An interview with OFFBEAT Festival: Ladylike
Hi there, why don’t you introduce yourself?
My name is Ella Mesma. I am a UK choreographer and I am a woman! I always knew I wanted to be a choreographer, but it was a long time before I had the courage to admit that that was what I would love to do with my life: Most of the choreographers I worked for were men… they were my superheroes… but they didn’t reflect me, and seeing someone who you can fit the shoes of speaks in a different way. I had read about the struggles of women choreographers to be recognised and respected and I struggled with confidence to speak up and say I think I can do this too… so it was great to be amongst The Bench first cohort of female choreographers in 2015 and to be mentored by some awesome females.
I came to dance late: first I studied Politics and Sociology at Leeds University. Then after a few years freelancing in Latin dances (which I came to first), I was invited to join a contemporary company directed by Merville Jones (an ex Phoenix dancer) and his partner Emma in Leeds. After that I had the bug… I saved and I went back to studying. I wanted to be a dancer. I trained at Laban and The Place, graduating with a postgraduate diploma in 2011. I also began breaking around the same time I went into professional training. Breaking gave me a sense of release: I could step out of the box that defined me by body or dancing ‘sexy’ when I was dancing the Latin styles I had known and loved since age 15. I could wear baggy tshirts, I could be a different side of me. I have also trained in Cuba, Brazil and USA including The Graham school- New York, La Ena- Havana, Deborah Colker- Rio De Janeiro and Funceb- Salvador da Bahia.
Luckily (and with a lot of hard work too!) I have had a great career as performer: including a world tour with the Russell Maliphant Company and performing with Southpaw Company, in the Professional cast of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, for Wendy Houston, poet Warsan Shire… but I was really missing my Latin dance roots. I had established a Latin company: Element Arts in Leeds in 2005, but I wanted to integrate it into my more ‘serious’ performance experiences on the stage, and so I began to integrate it into my own choreography: Ella Mesma Company. The company is a Dance Theatre Company: I work with voice and sound, as well as the dance styles which are inherent in my life: Salsa, Rumba, Breaking, Contemporary, as well as politics and culture. My work is a reflection of me, my life experience, and my view of the world.
Nice to meet you! So, what’s the show you’re bringing to Offbeat and what’s it about?
My latest show is called, ‘Ladylike’. It took over a year to make and is a very provocative work! It premiered last week at Sadler’s Wells as part of my very own ‘Wild Card’ an evening called ‘Guerreras’ which was a sold-out show, and it has been quite an amazing journey of self discovery, shared experience and empowerment! We started the whole process at Casa Latin American Theatre Festival for a week before being granted an Arts Council Grant in 2015 to R&D the work. I worked with Charlotte Vincent through The Bench and ADAD (Now One Dance UK), Yorkshire Dance and Peggy Olislaegers (which was truly amazing) through their Sketch programme. I was awarded two travelling scholarships to Cuba and Brazil with The Winston Churchill Scholarship and NYC with the Lisa Ullman, and these were really integral to the depth of the development of the work. Upon my return it became more challenging but we made a preview at Richmix in 2016. Finally, with a team of superheroes, we ‘finished’ Ladylike in the North of England at Dance City during my Associate Artist Residency before the premiere at Sadler’s Wells. It has been an amazing journey: rewarding and terrifying! I have learnt so much as a choreographer and as a woman over the process.
I had a dream to make Ladylike: a one hour piece that reflected and gave a voice to 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. And so I made Ladylike: about four very powerful Chicks who take centre stage to fight the shadows of history.
Ladylike focuses particularly on feminine experiences of sexuality and the body-expressed through the perspectives of four women engaging in Latin dance and theatre. The project places emphasis on the holistic show experience: dealing with our life challenges and overcoming the obstacles of our mind, with a score by Sabio Janiak who specialises in creating music with a healing ‘hertz’ vibrations and lighting by my amazing friend and colleague Ciaran Cunningham.
Ladylike was about giving women, silenced in (his)story a voice. I love to work with juxtaposition and find a rawness and realness on the stage. The topics covered are around voyeurism, consent, pornography, male gaze, and trafficking and often come from a very real place inspired by the individual dancer as a dance ‘monologue’. These are abstract references open to the interpretation of each member of the audience, but there was a lot of research to create all the ideas within the piece. For example, referencing the woman as ‘chicken’ or ‘hen’, which I decided to use after reading more of the work of various feminist writers such as Carol Adams and Alice Walker, and based on the parallels in the dance Rumba.
What kind of person do you think will enjoy this show?
Because I came into dance late, I really want to reach ‘real’ people- not just dancers, and for the audience to connect to the visceral experience. I believe my work is a theatrical and visual experience too, with a message behind it, so there is something there for everyone. Art shouldn’t just be for certain demographics of people, and the issues we cover in the work are universal and timeless and so I hope that many people will relate and enjoy them… but the work is definitely parental guidance: it is themed around sex, and we do explore the orgasm! Some is funny, some is more serious…
The four characters are archetypes, and are fluid (genderless) entities, but they could include, for example, a 1920’s housewife, a modern day ‘mistress’, a b-girl, a showgirl, as well as gods or goddesses and warriors. I made the work with the intention for it to be accessible and empowering for women but it is not women only or women exclusive. I use traditional dance forms from different time periods, so it made sense to place these entities in an abstract world between Cuba, New York, and Britain. Each of them could be in any three of these countries at different times and the enneagram archetype is not based on gender.
Can you sum up the pitch for your show in 6 words?
What’s the background to the show? Why did you make it? What’s the journey been like so far?
The predominant styles are: Rumba – a Cuban dance with elements of flamenco; Guaguanco – a game of flirtation and sexual competition between a male and female; Columbia – a dance originally performed only by men, which includes rooster like shoulder movements and fancy footwork; and also New York styles Rocking – formed in New York in the early 1970’s with influences of Salsa, Breaking and Contemporary, alongside references to gang culture. I wanted to share the history of this incredible dance style (rumba), and it’s links to Africa and Yoruba and also the gender stories there within the dance style.
I also wanted to pay my respects to some amazing women in (his)tory: From Joan of Arc, to Rosa Parks to Camille Claudel to Maya Angelou: Women in history who have been fighting for their cause: I wanted to shout a salute to them all! Many women have not had a voice in history… and so it was about fighting for the females! When I decided to become a choreographer I knew I would be unavoidably involved in the gender debate. We do live in a male dominated society, and that affects our confidence and our self belief from the minute the doctor says ‘it’s a girl’, but also how we are perceived: I have had the experience of ‘putting on a smile’ over rejections- knowing that I would not have had the same reaction if I had been a male making the same requests, and that often male choreographers are ‘assumed’ status where as many highly talented women really have to work so hard to prove themselves.
That said, I still want to be recognised for making good work and let the work speak… so come and see the show and make your own mind up! 🙂 I see Ladylike as a celebration of the female and of the sisterhood! Making political work about gender I have come up against some negative reactions, but I am making work about my experiences and collaborating with four very real and very talented women… It has been a hard journey but also a really healing experience for all of us making this work: we used the enneagrams, to explore what we were denying ourselves to heal, so it became quite a cleansing and bonding: a collaboration. I have loved working with this group.
Each role was been created for that individual with the skills, imagination, and personal experience each dancer brought as well as their very different skillsets. Hsing Ya Wu is Taiwanese and is an incredible contemporary dancer and has an amazing sense of comedic timing in her performance. Azara Meghie is a b-girl (short for breakdancing girl) and actor and has an amazing natural style. Anna Alvarez is a Tango and Contemporary dancer, and I am a salsa and b-girl. The original cast included ‘The Cuban Insider’ Lia Rodrigues.
Are you excited to take this show to Offbeat? Why?
I am really looking forward to perform this show at Offbeat. This will actually be the first time we perform the full show as the premiere at Sadler’s Wells included three other acts, so it will be really exciting to perform the piece in one straight order for the first time… and it is also an unknown terrain to me! Oxford will you show us around? 🙂
Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to folks in Oxford?
Oxford we can’t wait to meet you! This show is quite intense so we will make sure we are available post show to talk with you all! Please let us know your thoughts and once you have seen the work join the debate!
If you would like to do some more reading we have an awesome blog about the dance styles below, and more about this gender debate with some awesome poetry by Bridget Gray. I also recommend a documentary about Rumba called the Black Roots of Salsa by Christian Lieblich (which you can find on google).
We have some treats in store for you in the foyer at The Old Fire Station so make sure you come early!
LADYLIKE AT OFFBEAT FESTIVAL:
DATE: 2nd July
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:
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.
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.
2015 Churchill Travelling Fellowship: Brazil Blog and reflections on Cuba
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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
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
Alongamento class with Leda
Orixàs Class with Denilson
Bale foclorico meeting two with my letter from Jean Salomao
Silvestre Orixàs Class
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.
I had a very interesting Orixàs reading before heading to my Carnival rehearsal.
I also practised and revised everything I had learnt so far.
Alongamento Class: Leda
Orixàs Class: Paco Gomes: This was my favourite class of the day focusing on the male Orixàs
Orixàs Class: Denilson
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
And in Brazil
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.
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 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. 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.
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.