is vain, and beautiful. Those wishing to conceive pray to her.

Iemanja/Yemanya represents the sea. She is the mother Orisha and her colour is blue

Oxossi/Ochosi Ochosi is the hunter. His colour is green and he represents the Earth.

Ogum/Ogun is the warrior brother of Oxossi. His element is metal. In Brazil his colour is Blue and in Cuba green and purple. He fights for justice.

Omolu/Babalu-Aye: This deity covers himself entirely in sackcloth and raffia. Some stories say he is blindingly beautiful and a light shines from him; others say he is disformed or disfigured from disease. He is a healer.

Oxala/Obatala: Obatala is father of all the Orisha. He is older and wiser. His colour is white.

Nana: Nana (Brazil) is the grandmother. She wears purple. Her element is Earth. She tries to heal the environment from all the wrong doing of humankind. She is a protector.

Ossain: Ossain (Brazil) the herbalist and healer dresses in green.

Oxumare: Oxumare is half man half woman. He can take the form of a snake and has come to represent gay pride.

 

Blog 5: May 2016: The Bench

From Caterpillar to Butterfly: 9 Months with The Bench, Roots of Rumba 2016 and other projects…

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This year I really flew. I always felt it was in me and there was more to come, and in this project, like the Maya Angelou quote, ‘“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” I feel like I really realised how far I have come and allowed myself the permission to blossom. These 9 months include:

Brazil with the Winston Churchill Travelling Scholarship (Blog coming soon)

Ladylike funded by Arts Council of England (March 2016-May 2016)

Ajé (Orixas) with Chelsea Theatre and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (March 2016-May 2016)

Roots of Rumba at Richmix funded by Arts Council of England (April 11th & 12th 2016)

And it all began when I returned from Cuba with The Bench.

The Bench with 2Faced Dance Company Director Tamsin Fitzgerald (November 2015-May 2016)

The Bench is a new programme this year, where 5 female choreographers (Jennifer Essex, Rachel Erdos, Rebecca Evans, Lee Griffiths and myself), working within the UK Arts sector, are given an opportunity to participate in a 9 month programme of training, discussion, debate and mentoring all within a bespoke and creative framework. I found out when I was in Cuba with The Winston Churchill Scholarship that I had been successful with my application, and was so happy- this really did feel like my big break.

The Bench was very special in that it was a direct response to the evidence (Some examples below) around female choreographers having less opportunities. 

‘We need to see female choreographers given the same opportunities as their male colleagues. Not “for the sake of it”, but because it’s time for dance to shed its institutionalised sexism, to rid itself of the whiff of privileged boys’ clubs and backstairs deals and join the artistic mainstream. It’s time for the lions to have their say.’ Luke Jennings- The Guardian

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/apr/28/women-choreographers-glass-ceiling

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jan/18/akram-khan-more-female-choreographers-for-the-sake-of-it-luke-jennings-reply

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/dance-blog/2015/oct/12/dance-female-choreographers-rambert-debate

I had never recognised it as discrimination, but I had noticed my male counterparts having much more luck, much more quickly with regards to meetings with big venues, programming and supported opportunities. The most dissappointing rejection for me was being told I was overqualified for a choreography project and then seeing the line up of those selected and realising how much more qualified or experienced the male choreographers on that list were. Still I have never let that put me off or give up, because I had already taken so many risks and made sacrifices to become a dancer. But the journey is not always easy and those knock backs affect us all, so, when someone does believe in you and you are given the opportunity to do what you love, you will always step up a level. Having The Bench believe in me was one of those opportunities. I have stepped up and so much has changed in this 9 months.

The Bench set out to:

  • Raise the profile of female choreographers in the UK and Internationally.
  • Provide bespoke talent development/training for female choreographers working within the UK Arts sector.
  • Change and influence current behaviour within the UK contemporary dance sector towards female choreographers.
  • Build a network of venues and producers both in the UK and abroad who will promote the work of female choreographers and support educational initiatives which encourage girls to make dance.

What Is The BENCH? from 2Faced Dance Company on Vimeo.

The process for me was a challenge at first. I came to the project at quite a difficult time, and also had a lot of self doubt. 

The first session was with Sharon Watson and we had to pitch to her to make a piece of work. I have always been very shy to speak in public, and true to my experiences I closed up and began to desperately grasp at reasons to prove my worth. We were told that in 9 months time we would pitch at The Bench conference in Birmingham Hippodrome, and every time I thought of it my heart would start pounding.

Next we worked with Rosie Kay, and again we were pitching. It was less intimidating and I enjoyed creating the choreographic work she set us. Over the next sessions we worked with Charlotte Vincent, Isabelle Mortimer, Kate Flatt and many more. With each workshop I felt I shed a little more of my past and gained a little more in confidence. I experienced so much support, amazing workshops and such honesty from my mentor and Bench fellows, that I was really able to look at myself and realise what was and wasn’t working, how I was not helping myself, and make changes in the way I approached my work, relationships and business for the better.

Working with Charlotte was a wonderful experience, her honesty and integrity was so inspiring. I had wanted to work with her since 2009 reading about her experiences as a female choreographer in the Guardian, and since then have loved her very real approach, her appreciation of Black feminist writers and her work. She helped me to ‘cut out the crap’ and really focus on my goals.

The Bench culminated on May 17th with the Bench event in Birmingham at The Hippodrome. The first panel I took part in after a quick rehearsal was about the experience of being on The Bench, and I felt nervous, but as I began to speak I realised how passionate I was about this experience, how far I had come and inspired in the future of the Bench. We listened to many talks. Some of my favourite speakers were Hannah Williams, Seeta Patel and Luke Jennings. 

Finally our Pitch time arrived and I danced around in the way my body knew to prepare itself to be in public, then began to focus my mind on the talk. As people entered suddenly I felt an excited calm that I knew it would be ok, that I had so much to share with this very giving audience, and I began to relax into my talk-even giving a demo of the dry mouth smile effect when you do a salsa or samba show and your lips get stuck! The whole pitch went really well, Emma Houston did a great sharing of her solo in Ladylike, and I felt happy that I had delivered my vision and way of working to the participants.

The Bench finished with the launch of the manifesto which has been signed up to by the organisations present http://www.the-bench.org/about/

I am very proud of all the Bench artists who were involved, all of us have come a long way. Particular congratulations to Rebecca Evans who recieved this years Commission and a massive thanks to Tamsin Fitzgerald and Lisa Sullivan of 2Faced for making this happen and to my mentor Charlotte Vincent. I am particularly excited about the Bench Manifesto and seeing how that impacts on the future of dance in the UK.

Ladylike funded by Arts Council of England (March 2016-May 2016)

After the first part of the project in November 2015, I secured one more week funding through Arts Council of England to fine tune and solidify Ladylike into a 55 minute show. We began, only a few days after my return from Brazil with the Winston Churchill travelling scholarship, with getting ready to perform an extract of Ladylike in Leeds on the Sketch program at Yorkshire Dance.

Yorkshire Dance have also been an incredibly supportive institution, both in believeing in my work even though it is very different to the typical aesthetic of the instituion, and in giving the Company support through the Sketch program. We spent two glorious days with the amazing Peggy Olislaegers as Dramaturgy, who introduced me to the term ‘Dance Activism’.

In true Mariposa style (my nickname from school), I was so full of new ideas and inspiration that I tried to cram all my 55 minutes of ideas to the 20 minute time slot to see my vision on stage. We actually had very positive comments from the sharing, and the choreography had grown,  but I knew I hadn’t done the work justice by showing it like this, and I swore not to do that again. I realised that it is much better to show less, be patient, clear and well rehearsed and do it well.

We further rehearsed Ladylike and had two days in Leeds, and then a final day in Brighton with Charlotte Vincent as part of The Bench program, in which we finalised the structure for the full production. It was an amazing time working with Charlotte- truly transformational- it cemented my understanding of how to structure and how important taking my time is in doing something well. I hope to work with her more in the future.

The full cast- Anna Alvarez, Emma Houston and Lianett Rodrigues and myself filmed the full production of Ladylike on May 23rd at Richmix, and are now preparing to move into a Production period with the work in September and working hard at organising a UK tour (dates and venues to be announced) and finalising and rehearsing the full 55 minute show. Ladylike has been quoted as: ‘An absolutely stunning and provocative piece.’

I have learnt so much making this piece. I have released myself from the pressures I have felt as a woman to be ‘pretty’ or ‘quiet’ or behave in anyway unnatural to me in that moment. I have asked questions about my sex and race, and let go of the need to know answers, which I hadn’t realised were holding me back. I have learnt how to hold a space. I have developed in the way I work with other artists, and in how to deal with each issue we face. I feel I have grown up, become a woman, and discovered who I am. I have also discovered an amazing way to move and how to pass this on to others. I have worked with four incredible artists, and we have laughed, cried and grown together. All of us have become less inhibited, and have developed as artists. We have also become such a tight working unit and this has deepened the work and cemented us as a company.

Ladylike Snippets Bench1min from Ella Mesma on Vimeo.

Ajé (Orixas) with Chelsea Theatre and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (March 2016-May 2016)

In mid March, we held an audition to find a new cast for Orixas. Working with the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Chelsea Theatre, the project would include re-working the pece and working with local schools. Mariana Camiloti and Gabriela Montgomery Solano joined our team for rehearsals and Company class, which each day developed the concept of Latin Dance Theatre, and the blending of Latin and Breaking further. I learnt how much potential there is in this fusion of styles and gained confidence in my skills as a creator, teacher, and in my vision of the piece and how to work with individuals and inspire others on their own journeys.

During the process, we decided to change the name of the piece Orixas, to Ajé. Ajé in Yoruba is said to be ‘both a spiritual power as well as the humans who use that power.’ I like the word because both men and women can have Aje, however it’s owners and controllers are women. I felt that this term captured the essence of my piece well as it is said to be the concept of ‘creation as well as the force of justice and retribution, a balance that completes pairs, this force can create/destroy, harm/heal’. 

We first performed Ajé in the Chelsea Theatre to students from local schools, with a question and answer session. Children at the question and answer session said: “I liked the bit where you were warriors’, ‘I liked the handstands’, I like the Egyptian dresses’. The following week, two of the team- Ama Rouge and Gabriela Montgomery Solano began teaching in two local schools ready for the performance in May. I discovered this was a really great event to collaborate with all of the talented individuals involved. The classes continued over the next month, creating dance performances by two company members. We also filmed and took interviews of the process.

Finally on May 19th, we performed alongside the two schools inviting the local community to watch the show. The Chelsea theatre was full, and the work was very well received.

Roots of Rumba at Richmix funded by Arts Council of England (April 11th & 12th 2016)

Roots of Rumba preparations began immediately upon my return from Brazil, with contracts,  promotion of the event, flyers, a panel selecting the artists to perform and setting up the crowd funder campaign. The selected artists were Luanda Pau (Cuba/France), Myriam Gadri (USA), East London Capoeira, Erika Vanessa Gil (Colombia/UK), Pexava (Mexico, UK), Tierra Morena (Sweden), Aneta ‘Modelo’ Zwierzyńska (Poland), Yuvel Soria (Bolivia, UK), Anna Alvarez (Argentina, UK) and Incendium Dance Company. The event was promoted in the press, by various support groups, as well as through the facebook event and pages on a daily basis. I learnt a lot about promotion, and it was promising to see how interested the public were by the concept. I have also arranged to review the ways I was marketing the event with Roots of Rumba. https://www.facebook.com/events/854414584599995/?active_tab=posts

The crowd funder and promotional trailer did well. Class at the Place was another opportunity to promote Roots of Rumba. Again I learnt how important the development of this work is and that we already have a following.

We organised a week of Dramaturgy and rehearsal space for the Roots of Rumba artists with Daniel Goldman of Casa Latin American Theatre Festival. It greatly improved the level of those works who attended. Having the opportunity to work with mentors & dramaturgy’s  is an important development for Latin Dance Theatre, and anyone involved in performance.

The activity proved successful in developing Latin Dance Theatre audiences through direct engagement, workshops and the performances. On the first day of Roots of Rumba, we sold 87 tickets, and day two sold 90, plus 30 in the classes throughout the day. The afterparty, featuring one of my first teachers of Latin music, DJ Lubi, was also well attended- and from feedback after, there was a real positive buzz about the event.

I always wanted to see more Latin dance in the spotlight. I knew I wanted to see Latin dance given the same respect as ballet or contemporary or more recently hiphop. My vision is to put work with Afro Brazilian and Afro Cuban at its core on the stage and it was incredible to see that happen at Roots of Rumba. I am excited about being a part of the journey to push Latin Dance Theatre forwards whilst maintaining the respect, technique and of history of these dances which all trace back through migration and slavery to Africa.

This was the third year of Roots of Rumba and we are already International. We had Brazil, Cuba Colombia, Argentina, Bolivia, a team from Sweden, a dancer based in New York, and we had people from the North, South, East, West of England and London! Roots of Rumba is already global, and the start of something long term. It is about celebrating some of the most incredible dances on the planet, and pushing this scene to see where it can go.

Here are some quotes from the event: ‘Genius, vulnerable, beautiful’, ‘PURE DANCE’, ‘More please’, ‘We love Rumba’, ‘Fantastic day of dance’, ‘Amazing teachers’.

We also gave all artists involved ten high resolution images and footage of their show. Artists said:’Would love to take part again’ ’10/10′ ‘What an honour’.

The Future

One of the major things I remembered this year was how to have fun… I was so busy worrying about making it all happen I had forgotten to enjoy each moment. The future is unsure… And the only constant is change… But I feel it is going to be bright. 

I have been made an Associate Dance Artist at Dance City in Newcastle so I plan to spend quite a bit of time there. I hope to continue my relationship with Yorkshire Dance, and I also hope to build more connections in London.

In July I will travel to NYC with The Lisa Ullman scholarship to continue my research into Breaking and its connections to Latin dance. I know travel and migration is an important part of my work. I am even more determined this year to dance my way and continue developing a movement language which combines the dances of Cuba and Brazil with the vocabulary of Breaking and Contemporary. I feel it is important to talk about and research the migration of these dances around the world, how connected they all are and how they have spread and diversified. 

I will continue to push Latin Dance Theatre which I am passionate about seeing more on stage. Latin dance is seen much more in clubs and bars and is seen with small outfits and big smiles. There is so much more to these styles which have as much worth to be on stage as Ballet, Contemporary and HipHop, and I am excited about continually pushing that with Roots of Rumba, and empowering other Latin artists moving in this direction.

As a B-Girl, again only a few weeks ago I was told to ‘stop dancing like a girl’ and with this ammunition I am determined to dance just like a B-Girl. It has never felt natural to me to try to be like a guy- because I am not one, but I do love breaking and figuring out how it works best on my own body. I am excited in my quest for my own way to break, which I am sure will have Latin dance at its core. 

I have learnt how I like to make work, and I recognise my strengths. I love to work with these styles-for me this is pure dance. It is strong, beautiful, powerful, vulnerable. I love to show contrasts and juxtapositions in my work- to show the power of the individual- their story, strength and also their beauty through vulnerability. I like to make bold statements in my work-Dance Activism (as in the words of Peggy Olislaegers). I like to shake up an idea, and to juxtapose that to really make an impact. Next, perhaps I will work on a mixed cast of men, women, ethnicities, cultures, continuing to explore bold topics and this movement language. Underneath everything, at my core, and underlying all my work and activism is the belief in empowerment, in protest and in equality, because no matter how beautiful we are as individuals, deep down I believe we are all the same, we are all connected, and we are all capable of greatness.

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Photos by Sara Teresa, Angelika Bendt and Roger Barnes

Blog 4: December 2015: Ladylike R&D

Ladylike: A blog all about creating my piece Ladylike and thereafter.

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The Ella Mesma Company guide: How to be a lady… or  choose not to… 

Ladylike is a concept I initially developed as a solo in 2012. I first heard the term ‘ladylike’ aged 4, when I was criticized for being ‘unladylike’ or too boisterous when playing. As anadult I have experiencedthe weight of gender expectations in dance.  As a Salsa dancer I am expected to smile,look sexy and be submissive, whereas when Breaking (Breakdance) I am required to be bold, aggressive, and I have on occasion been told I should

“act more like a guy”. 

I have often pondered this idea, feeling a sense of inner confusion both on a small scale in relation to dance styles but also in relation to how gender expectations influence our behaviours in the wider world. I knew that I wanted to explore this further through Latin and Breaking. 

Breaking, created in New York, had a huge Latino influence, and I can see the links to Salsa in so many of the steps. Since starting Breaking I have been fascinated by this, by latin breaks which is where my heart lies, and how the two are linked. I also wanted to investigate putting the undulations and hips of Salsa into Breaking movement vocabulary to create a movement language that made sense to me. As Latin dances were my first, these have always made the most sense to me. At dance school, I felt restricted when told to keep my hips still and isolate my torso sideways in Contemporary classes like Cunningham technique, rather than undulating. Creating this movement language from a blend of all my styles has been liberating in terms of understanding the inherent way in which I move.

I have often in my life felt pressures to conform, be responsible, successful, have a family, have long hair… behave according to societalor gender roles. Both male and female friends have felt this way too. Ladylike is about women but also about men. I want it to speak to the audience about equality and our universal right to live with respect and dignity, without being judged. I introduce it as:

“Madonna? Mistress? Witch? Exotic Other? Ladylike is an exploration of gender stereotypes through the voices of 5 female artists. Using Ella Mesma’s unique movement language, the Company have combined Rumba, Afro Cuban, Salsa and elements of Breaking, Rocking and Capoeira to create a visually striking & awkwardly provocative work.”

 I was sure that I wanted to work with women on Ladylike, but that I wanted the piece to speak to both men and women. I am hopeful that the piece will reach out and touch hearts. It is about personal experiences, but it is also universal. There is a lot of juxtaposition and contradiction to make the audience ask questions both during and after the performance.

I began collecting images such as the one below, reading lots of material as research and making notes and asking questions to inform the future piece as early as 2012. It was so exciting to hear I had been awarded an Arts Council Grant to make the work. I really believe this was the right time for me to make ‘Ladylike’, as I had the opportunity to work with The Bench, as well as going through changes in my personal life, and the presence of the hot topic of feminism in the media. Then I found an amazing team of Artists who believed in my vision too. 

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These four wonderful artists are: Rita Vilhena, a capoeirista and contemporary dancer from Portugal; Anna Alvarez – An Anglo-Argentine with lots of experience in partner work. She has just finished an apprenticeship with VertigoDance Company in Israel; Lianett Rodrigues, an ex Ballet Revolution dancer from Cuba with a wealth of knowledge in Rumba and Afro Cuban; Emma Houston, a Scottish B-girl and contemporary dancer. It was by chance that we happen to look quite similar, but became an important part of the piece, as we could represent the many elements of one person. It was also nice because we conducted our rehearsals in a mixture of English, Spanish and Portuguese. 

“I think at first I started writing from a very judgmental position towards men and woman in general, or about what are their expectations towards me were, but then I realized that was not what wasmost important. I started listening to more stories, reading more, look at images about the theme, having my body reflecting on memories about past situations and I started writing in more open reflection about my expectations about my self and not feeling so much pressure.” Rita Vilhena, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

All four dancers brought their own experiences of, and responses to the pressures of societal norms. Each had a very individual character and style which they brought to the piece, but we also had something similar about us, and a passion for the project which I liked. It was almost as if each of us were different parts of the same character. 

“When something is created with pure intentions and the Search to know oneself and the world in a deeper and more proactive way, then the work cannot fail, and it means we can all act as true ambassadors for the message we would like to relay to our audience. Communication can be clear. Art can make people think, reconsider, think again. We have the power to evoke something, to say something about convention in an unconventional way.” Emma Houston, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

We read some excellent books and articles exploring the theme. ‘Sex, Lies and Revolution’ by Laurie Penny was particularly pertinent. 

We began the work as soon as we found out we had the grant followed by a sharing at Richmix for Casa Festival. After 4 days of putting together a piece with the expertise of Gael Le Cornec and Daniel Goldman, we performed to an audience of 100. This process, though rushed, was invaluable in preparing me to create the work and the project. The experience also united the dancers as a team, and helped me realise the strengths we had as a group.

We began the Arts Council project in Leeds, as part of the Sketch program, where we worked with the wonderful Peggy Olislaegers. We showed some sections which I had created for the Richmix Casa International Festival, in particular one called ‘Tierra’ exploring the exoticism and power of the female body. We also showed a section from ‘Ladylike’ exploring the Adam and Eve story and my physical reaction to the term ‘ladylike’. Peggy Olislaeger’s feedback and questions led me to rethink various aspects of the work including completely re-working the finale. The audience was around 25 artists, producers and choreographers as well as members of the Yorkshire Dance Team.

The following week we headed to Newcastle to continue developing the piece. With such an incredible supportive team of artists we were able to work fast. We created an introduction focused on six different states of ‘being’: aggressive, submissive, pretty, arrogant, open and coy. I decided to use these ‘states’ with a Reggaeton track to provide the backdrop as the audience enters the theatre.

We created a Rumba Breaking section using my movement language with tasks to develop the fusion. I decided to rework my old solo ‘Evol’ looking at it this time through the eyes of a woman. Previously, although beautiful, I think it lacked depth and I wanted to strip it of its romanticism. We also developed two sections, one called ‘Frustration’ looking at where we are the objects of catcalls plus a beautiful introduction, inspired by Emma’s movement called ‘Cocoons’

Dance City invited us to teach a company class which was well attended. We had very positive feedback about the structure and unique movement language we were using. 

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An audience of 35 attended a sharing at the end of the week; a large proportion were B-boys, including some international artists. It was great to hear their feedback invited through the Liz Lurman technique. Their responses included words such as 

“Rhythm, Authority, Oppression, Recrimination, Power, Strength, Identity, Tease, Light, Society, Sex, Control.” 

It was interesting and helpful to use their feedback to consider what I wanted the audience to experience, and how to bridge the gap in understanding between performers and the audience. 

Next, we were very honoured and fortunate to be invited to participate in a residency in Portugal and came up with a duet in response to the solo ‘Evol’, and another very long, beautiful and sad duet, which I have named ‘Tango’, which explores partnerships. ‘Tango’ was my exploration of relationships, a sense of saying goodbye to the past and embracing those that last and carry us through, the friendships that help us deal with break ups, or negative relationships and the pressures of society that test and can diminish us. 

“The experience of living, sleeping, eating, training and creating together was a very rich experience and I believe one in which the piece grew enormously as well as us as a team and company.” Anna Alvarez, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

We also created a section in response to the immense pressure I feel to conform, to appear happy, to say ‘Yes’ to opportunities and to give to others regardless of any internal sense of conflict. We put this to a Reggaeton track, because as a woman, I am far from comfortable with the over sexualized, misogynistic and sometimes violent lyrics of Reggaeton tracks, or songs in general today.

We gave professional classes every day in Portugal and, at the end, shared these new sections of our work. We were also invited back for further residencies in the future.

“Each rehearsal and research session would bring a light of issues, experiences and contrasting views of the term Ladylike and what this meant to each of us. The creative process was also very driven by this, the use of emotions, visual and literary sources from which the structure gradually built.” Anna Alvarez, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

In our London week, we began to put together the transitions and experiment with different possible sequences for the piece. We also started to mount the finale to our communal experience, working directly with Sabio, the composer. We explored the emotions we uncovered through the process, and the dramaturgy experiences with Peggy Olislaegers. I wanted the finale to have a positive message of hope for the future. I wanted to ‘make the personal political’, to uncover a truth about friendship and show how experiences both positive and negative leave us stronger, wiser and with the potential for change. In the final image, we invite the audience to accept each side of us. The audience will always judge, select those they connect with and decide how they perceive a character due to their performance. The ending is about asking the audience to see these 5 women as many layered individuals, to see the beauty in their individuality, and that we are also all the same. With the finale I wanted both to present the chaos of life and the fight for hope that we are all capable of.

Right up until the last day we were working on a duet with two dancers exploring the pressure of body image that we are constantly fed through films, magazines and advertising based upon the ‘perfect woman’. As the piece evolved we began to use Breaking and elements of Rocking along with Rumba to explore this external pressure on how we see ourselves. I wanted to explore how we can find freedom of expression and beauty through our own individuality to celebrate difference. 

We had Tim Ward in for most of the week documenting the process, and welcomed a photographer, Alexander Yip, into the process too. It was a pleasure to have Shelley Maxwell as an external eye in the studio towards the end of the week. She offered a wealth of insight into the piece, offering ideas for the audience to get involved, and helping to dig deeper into the meaning behind each scene. She said 

“It’s a very interesting work. I really enjoyed what I was seeing develop. For a work of the calibre that you are doing one needs to dig deep to deliver it in a truthful and impactful way. Well done you.” Shelley Maxwell.

It was also in this week that we had Sabio in the studio with us working on the music, and we finally arranged the lighting for the piece. The costume designer attended the sharing and is now working on the final designs, which will emphasise that we are, in a sense, all the same many-layered character.

For the sharing we invited promoters and photographers including Mark Neal and Roger Barnes and a professional editor, Alex Not, who is now making a video edit of the work. 

There were over 35 audience members at The Tabernacle, including ADAD and the feedback was very positive: 

“A powerful display of timeless and current issues that women continue to face everyday” Audience member- The Tabernacle-London November 2015.

“Completely engaged- enthralling, emotional, inspiring and grounding work” Audience member- The Tabernacle- London November 2015.

The following week we performed extracts of the piece in a local school to 150 students at an all girls comprehensive, and then gave a workshop to 60 of those young girls. We discussed how they feel society and family pressures influence their behaviours and choices and developed this into their own dance work. We then led a question and answer session about the work and our careers, which was incredibly moving and rewarding. 

 “Students were awed by the physical expertise of Ella Mesma Company, combined with well created dance motifs was very exciting. The question and answer session was a real eye opener- very focused and intense. All 150 students engaged fully thought the time. Excellent. Well done.” Subassa Lewis, Plashet School.

Reflection: I feel like this is just the beginning of a new chapter, an epic chapter, a beautiful chapter, an exploration of truth. This piece feels like the strongest piece of work I have made so far. The piece, and its message, are deeply important to me. In the words of Jonzi D of Breakin’ Convention (who said it to Ivan Blackstock of Birdgang, who said it to me),

“We have a role as artists to make work that reflects our time and has the potential to create change”, Jonzi D, Breakin’ Convention. 

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Ladylike is about looking to the future, to tomorrow’s reality, and speaking up for the right to decide for ourselves how we behave. It is about helping to give young people the tools they need to make autonomous decisions. It is about the world we live in and choosing our own pathway rather than just accepting the status quo and doing as we are told. As long as we understand why we are making those choices, then it is ok. 

“Basically I never felt like one of those “ladies.” But it’s a confusing word that has the power to be used in a positive or negative light. It was a word I had previously found controversial, nonetheless. Although now, I feel differently about it. I can take ownership of the word. Being ladylike can mean anything now. I feel like the project has shown the word in a different, more natural light.” Emma Houston, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

 As Malala said,

“If a woman can go to the beach and wear nothing, then why can’t she also wear everything?”, Malala.

It is about embracing our fears and those that society tells us we should have, overcoming them and taking control. 

There was something about growing up through this project… Keeping the childlike but losing the childish… Embracing myself as a woman. Emerging as a butterfly and enjoying that journey. 

“Don’t get older just to get wiser. If you get older, you will be wiser, I believe that – if you dare. But get older because it’s fun!”, Maya Angelou.

Ladylike has helped me to make sense of my worlds and the society we live in, to accept all elements of me rather than feeling that to be a woman I must hide parts of myself. The message for the audience of Ladylike is about learning to love all of ourselves, and make positive and conscientious changes for our own and our children’s futures. 

In January we will finish the final part of R&D working as part of Sketch at Yorkshire Dance. I am very excited to work with Charlotte Vincent, my mentor from the Bench and Adad for a day and a half, and with Peggy Olislaeger’s with a live audience to dramaturge and explore the concepts and movement material within the piece. Finally we will begin to plan the tour and rehearsal schedule for the piece in Autumn 2016.

The learning curve on this project has been steep. Working with such incredible artists who have been so generous with their time, thoughts and energy has been invaluable. Their willingness to share their personal stories with me has been deeply rewarding, and the process has had an element of therapy to it for all of the team. This openness to grow, share and recognise our own stories is a part of the piece’s richness and has enabled the piece to reach people on quite a profound level.

I am still astounded by how quickly the making process went and how much material we have generated. I have deepened my understanding of how I work as a choreographer and how to bring out the best in other people. There were many sections or scenes which I wrote as text first and then we developed the work from this.  

Sometimes the process started with a simple movement that I hooked onto and was able to expand and, sometimes it was something more complex. I have been struck by the flow of creativity and how everything came together, almost as if it was predetermined and I just needed to channel it onto the stage. 

Through Ladylike, I have begun to find a deeper understanding of my movement language, and will take this forward into future projects. As the only company in the UK to specialise in Latin Dance Theatre, I have learnt how to talk about my work, and found that I work best when I draw from Contemporary, Afro-Latin plus Hip Hop dance and culture to explore social and cultural identity in the UK. It was particularly exciting both creating the Tango duet, which used elements of Tango, Bachata and Salsa within a Contemporary framework, and beginning to research Rumba and Breaking and the links they have to one another.

“The process of the piece has made me reflect a great deal on what it means to be a woman and how personal/individual Ladylike is. It has changed from being a term that I associated negatively with (from childhood being told I was not ladylike and that was something to aspire to) to now being more about self-control, assertion and the power of being a woman in the society I live.” Anna Alvarez, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

Now I am looking forward to having some time to reflect and to further develop my movement research in Brazil on my scholarship as a Winston Churchill Fellow. I will be spending just over 6 weeks in Brazil where I will be focusing particularly on Afro Brazilian and the dances of the Orixas.

I have realised how important it is to take time to make sure I have clearly expressed all my understandings to the performers and to perfect the execution of my movement language.  

I am aware of how much creating Ladylike has changed me. Being so absorbed by it has affected me both personally and professionally. It has led me to question more, from my Latin dance styles, to challenging sexist comments.

“I have never seen work that deals with the issues included in the piece at this level. The piece is inclusive, reflective, soft, sexy, questioning, funny and ironic. It questions how we act in society, why, and how this affects us as people and in the relationships we develop.” Anna Alvarez, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

Ladylike has encompassed my whole world. Certainly the whirlwind nature of the task has helped me both to make a wonderful piece and to make sense of the challenges I face at this stage in my life. Working from a difficult place and putting my heart and soul into the work has meant that it truly reflects me, and with the contribution from the dancers working collaboratively, it represents all of us. For me it is raw, real, honest, sad, funny and beautiful. 

“I Felt vulnerable at times…. I felt exposed at times… I realised things about myself that I thought I already knew. And all of those feelings that happened are okay, and they were necessary. Art goes to uncomfortable places. From the discomfort comes a new awareness, something that can be grasped and then moulded into intangible vapour in our hands, something we can let go of and lighten ourselves as a result. Something that becomes our power to empower others through our own explorations. Art is a healer. This piece has been healing for all of us, I think. But it is not a selfish endeavour. For it’s purpose is bigger than ourselves, but of course it’s okay to be selfish in healing, if no harm is done.” Emma Houston, Dance Artist, Ladylike.

I am very excited about this footage and to have invested in a proper edit, and so grateful to all the contributors who have played apart in creating this work. 

A massive thanks to all those who have supported the process: Photographers and Videographers – Alexander Yip, Roger Barnes, Timothy Ward, Alex Not and Judita Kuniskyte; Lighting Designer – Ciaran Cunningham and the incredible Composer Sabio Janiak; Venues – Chelsea Theatre, Yorkshire Dance and Sketch, Dance City, ADAP Portugal, ADAD and Richmix; My friends and family who have been there; Shelley Maxwell, and Charlotte Vincent my mentor; Peggy Olislaegers; The Bench and Tamsin Fitzgerald. Most of all I must thank the wonderful dancer artists Anna Alvarez, Lianett Rodrigues Gonzalez, Emma Houston and Rita Vilhena.  Also a massive thanks to British Council for believeing me and bringing me to Edinburgh Festival this summer where I was exposed to so much art!

Thanks also to everyone who attended the sharing and to those who haven’t seen it yet, get ready to see a sample on April 9th at Richmix before we preview the full piece there on October 28th 2016. 

A massive thank you to Arts Council of England for making this possible. 

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Photographs by Roger Barnes, Alexander Yip and Tim Ward.