Ela Mesma Company

Dispora Dance Theatre

June 2016: Brazil WCMT

2015 WCMT Travelling Fellowship: Brazil Blog and reflections on Cuba

 Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 18.24.23 Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 18.24.43 Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 18.24.55 Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 18.25.05 Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 18.25.33

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


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:


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.


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:










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.

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.


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.


Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin
Share on Pinterest

Leave a comment